The Renaissance of Paper for Agile Software Development


Fast cars, flat-screen television, high definition gaming consoles, and dual core processor equipped laptops: the amenities of modern technology rule us. Computers are an integral part of our lifestyle and work-life, and many people define themselves by their choice of tools to complete tasks. Those interested in implementing agile frameworks are no exception, often voting to use electronic tools before exploring alternatives. This article is meant for the open-minded, ready-to-explorer surrogate who is not afraid of being a low-tech hippie in times of high-tech espresso machines.

The Low-tech
Here we are. All together, a co-located team, and instead of using 19quot; flat screen monitors and shiny Mac-Book Pros we will work with simple things, such as paper. We follow one key concept of agile: removing inconsistencies and misunderstandings by making all available information available. Consequently, we achieve a higher level of transparency by allowing all available information to be prominently shared. To be able to do that we will need a couple of tools and a good understanding of how to use them.

First, make sure to have an area to display all the artifacts that you produce over time. Dry wipe boards usually sized at 95quot; x 48quot; are a great and universal area to display what we produce. A basic rule of thumb is that you can never have enough wall-space or dry wipe boards. Ironically, they also seem to be the hardest thing to come by, so make sure you order plenty and early. Colored dry wipe markers, as many as you can find, are essential as well, enabling you to use your whiteboard in a vast number of creative ways. 

Dry wipe boards are universal and reusable, but their size makes it usually hard to move them. Fortunately, you can use 3M Post-it Easel Notes to hold a multitude of our artifacts. These make it easier to move information temporarily from meeting room to team room and back again, or to any other location you may so desire.

To actually hold our User Stories, or whatever you might name your requirements, you will need colored index cards sized at 3 X 5 and a number of colored neon markers. [i]  For readability, you should buy some black CD/DVD markers to go alongside the neon markers on your index cards. Visibility is important and those black markers work well on colored cards. For role discovery work-shops and for note keeping you should get note cards sized at 3 1/2 x 2 as their smaller size will limit you to writing less. 

All of the above mentioned card types can be secured, either to your whiteboard or the big Post-it notes, by using blu-tack or glue-spots. 

For ad-hoc note keeping, buy different sized super-sticky notes. Make sure you bought the super-sticky and not sticky variant as the latter tends to start falling off the wall once you have moved them around a couple of times. Other nice things to have, but not necessarily as essential, are notebooks, hand tissues, multi-color Sharpies, Nerf balls, Altoids, Clocks, and other accessories to make a team room more useful.

The Reason
In psychology, it is a well-known fact that the physical reinforces the non-tangible our brain needs to deal with in order to understand complex causal connections. [ii] Almost everything, save for typing, that we do when sitting in front of a computer is intangible. Using tools to track our progress of where we are in the application of agile frameworks is no exception to that rule. By using index cards, note cards, pens, white board, supersticky notes, and other stationery, we are aiming to bring that physically reinforced behavior and thus understanding of what we are doing back to the work place.

Physical size constraints are another reason to use low-tech tools, especially in an environment where people are very used to doing everything on the computer. Microsoft Word or Apple Pages limit the amount of text you can type into a virtual card only by how big your hard disk is. This is a virtually conceived size constraint. Index or note cards, on the other hand, limit you physically by the amount of information they are capable of displaying. This small but significant difference alters our behavior towards each medium by forcing us to be more compact and precise in expressing what we need to say. 

Disposal of unneeded items in a physical manner, by ripping the index card up and throwing it away, is psychologically more satisfying to our brain than simply dragging a document to the wastebasket. [iii] Completing the task of physically destroying the card makes us feel as if we have achieved something, completed a task. 

The How-To 
In his book Agile Software Development, Alistair Cockburn coined the term “Information Radiators.” [iv] Flip charts, posters or whiteboards can all be used as the base media.
Our whiteboards and large sticky notes are such Information Radiators, clearly visible in a prominent area in the office or team room (see Figure 1). Whiteboards will often hold a multitude or large sticky notes, usually under different headers scribbled onto the white board itself, while the large sticky notes hold a multitude of Index cards at various stages in the process.

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Figure 1: Sample Information Radiator on a Whiteboard

No matter how you choose to gather the information necessary for your team to start working, index cards are a good idea. Depending on your of granularity, they can either be used to reflect User Stories or the actual tasks needed to complete a User Story. Each team will find its own way of giving meaning to the specific pieces of stationery available on the Information Radiator.
There are numerous ways to exploit the versatility of the tools described. An index card, for example, can have many different meanings depending on how you use them. Here are some common applications, which might help you with developing your own:

· Color Coding - Index cards with specific colors have a special meaning.

· Positioning - Index cards which are turned sideways or upside down have a special meaning.

· Folding - Index cards which are folded in half horizontally or folded in half vertically have a special meaning.

· Shape - Round, oval, square, or heart-shaped super sticky notes might have different meanings.

· Grouping - Index cards, which are in close physical proximity carry a special meaning.

Each of these elements can be refined by adding other constraints, such as the combination of colors used on an index card. Make sure that you keep it simple. Someone walking past your Information Radiator should be able to understand what is going on without too much explanation.

The Benefits 
Being employed by Conchango and specializing in Scrum I am often engaged in large-scale change programs to introduce Scrum into an organization. Frequently, this means the company as a whole has not yet bought into this new framework and our work is considered to be a pilot. By using the process described above, employing tangible items, which are visible to everyone introducing change, makes it a little bit easier. It physically involves those committed to the change process and it sparks their interest.

Handling index cards, getting up to move a card from “Test Ready” to “Done” writing a new role on a note card, and drawing a burn-down graph on the whiteboard employ our cognitive and volitive systems. [v] Being physically active and using that activity to visibly change artifacts on a whiteboard seems to make it easier for those involved to accept a new way of doing things. 
Most information radiators are hung on a wall, making it easy for passersby to see them. The prominent display of all the available information makes it unnecessary for the passersby to ask questions; as they pass by, the information simply hits them. It takes very little energy to look at the display to gather all the information they need, it is visible.

The presence of big whiteboards filled with colorful cards, super sticky notes posted to screens and desks, and larger Post-It notes trigger the curiosity of those not directly involved. Much like the presence of a picture on a wall might force us to stop to have a better look, the convenience of it simply being present draws attention to it and captivates us. Burn-down charts are the most popular artifacts to draw attention; test reports, sprint-backlogs can be important ones as well. 

Big whiteboards, colorful cards, innovative application of physical constraints on stationery, and complete visibility do not only trigger curiosity but open our mind to accept and appreciate change that we can be a part of. Psychologically reinforcing that we can get things “done” index cards and super sticky notes are not only fun to work with but might offer the better ROI in the long run. There is no up-front investment in education needed and the likelihood for a whiteboard to not work is fairly small. Trying a low-tech solution before aiming for electronic tools in a co-located environment is a cost-effective, smart, and fun solution when aiming to introduce agile frameworks.

About the Author
David Hoehn is one of the thought leaders for Conchango around Agile Service Engagements. David has served for the past 1 1/2 years as an agile coach and innovative thinker around human nature and change. David specializes in welcoming change and how to convince organizations to create a whole new environment in which agile frameworks can grow and thrive. Putting a focus on Scrum in an enterprise environment rather than only for software development. David is known for making his work his passion.

[i] As suggested, see

[ii] Cockerill, I. M. (Dec 1995). Self-esteem development through participation in physical activity. Journal of Workplace Learning , 14-17.

[iii] Krakovsky, M. (2007, April). STANFORD Magazine: March/April 2007 gt; Features gt; Mind-set Research. Retrieved April 2, 2007, from STANFORD Magazine:

[iv] Alistair Cockburn - Agile Software Development: Software Through People ISBN: 0201699699.

[v] These are the regions in our brain which make up the motor system, extrapyramidal system, pyramidal tract, alpha and gamma system.

About the author

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