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Set your sights on the next Milestone with an Idea Board

The Idea Board Technique

A typical Agile Inception ends with a fully fleshed-out backlog for the next few iterations, and some farther-off, coarse-grained, Epic-level ideas written on index cards. What to do with them? Some teams clip them together in a deck of cards that gathers dust and is rarely seen again. I prefer to externalize them on a foamcore board in a riff on a technique Thoughtworks calls an “Idea Board” or “Idea Backlog”.

Making the Idea Board

This is basically an Epic-level reverse-Kanban board that will work in concert with Pivotal Tracker. Create a few columns: “Now”, “Next”, and “Later”. Generally you’ll have 2-3 cards in the Now column, another 2-3 in the Next Column, and the rest (~20-40) in the Later column. The Idea Backlog can often fit on a half-foamcore board (4ft x 4ft), and serves a few uses:

  • it externalizes future epics so everyone 1) is reminded they exist, and 2) can see their relative priority
  • it gives Stakeholders a place to park long-term ideas, and feel that their contributions are included
  • it gives a big-picture view that tactical what-are-we-working-on-this-week systems have trouble displaying succinctly. This is great for strategic-level Release Planning meetings that I like to try to have every 3 or 4 weeks.

On a recent project, we had a bit of Priority Whiplash: every week, we’d go into an Iteration Planning Meeting (IPM) on Monday and agree on priorities. By Friday, someone on the team would say “Why’re we working on this?! What about that other thing?!”. We’d mention the agreed-upon priorities from a few days earlier, but inevitably someone would shake their head and say “I never agreed to that!”.

Idea Board to the Rescue!

We started using the Idea Board and bringing it to planning meetings. Having a tangible representation of the plan helped a lot. “Remember on Monday when we moved the Foo feature set into the Parking Lot to make room for the Bar feature set? I swear no one moved the cards since the last time we looked at this.” This helped a lot. It also really helped that when someone would say “I had a great idea! Let’s make a Baz feature!”, we could write “Baz” on an index card and stick it on the board. It may live in the parking lot for a while, but its visible and everyone is comfortable that we’re prioritizing the feature (rather than forgetting about it).

Some say a big drawback to a strategic paper-based system like the Idea Board is that over time, it falls out of sync with a tactical digital system like Pivotal Tracker. I think this is more a feature than a bug: when the Idea Board has one or two epics that are out of sync with reality it’s no big deal. When the whole board is a big lie, that’s a signal to the whole team that it’s time for everyone to re-asses the alignment between tactical steps and strategic goals: it’s time for a Release Planning meeting.

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