Agile Tool Vendors: Please don’t try to manage complexity – simplify my life!

We’ve been using Mingle for over one year now and it serves us quite well. During the course of the year, we used it to manage over 2000 stories, issues and chores, and we currently only have around 90 open ones left. The only major shortcoming in my eyes is the lack of a real backlog where I could prioritize stories by sorting the list (oh, and its incredible hunger for server-side resources ;-). But it helped us build a successful online business, and all of that for free. Time to say: Thank you, Thoughtworks!

Mingle took a new approach on agile project management

About a year ago, Mingle shook up the scene of agile project management tools like VersionOne, Rally, targetprocess, and XPlanner. Mingle was simpler and much more adaptable to your needs and processes. While it’s definitely enterprise grade software, it’s capable of hiding that fact and giving you a smooth experience with a lot of freedom. You can, for example, define any filter criteria and create a custom grid view for your cards. And you have a fully fledged reporting query language (MQL) for generating graphs and tables with the data you need to see. Mingle does not force you into a fixed structure consisting of releases, iterations, stories, tasks, test cases and issues like some of the aforementioned tools do. While you’re able to manage all those aspects, you don’t have to, and that’s a big advantage in my eyes.

The fundamental issue

Mingle is already a big step in the right direction, but, being targeted at huge enterprise customers, it suffers from one fundamental issue: it tries to manage complexity. What else is a tool for anyways, you might wonder. And you’re right. Software is often enabling us to deal with problems, which are too complex to manage otherwise. But, software can do even more. Software can simplify your work. It provides you with a lot more than just processing speed. It can open a complete new angle for you on how to attack a problem.

Do I really have to enter all that data?

Most agile tools are mainly CRUD applications for releases, iterations, stories, etc. You see long lists of each type, you’re able to sort them and maybe even drill down into tree like structures. Of course, they support your workflows with email notifications and status changes. But they put a heavy burden on you to enter all the necessary data. Their paradigm is to enable you to manage a vast amount of stuff in lists and grid views. While this might be necessary for managing a complete enterprise, in my experience it’s overkill for most agile teams.

The simplification approach

Pivotal Tracker takes another approach on agile project management. The only thing you have to care about in Pivotal Tracker are your stories and their order on the backlog. It takes care of all the rest: It automatically manages iterations based on your real velocity. Releases are simple markers in the story backlog, and it provides you with the most important graphs out of the box: Iteration burn-up, velocity over time, release burn-down, and story type break down. Its interface consists of exactly one main screen, where you can ask it to display any of the following:

  • Current iteration
  • Backlog
  • Icebox (unprioritized stories)
  • Graphs
  • Your current work

Your main screen is even refreshed automatically which lets you stay up to date with what your co-workers are doing (and saving the effort and braincells to click on that refresh button). Pivotal Tracker is so simple that I had a hard time believing it’s complete. Will this really work? What I can tell you after a couple of weeks of use: yes, it works. And it gets so much out of your way that you hardly notice you’re even using an online tool.

Get out of my way

This “getting out of my way” is the biggest, most positive difference I experienced in comparison to all the other agile project management tools. They constantly demand that you create a new release or a new iteration. And they lure you into thinking you need this new graph and that new view. But being agile means for me: Focusing on delivering value! And only agile project management tools which help me in focusing (rather than a dazzling array of features and complexity), help me to become more agile!

I wish that more and more agile project management tool vendors would find a way to simplify our lives!

One thought on “Agile Tool Vendors: Please don’t try to manage complexity – simplify my life!

  1. Thanks for the review. I found you on a search for “pivotal tracker icebox”; obviously there isn’t much search-indexed community documentation on this PM tool yet. I was afraid that it looked too simple, but you confirmed that simplicity can be a virtue, as in the case of Pivotal Tracker.


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