Sprint Backlog: Task Boards Versus Spreadsheets

In the last two years of using Scrum on projects the Sprint Backlog was:

Excel Spreadsheets: 6
Task Boards: 4

Spreadsheets are winning.

Our environment is a medium sized financial services company with independent projects. We don’t have Scrum of Scrums or any need for them at this point. Everyone is located on-site with the rare exception of one project that temporarily has to coordinate with a vendor off-site. All but one of the projects has worked with a collocated team.

Given our situation current practice would assume we’d probably be better off with task boards then Excel spreadsheets. Even Ryan Martens, CTO of Rally Software, agrees that:

… there is no better tooling answer than white boards and cards for individual teams and bottom-up team adoption of Agile. However, white boards and cards are not enough to support Agile development on larger programs, teams of teams, or distributed teams. In these environments, people need tools and techniques to bring the benefits of Agile to medium and large teams.

Similarly, Mark Crowe of VersionONE mentions that:

A small team huddled together in a single workspace with an on-site customer (or product owner depending on your terminology preference) can very well use index cards and whiteboards as their planning and management tools to run an incredibly effective agile process.

Other members of the Agile community can be even harsher on the spreadsheet debate including Tobias Mayer:

The Scrum books, and many CSM courses promote the use of spreadsheets to track the sprint. This is really horrible. Spreadsheets hide information, and they lie. The best way to create transparency is to display everything on Big Visible Charts. The interactive, collaborative nature of taskboards lends itself to the Scrum process, like no electronic tool ever can.

On one project we even do a task board and a spreadsheet. I had to fight a pretty intense battle to keep using the task board, even though the whole project team told me they liked it better than the spreadsheets.

The worst aspect of the spreadsheets is the inherent danger in multiple page printouts at the daily standup. Instead of just answering the basic questions and engaging in a bit of collaboration the process can break down to conversations like the following:

Team Member One: OK, yesterday I finished #42 and (rifle through a few sheets) and I started #102.
Scrum Master: Any impediments?
Team Member One: No.
Team Member Two: I worked on #34 yesterday so take 4 hours off of it.
Scrum Master: Scrum Master, hold on. (rifling back to the front sheet.) But that was only a 2 hour task so you’re all done?
Team Member Two: Oh, I guess I don’t have the newest backlog, can I borrow yours (Team Member One’s spreadsheet is handed over.)
Team Member Two: OK, so I have six hours left on #35 Credit Score Service.
Scrum Master: Anything else?
Team Member Two: Well, I’m doing the prototype for the profile page, but I don’t know where that is on here.

Now the question is keep fighting the good fight for task boards and big visible charts or go for a Agile tool like ScrumWorks, Rally, or VersionOne?

5 responses to “Sprint Backlog: Task Boards Versus Spreadsheets”

  1. Siddharta says:

    [disclosure – I write a tool :)]

    Apart from huge problems at the standup, I found that excel sheets are rarely ever looked up by anyone other than the person maintaining it.

    Online tools can have this problem as well, but a decent workaround is to set your browser homepage to the project url and then it will stay in sight. But I’ve had a really bad time with excel sheets.

    Charts are best if you are colocated. Always in view and creates great interaction. My vote would be to keep fighting the good fight for this case 🙂

    If you are not colocated I’d skip excel and go with a tool.

  2. Ed Gibbs says:

    Thanks for the big visible chart vote. I just need to brainstorm some new tatics to get it to stick. Sometimes I’m just tempted to use an agile tool, because even though we’re colocated at least it would be better than the spreadsheet.

  3. Ben Fulton says:

    We are using both VersionOne and a task board. The three or four sentences on a task card don’t have space for all the notes from our poker planning, or any necessary screenshots, etc., but the visibility benefits are too large to be discarded.

    I often feel that our stories are not granular enough, though.

  4. Ed Gibbs says:

    We’re still using use cases so there’s not really a problem with getting too much on a card. We do end up with a lot of small tasks though and a 30 day Sprint, so I cut the 3×5 cards in half to make things fit alright on the task board.

    Good to hear someone else is dealing with some duplication in this area as well. I think the tough part is getting PMs to try out a new tool when the spreadsheet was part of the official rollout almost 2 years ago.

  5. It’s a stupid answer: each team should do what works best for it. It’s more important to be able to consider both spreadsheets and cards/whiteboard than it is to choose one or the other.