How to Pick the Right Agile Tool

By Kate Eby | June 3, 2016

According to a recent survey, the percentage of companies embracing the Agile movement have surpassed those using waterfall and the percentage continues to increase. The popularity of Agile has spawned a plethora of Agile project management tools designed to manage and direct the performance of Agile teams. With so many offerings to choose from, the issue is not whether there’s a tool that can enhance your organizational performance, but how to select the right tool for your needs.

What is Agile Project Management?

Agile project management offers an iterative and flexible approach to the design and development of technology. An agile approach embraces the constant changes that occur in the development of technology – allowing teams to break the lengthy requirements, build, and test method down into smaller segments so that requirement changes are manageable along the way and do not bring the entire project to a halt. Although commonly used in software development, the principles behind Agile can successfully be applied to non-technology related projects as well. The ability to embrace change as it comes, making activities and progress transparent and adapting along the way can bring value to many types of projects.

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Why use Agile Project Management

The ability to deliver a software product that is on time and on budget, even when requirements and demands change along the way, is the number one reason to embrace Agile project management. Project managers can build their product, hitting all milestones, while remaining nimble to react to constant change. With Agile, complexity is reduced, successes are recognized quickly, quality is improved as issues are identified earlier, and feedback is welcome from users throughout the development lifecycle.

Why Do You Need an Agile Tool?

First off, you may be wondering why you need a tool in the first place? Or, perhaps,why a tool specific to Agile is necessary?  It’s certainly true that Agile can be managed through a variety of means, including old-school methods such as index cards, spreadsheets, MS Project, or laying it all out on a whiteboard, but these examples don’t provide for collaboration. All of these examples can be used for gathering and listing requirements, tracking progress, keeping track of iterations, and even reporting, to some extent. You can even begin to track timeline values and gather data on development efficiency.  

But a pile of disparate tools make for a highly inefficient process. The good news is that there are a great many tools that integrate all of the functions of Agile into a single resource. Burndown charts, iterations, backlog prioritization, user case storage, and collaboration can be managed in a single, coherent resource. By keeping everything in one place, all stakeholders know where to look at any time and can stay on top of their roles within the project.

Selecting Agile Tools Begins with Focusing on Purpose

The Agile movement offers a variety of methodologies from which to choose:  Scrum, Kanban, Feature Driven Development (FDD), Lean Software Development (LSD), Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM), Agile Software Development (ASD), Extreme Programming (XP), and Crystal. Your organization may have already decided which methodology it will use, as well as whether to adopt Agile at the enterprise level (scaled Agile or “SAFe ®” (Scaled Agile Framework ®) or at the development level (Scrum Agile), by the time you begin selecting a tool. The question becomes which tool is best for which methodology.

General Principles for Choosing the Right Agile Tool

Selecting the right Agile tool to support your business needs and methodology is essential. The following five capabilities will aid you in choosing a solution that supports your team and their approach to Agile.  

1. Facilitate Collaboration and Communication 
Look for a solution that facilitates communication and collaboration between team members. The Agile tool should enable team members to communicate with one another and have complete discussions that eventually reach a conclusion. Consider a tool that has permissions so you can determine who should be a part of a conversation. It should be possible for any stakeholder, whether business analysts, software developers, marketers, or whomever, to observe and participate in the conversation as the project moves through its various stages from inception to delivery.

2. Track History and Accountability
Find an Agile tool that makes it possible to look at the history of the discussion and “connect the dots” between conversation, action, and deliverable. The tool should provide a means for reporting on the various segments of the project lifecycle as well as the project as a whole.

3. Searchable Central Storage 
A single, searchable tool that supports all Agile project functions is better than using multiple tools because it creates one source to store and find key project information, needed to make decisions. For example, performing project tracking on a whiteboard while holding conversations necessary to develop user stories in Sharepoint, means delays in finding information and possibly missing out on important details. Additionally, an Agile tool that enables you to store content in a single database provides the ability to look at multiple projects at once and perform cross-project reporting and analysis.

4. Ability to Scale
Dr. Alistair Cockburn, a leader in the Agile movement, has spent many years studying the ways in which teams perform. In a talk he gave in 2012, Cockburn said, “Software development is unique; it’s a pure activity in itself. So while we understand the ‘Laws of Physics’ that drive the way people work with software, actually, software development becomes the reference point and other things are like software development. So we can take our understanding of what happens in software design teams and apply them in business design teams, marketing design teams, advertising, startups, entrepreneurships, all kinds of other activities.”

The notion of an Agile tool being confined to a software development team may drive the initial implementation, but bear in mind that the development team may grow. Other departments may want to utilize the tool for their projects. Finding a tool with broad capabilities may not seem like the most efficient choice, but time may prove it to be the optimal selection.

5. Analytics
Analytics are essential to any project, both for viewing the process in real-time and for post-mortem evaluation. You’ll want to know how much time individual tasks took to complete, and why they took as long as they did. Analytics will also help you determine what met expectations and what did not. An agile tool that can provide a drill-down into the data will be helpful in setting up future projects for success.

Agile Tool Requirements

To choose the right Agile tool, you’ll need to gather a requirements list. Requirements are functions, not features. Features are what you find in the tool, but functions are the activities performed by the features.

Gathering requirements means meeting with key stakeholders to determine the functions they want a tool to perform. For example, the Scrum leader may want a tool that helps track feature development, while the business analyst needs a way to coordinate features with user stories, and the development manager needs reporting functionality to track actual feature development time versus expected development time. 

Everyone their own idea of what will bring them the most value, but it’s unlikely that any one tool will satisfy everyone. This is where priorities come in. Gather all key stakeholders to create a list of desired requirements, and then go through and identify the priorities. Have every stakeholder prioritize the functions they’re seeking, to create a kind of ‘wish list’ in the form of matrix. Make sure all stakeholders know that there may not be a tool to meet every need, so compromise is inevitable. Setting this expectation up front will reduce friction.

Here is a list of some general functions you may want to have in your requirements list:

  • Agile planning and tracking
  • Linking between plan tracking and status reporting
  • Customizable process templates
  • Customizable dashboards and reports
  • History of work items for auditing
  • Theme management using epics and other stories
  • Source code management (or integration with your current source code management tool)
  • Multi-level builds
  • Development task tracking and collaboration
  • Improves discussion among team members and stores comments 
  • Visibility into tasks and changes, so that anyone affected by either is aware of it
  • Collaboration tools for backlog management
  • Review and approval tools
  • Tracks project tasks, user stories, and all work items
  • Relation tracing among work items (for relationships such as parent-child or dependencies)
  • Reporting tools 
  • Ability to perform cross-project analysis
  • Maintains a history of work items for auditing
  • Configurable access security controls
  • Available to all team members
  • Full project lifecycle management 
  • Easy drag-and-drop user interface
  • Access to customer support resources, including forums, wiki’s, email, chat
  • Simple deployment and accessibility – cloud-based vs. on-premise 

Comparing Agile Tools

When all the requirements  have been prioritized, you’re still left with the important questions:  what is out there, what can they do, and which one is the right one? There are many tools to sift through and it isn’t always easy to decide among them. Some tools market themselves for startups, while others are focused on Kanban, and yet others stress usefulness for general Agile project management. Researching to find the best match for your needs will only become apparent as the evaluation process continues.

Step 1: The Long List
Though the list can start out long, narrowing it down may be easier than you think. Searching online can help you to weed out the products that are not suitable for your purposes, before you even get to the point or matching requirements to specific product features.

You will need to do your own evaluation, but reading online reviews could help you focus your thoughts on what you’re looking for, and may even pinpoint the right tool for you. Once you have your list narrowed to the top three to five tools (or however many you want to evaluate), it’s time to look at the short list.

Step 2: Enter the Matrix
After the hard work of gathering requirements and whittling down the range of tools, it’s time to get down to the details. It may be that you’ve narrowed the field to a set of free, open-source tools or proprietary tools or a combination of both, but once you get to this point, the decision will likely pop out of the details. Take the list of requirements, add the short list along the top row, and start to go down the list, adding checkmarks in the columns to match requirements to each tool. 

If a tool fulfills the requirement, it gets a check in that column and if it doesn’t, then no check. This process helps bring structure to the decision-making process. Iteration burndown charts, backlog capture, task board maintenance, user story capture, reporting, all of these functions may or may not be included with a particular tool, but you can lay that out in your matrix.

Why Smartsheet is a Useful Agile Project Management Tool

From simple task management and project planning to complex resource and portfolio management, Smartsheet helps you improve collaboration and increase work velocity -- empowering you to get more done. 

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When teams have clarity into the work getting done, there’s no telling how much more they can accomplish in the same amount of time. Try Smartsheet for free, today.



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