Agile & Kanban for Noobs

Are you starting your new job and suddenly people ask you to structure your projects in an “agile” way or use a Kanban board? At least that’s what happened to me this week. Maybe you are just curious about the topic.

Disclaimer: After asking for advice and reading up a bit on agile practices, I came to the conclusion that (agile) project management is a very personal thing and opinions are wildly different. So this article is not a strict guide or objective truth. If your team follows these practices religiously, you should probably follow their lead.

Rather this article aims to give you some pointers to approach the topic so you can make the best decisions for your situation and personal preferences. In my opinion, plans and structures like this should always adjusted to the specific use case because they should help you not make life more difficult.

What even is agile?

Agile is an iterative approach to project management and software development that helps teams deliver value to their customers faster and with fewer headaches. Instead of betting everything on a “big bang” launch, an agile team delivers work in small, but consumable, increments. Requirements, plans, and results are evaluated continuously so teams have a natural mechanism for responding to change quickly.

Atlassian, company that offers the products/services Jira, Confluence & Trello, source: https://www.atlassian.com/agile

I would say “Agile” is somewhat of a philosophy.

The main point here is that in an agile project the developers work in intervals – often something like two weeks. Every two weeks, the requirements to the planned product are re-evaluated and a new goal for the end of the two weeks is formulated. This makes it eaiser to adjust to new requirements from a client or manager.

What is Kanban?

In contrast to “Agile”, Kanban is way more applied and could be called a framework. It reminds me of the concept of bullet journaling – maybe you are familiar with that.

Basically, it is a structured to-do list, with the goal of streamlining your workflow and making you more productive by avoiding huge tasks that slow you down or being overwhelmed by too many small tasks at once.

Kanban Board

At the heart of Kanban is the Kanban board. It has multiple columns that hold cards, which are your To-Dos. The column symbolize your workflow, from the creation of an idea on the left to a completed or delivered action on the right. A very basic version of these columns could be: To-Do, Progress & Done

Example Kanban Board for my Blog posts

In the example image you can see that I adjusted the columns slightly to include ideas instead of To-Dos, because many ideas are never actually started which is not a bad thing for my blog, but might not be wanted in a software project. I also added a scheduled-column for posts that are finished but still waiting for their release day. This could give you an idea on how to adjust the workflow to fit your needs best.

Kanban cards

The most interesting aspect of Kanban workflows were the actual To-Do items.

It is important to choose the right size of card – figuratively not literally. The work needed to complete this card should fit into one work day. In the example given in the Atlassian video, the author explains he completes about 1 or 1.5 cards every day. To keep this consistent and make planning easier, it could be a good idea to make every card a similar amount of work if possible. Then you can expect to finish a card every day.

Optimizing delivery time

The key idea behind Kanban is to streamline your work. In this framework this is often described as reducing the time between the commitment point and delivery point.

This commitment point is the point in time when you take your to do and you put it into your in progress column. The delivery point is fairly self-explanatory and means the point in time where you deliver a feature to a client or in general complete your to do item.

The idea is to restrict the amount of items that can be in the In-Progress column at the same time. You should only ever have one thing per person in this column – that means in a 3 person team, only 3 tasks should be actively worked on at any given time.

This restriction means that you can focus on only one task which leads to overall more productivity.

Tools

It basically doesn’t matter what tool you use to implement this. Most task planners allow you to order your tasks in the Kanban column-view.

The classic is of course to use a whiteboard and sticky notes. Agile doesn’t call for any specific tools either, it’s just important that you reflect after every sprint (which is typically 2 weeks long).

Some examples of famous tools in this area include Trello and Jira. In todays remote work spaces we also need to replace our old-school whiteboard and for that you can you Miro in the browser – I can also recommend that for any sort of brainstorming you’re doing remotely with your team.

But the most important aspect of a tool is that it fits to you and your team 🙂

Conclusion

Agile and Kanban can be quite intimidating at first, but if you break these ideas down to their core, they’re really not that flashy anymore.

I think it’s important to keep in mind that the main goal is to be more productive and to feel less overwhelmed. If you have the time, start slow with just a simple 3 column board and improve your planning week by week. Or… sprint by sprint, I guess.

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