"Individuals and interactions over processes and tools."
It's an important line from the Agile Manifesto – one that establishes that the focus when trying to work in an Agile way is the people. However, we often see this used as a justification to provide inadequate tools to teams. In a well-run Agile organization, you shouldn't have to think about the tools - they should support the work that the team needs to do without getting in the way. Organizations often make the mistake of implementing tools to make teams work in an Agile way. However, tools are in and of themselves not enough - the people and processes behind them are what makes a business go.
However, this doesn’t mean we should ignore the tools we use, opting for whatever’s cheapest, easiest to setup, what we’ve always used, or something that’s “good enough.” Rather, we should take the exact opposite approach and select our tools purposefully, deliberately identifying the tools which best empower employees and promote processes. Because of this, there are two properties of utmost importance when considering a new tool: the tool should allow our team to run with the process that best meets our team’s needs, and the tool should help our team members work better together.
To fit the first of these criteria, the tool should be customizable in a way that allows your team to use your own process. Much of enterprise software today shoehorns teams into predefined configurations and settings which the tool manufacturer thinks are best. This leads to frustration, difficulty in using the tool, and potentially costly transitions to new software. In our experience, every team is at least a little bit different, and even two teams that want to implement the same fundamental process will find they have a few differences they would like reflected in the process. Because those differences tend to arise from the uniqueness of your team, they are important to capture in the tool in order to give your team the tools that best meet your needs.
Further, a good tool will promote communication and collaboration between teammates, inside or outside of the tool. Information tends to get lost when team members do their work in one system but communicate that work in another. For this reason, an ideal product will allow for conversations to take place within the product, ideally directly on the work item those conversations are referring to. Historical conversations should be preserved to allow for a look back on what decisions were made and why, and the tool should have options for how users are notified of important communications. Further down the collaboration path, handoffs should be made simple if not automatic, and any approvals should be doable within the tool. Finally, high-level or detailed status reports should be visible and accessible by any team member who needs or wants to see them.
These two crucial properties are two of the reasons we like Jira. Atlassian’s strategy for a long time has been to develop applications to meet the 80% of needs that are shared by most teams, such as collaboration features, malleable processes, and easy visibility of work, while allowing the remaining 20% of needed functionality to be determined by individual teams and sourced in the Marketplace. The result is a product which delivers good performance out of the box, but can be optimized to meet the needs of any team.
Consider the role that Jira plays in Agile. A large portion of the functionality is built in: Kanban and scrum boards, backlogs, issue types, workflows, and sprint reports. However, the software is customizable to the point that it works equally well for teams that have a quick, simple process with a few issue types and teams which have a complicated process with several rules, handoffs, and types of work. It doesn’t matter to Jira whether your version of Agile requires multiple manager sign-offs before it’s done or if your team lives on the edge, skips QA altogether, and goes straight to production. The point is that the software fits your process, not the other way around. Regardless of process, there are several mechanisms for the team to stay in touch along the way. Every issue can be commented on and allows for @-mentions to draw attention quickly. Email notifications are sent out at times decided by the team, not at arbitrarily defined times decided by the tool’s developers. Progress is simple to see on a board, and every user has access to generate reports or build dashboards to collect information relevant to them, reducing the need for repetitive status reports.
Most organizations will purchase a tool, kick it around for a few years, then junk it because it “doesn’t work right” or “doesn’t make sense for us.” Don’t let this happen to your organization. Pick your tools with care and optimize them for your team. And if you need help, talk with the experts, and get great advice!