Delivering Software with Cards, Magnets and a Wall

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“We need some new development task tracking software. What is everyone using?” asked someone on a CTO email list I’m a member of. “Is Jira still the standard?”

Jira, Trello, LeanKit, Pivotal and their ilk have never been for me. Since I first started practicing XP mumble, mumble years ago it’s always been about cards, magnets and a wall. Above is the old Singletrack office with two separate boards for our two main product strands and a third for customer roll-out work.

“But what if you have a dispersed team with remote workers” a Trello fan will ask. Well, maybe if we were entirely dispersed I’d use something like Trello but I’m also a fan of co-located teams so even with several remote workers at any one time we have most people working in front of the wall and stick smartphone pictures onto Slack for those not in the office. Local people move cards on behalf of the remotes.

“What about reporting?” asks the Pivotal advocate. Who needs reporting when I can go stand in front of the wall for a few seconds, see where everything is, and ask devs questions about what they worked on and are working on now?

“What about losing cards and work not getting done” says the Jira guru. In those mumble, mumble years, even working with teams of 50-odd devs it’s never been a problem. Very occasionally a card goes missing but we realise that pretty quickly and write it afresh. And you can’t tell me tasks don’t get lost in Jira sometimes; in fact I hear that is more the norm than the exception.

However these objections miss the fundamental point. The real value in using cards, magnets and a wall is in the physicality of it. Cards get written collaboratively, not entered into a system. A card might get written once in a planning session then ripped up and re-written as two or three more cards: it’s such a low-friction process. We use different coloured cards for different types of work, badges to indicate different initiatives, coloured star stickers for priority work. Stuff get’s written on the front and on the back and related cards get clumped together.

And it all just sits in front of the whole team, and indeed the whole company, the whole time.

We had a developer in for interview the other day and she told us her current team had to schedule a daily reminder to make sure their Trello got updated otherwise they forgot to do so. The mind just boggles.

But that’s just the day-to-day mechanics. Last year I got to fulfil a long-held ambition and  had a custom wall built to replace the old magnetic whiteboards when we moved into a new office:

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In explaining what I wanted to the initially very skeptical designer, who was a big fan of Basecamp,  I had to describe the purpose of the wall, not just the function. Here’s what I wrote for them:

“To me, it is not just a functional tool. It is where the challenge of what the technical team needs to deliver is quite literally writ large. You can see the cadence of releases in the ebb and flow of cards on the wall and the hither and thither of developers and QA as they go to move cards.

“It is easy to spot when a card gets stuck in the backlog or priority cards aren’t being progressed. I know when we have just reviewed all the work because the board is all neat and when we’ve got a good chunk of work done as it’s all messy again.

“It is a physical manifestation of what we’re tasked to achieve and we celebrate that rather than hide it away in an electronic tool like Basecamp or Trello.”

A week or so after this exchange with the designer one of our graduate developers had a real aha moment after a couple of months with us. “I think I get it”, they said “it’s not about “here’s the work” [mimes being given a card], it’s about “here’s the work” [waves their hands across the whole of the wall]”. Spot on; not the work you have to do as an individual or a pair but the work we have to do together as a team.

A couple of months ago someone on the same CTO mailing list asked if anyone had an example of an inspiring bit of office design and Jonathon Lister Parsons of PensionBee was kind enough to suggest our wall. Which was such a thrill as that is exactly what it is designed to be: an inspiration to the team.

Technical Details

The Singletrack Wall is constructed of plasterboard mounted on batons attached to the office wall underneath. Glued to this are sheets of 0.8mm ferrous metal (avoid magnetic paint or self-adhesive magnetic sheeting, the magnetism isn’t strong enough) which is covered with mildly textured, hard-wearing wallpaper. Strip lights at the top and bottom give the Wall a ‘glow’ and we have office lighting directly above it so the cards are never in shadow.

The wall is divided into sections using magnetic tape so it can easily be reconfigured. We have a variety of magnets as different people prefer different styles. Our Head of development likes multi-coloured ones, the lead on our analytics product stream only uses black ones (you can see those in the top section of the board) and I love these neat little extra-strong Neodymium numbers. This mixture does nothing for my OCD tendencies but, self organising team, what can I do?

Exciting news: we’re just about to move the Product Engineering team to their own office so I get to build a WHOLE NEW WALL. Any suggestions for improvement?

 

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One thought on “Delivering Software with Cards, Magnets and a Wall

  1. Jonathan Lister Parsons (@jayfresh)

    My favourite thing about this is the flexibility and nuance you get from making a wall into a physical visualisation of all of your work.

    All of those task management tools you mentioned (and the rest) make “the task” into the atomic unit of the system – the task has a URL, a comments thread, a status, an owner, etc. But that’s not how people work – the coordinated activity of a group of people in service of a goal is not something that naturally maps on to a series of tasks. People conceive of ideas, they have conversations, write notes, draw pictures, search for and discover relationships and dependencies between activities, divide work up… and yes, they do distill tasks from this melting pot of imagination. But your tools also shape how you think, so I think it is unhelpful to the overall shared goal to require that the tasks comes first and anything else is taxonomically its junior.

    So whilst your wall is still primarily a tool for tracking tasks, as you point out, the visual characteristics of position, tidiness, colour, shape, and the ability to see the universe of work in front of you, suggests that the wall is actually your map. Which sure beats the pants off a task tracking system, and is probably something that Simon Wardley (https://twitter.com/swardley) would have a thing or two to say about.

    Reply

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