The Curse Of Agile Project Management Tools

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Index cards and a story wall are my preferred agile project management tools. They force you to keep things simple due to limited space on index cards and you get optimal visibility through the ubiquitous story wall.

Software tools are usually inferior in terms of simplicity and visibility. Most agile project management tools provide you a way of entering nearly unlimited text for any story. This can easily lead to hyper-detailed descriptions which get outdated very easily, and bury developers with information rather than fostering discussion. And software tools are never ubiquitous: You may or may not start them on your system and even if they are opened you usually hide them behind your currently active tools like your IDE.

Distributed Teams Make The Use of Agile Project Management Tools Imperative

But there are situations which make me long for software tools nevertheless. If I’m on the road, I’m suddenly separated completely from the team – I have neither the chance of accessing any stories nor am I able to see their current status. And, if I have to work in a distributed team, having a story wall in only one office isn’t sufficient either. For years, I’ve been looking for a simple, agile project management tool to manage my distributed projects from anywhere.

Enterprise Grade Agile Project Management Tools Are Overkill

I’ve compared commercial tools like VersionOne, Rally Software’s Products, and TargetProcess and open source tools like XPlanner and others. I didn’t like any of them. They’re all very complex tools having tons of features to deal with the most complex scenarios I could ever imagine. But that’s not what I need. I need the most simple tool supporting exactly my process and nothing else. I don’t want to pay the huge price of dealing with the product’s own complexity when I need to be focusing on my work.

Mingle is Adaptable

Last year, I came across Mingle. And it was different. At least a bit. You can configure Mingle to be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. Everything can be tailored to your liking. You can cut out all the extra features you don’t need. That’s at least something. Over the course of the year we came across some weaknesses, but it’s still the tool we use in our day-to-day work.

No Backlog in Mingle

What I miss most is the ability of managing and prioritizing a backlog simply by drag-and-drop. I want to have an ordered list of stories from highest to lowest priority. I haven’t found a way to do this in Mingle. You can create custom fields, custom views and custom filters, but I’m not aware of any way to create a sortable list without using some fabricated crutch like a position number field (as we currently use it). But such a field has the big disadvantage that when you “move up” a story, all the subsequent stories don’t “move down” automatically decreasing their priority. So you end up having multiple stories with position number “1”. That sucks as it tends to break the whole idea of a backlog.

Another negative aspect of Mingle is that there is no hosted solution. I have to run my own server, and quite a big one, too: Mingle requires 2 GB of RAM. This might not sound like a lot to you developer types, but we want to run it on a shared virtual server and those beasts get pretty expensive if you need 2 GB. Needless to say, I’m still looking out for the perfect tool.

Pivotal Tracker to The Rescue?

And maybe I’ve found it: Pivotal Tracker is simple but powerful, has a real backlog with drag-and-drop prioritization of stories, automatically tracks velocity (something I’ve to do manually in Mingle), has a simple but sufficient workflow including a step for staging (in fact, it is exactly the same workflow I’ve implemented in Mingle) and it supports exactly the types of stories we use in Mingle: Stories, Bugs and Chores. It’s hosted and free for unlimited users and unlimited projects. Additionally, you get burn-up graphs, comments, attachments and email notifications together with an API. Sounds pretty complete to me, so I’ll give it a serious try!

What are your experiences with software tools for agile project management? Have you found the perfect one? Have you tweaked any of them to your liking? Or are you still searching? Let us know in the comments. I’m looking forward to hear your story!

6 thoughts on “The Curse Of Agile Project Management Tools

  1. My team tried Pivotal Tracker, and it was a complete waste of time. The UI was simply too poor to be practical. We’ve since used Google Docs and index cards on a wall with much greater success. Custom solutions such as Pivotal Tracker have a real tendency toward excessive complexity (How do you install and manage it? How many checkboxes get checked in a review?) along with a sever lack of flexibility and power (you can’t just scribble on a card and move cards around. You have to type into certain fields, and only so much.) Freeform paper is more flexible, easier to use, and more powerful.

    One agile principle is doing the simplest thing that can possibly work. Tracker is far from the simplest thing that can possibly work, and proof by example that sometimes the most complex solution that can possibly work doesn’t.

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