Agile Planning Tools and the Spreadsheet Strawman

Huge spreadsheet

Have you ever worked with someone who is proud of how well they fix problems or bugs…​ that they created in the first place! I’ve seen people who are quite successful with this strategy although it never ceases to amaze me. Unfortunately, I see agile practitioners do the same thing in the domain of planning support tools by comparing collaboration-oriented planning tools with traditional unshared spreadsheets.

The party line in XP/Agile is that note cards are the best planning tool. The only disagreement I have with this perspective is that cards are the best tool, independent of context. Cards are good and even best in some contexts. I’ve used cards and they worked well. However, I prefer computer-based collaboration tools to augment face-to-face communication and, in my experience, it generally works better than cards for the full scope of planning-related activities (plan generation, tracking, replanning).

It’s not uncommon that the Agile practitioners who claim planning tools don’t work well are attempting to use spreadsheets for planning. For example, James Shore (recipient of Gordon Pask Award for Contributions to Agile Practice) is a founder of a new online service called On the service home page he writes:

Ever notice how hard it is to collaboratively prioritize a spreadsheet during a conference call? CardMeeting lets everybody participate in planning.

Most, if not all, web-based planning support tools are capable of simultaneous access that "lets everybody participate in planning" and provide much more support for the planning and tracking activity than CardMeeting (which doesn’t provide any planning-specific support).

If a spreadsheet is working well for you, that’s great, but there are many reasons why this is a risky approach. In most cases, spreadsheets are not shared resources. Therefore, it’s obvious why this is a ineffective tool for collaboration. What I’ve seen is that the typical project management antipattern when using spreadsheets is that the project manager is the owner of the spreadsheet. The developers must report information to the project management who then updates the spreadsheet and distributes it some way. There are many problems with this from the perspective of team building and collaboration. I agree that a traditional spreadsheet-based approach is not as effective as using cards. However, the XP/Agile community uses this "evidence" (a strawman) to claim that cards are better than any planning tool. In my opinion, this is an over generalization.

Unless you are using Google spreadsheets it’s difficult to collaborate as a team with a spreadsheet that only supports one user editing it at a time. The solution. Don’t use a spreadsheet. There are many other options. Even a wiki would be better in some situations.

Another example of a strawman argument against planning tools is from Bob Payne (producer of the Agile Toolkit podcast). He writes…​

I generally do not like online planning tools since they usually need to be single threaded.

What? This isn’t true with the online tools I’ve used. If you find an online tool that requires single threaded access (I assume that means only a single user at a time can use it), then don’t use that tool. Again, most web-based planning supports tools do not have this limitation. Some teams may choose processes that limit the tool usage — sometimes in nonproductive ways, but that’s not the fault of the tool. Unfortunately, even with shared tools, a project manager might be the primary keeper of the planning and tracking information. Ideally, every person using the tool is receiving benefit from it (for example, a dynamic "to do" list that can be used to individual or pair-level microplanning). I don’t blame people for resisting a tool that they must use without any benefit to themselves. However, that is an issue with how the tool is being used rather than a limitation of most web-based planning tools.

XP author, Ron Jeffries, wrote on the Yahoo XP mailing list:

The issue I have with these tools is that they change the process, by putting control of what’s on the screen in the hands of the few.

Spreadsheets aren’t mentioned here, but they generally do have the limitation Ron describes. I responded that online, shared collaboration tools can have many screens and many keyboards and Ron’s response was:

Yes, and in principle we could all have personal helicopters. I have never once visited a site that had a multi-screen multi-keyboard planning system. They probably exist, but they are rare on the ground.

This response surprised me given Ron is widely considered to be an XP/Agile thought leader. Of course, the many screens and keyboards I was speaking about are simply computer workstations with web browsers connected by a LAN. This is very common. I’ve used XPlanner extensively and successfully with this configuration. It’s not clear if the Agile perspective in this case is a lack of imagination or a lack of experience. Ron does admit he has little experience with using these types of tools.

I have not used the various tools like XPlanner, other than from time to time to try one to see what it’s like. The potential benefits that they offer do not attract me, which is OK because I’m not part of their target market. (Except that there might be some value to having me saying good things about them.)

The limitations of spreadsheets for planning is not a supporting argument for using note cards (there are other, better arguments for it). There are similar strawman arguments against online planning tools but I’ll write about those in future blog entries. Generally speaking, look at the arguments to see if they are creating the problem they claim to solve. For example, this is often in the form of either/or thinking (remember cards can be used with online tools, they aren’t mutually exclusive) or blaming tools for what are essentially organizational behavior problems.

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