1000 Words - Illustrating Project Challenges with Visuals

A project can face varied challenges through its life, foreseen and otherwise - runaway scope, high defect volumes, depressed velocity, and many more. Addressing many of these first requires recognition of the problem and then action from one or more sets of project stakeholders. Telling the story with simple visuals can be a very powerful way to articulate a challenge (the what), the potential root causes (the why) and the options available to fix it (the now-what). Teams typically already track a lot of data related to throughput, quality, scope and cost. Creative use of this data combined with simple, hand-crafted visuals can be much more effective than hundreds of bullet points. In this hands-on workshop, you get to exercise your visual thinking and visual communication skills. We introduce some simple visual thinking techniques like Look-See-Imagine-Show, and then let you apply them in a project simulation, so that you can practice hand-rolling simple visuals that speak volumes (no fancy tools needed!).

 
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Outline/structure of the Session

  1. Introduce the power of visuals and visual thinking techniques (based on principles from ‘Back of the Napkin’)
  2. Run a simple warmup exercise to allow everyone in the audience to get comfortable working with visuals
  3. Introduce the Project Scenario
  4. Participants work in groups to draw on their own experience and insights to come up with hand­drawn visuals for the Scenario (whiteboards or flipcharts required)
  5. Teams present their visuals back to everyone
  6. Facilitators share some visuals of their own

Note: We have previously run this workshop at XP2013 in Vienna and Agile2012 in Dallas.

Learning Outcome

  • Understand how simple visuals can help you better articulate the current state of the project to your stakeholders
  • Learn simple techniques to make yourself more comfortable using visuals, even if you think you're not a visual person
  • Explore how to use your project tracking data more creatively

Target Audience

Agile practitioners who play the roles of project manager, product owner, business analyst, tech lead, test lead, and anyone else who wants to use charts, graphs and other visuals tell more powerful stories.

schedule Submitted 4 years ago

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comment Comment on this Proposal
  • Deepak Dhananjaya
    By Deepak Dhananjaya  ~  1 year ago
    reply Reply

    Hi Tarang,

      Was curious to know if these are evolving visual aids during the course of the project or a workshop that is done with visuals when we are in crisis or challenge? 

    We use whiteboards extensively to radiate many information. would you use this information radiator to show the challeneges etc? 

    Could you help me understand this better?

    Deepak!

    • Tarang Baxi
      By Tarang Baxi  ~  4 years ago
      reply Reply

      Hi Deepak,

      Commonly used information radiators like burn-up charts, cumulative flow diagrams, etc are of course great for getting a quick project health check as well as for signalling problems as they develop. However in crisis situations they don't always reveal root causes, or may not effectively convey key messages that the team needs to deliver. I've observed that in crisis situations, agile teams often resort to slide after slide of bullet points trying to convey whats going on and what can be done. This workshop is meant to help people get more comfortable with coming up with and using simple, custom-crafted visuals (some of which may draw on project tracking data) for this purpose instead. So the process for coming up with visuals is more important here than the actual visuals themselves.

      • Tarang Baxi
        By Tarang Baxi  ~  4 years ago
        reply Reply

        Also in my experience trying to do this in crisis situations on real projects I've found the need to supplement common radiators with lots of custom diagrams, graphs and charts that focus providing insights on specific problems (e.g. estimation variance, feature size vs defect count, etc)

  • steve ropa
    By steve ropa  ~  4 years ago
    reply Reply

    HiTarang,

    I like a lot of what you have to say in your slides and description.  I am a very visual thinker myself, and find I can understand things more clearly with a picture than any other way.  So I am left with two questions I hope you can help me with:

    1.  Your description and comments imply that this workshop is focusing squarely on when there is a crisis and what to do about it, represented visually.  Am I understanding this correctly?

    2. Do you talk at all about how to support those visualizations when the audience may not be as visually/spatially oriented?

     

    Thanks for considering these questions,

    Steve

    • Tarang Baxi
      By Tarang Baxi  ~  4 years ago
      reply Reply

      Hi Steve,

      Thank you for the comments and questions. Answers below.

      1. I've found that for project steady state, teams do use common visual tools to communicate status or spot blockers, etc - e.g. burn-up charts, cumulative flow diagrams, build status monitors, etc. However for more nuanced or specific communication particularly in crisis situations, I've seen teams (me included) fall back to textual descriptions of challenges and solutions, possibly because there aren't standard visual tools available and many of us find it hard to craft custom visuals. Hence the focus here is on ideas for sparking that creativity and showing participants that its not very difficult to use visuals - its only a question of practice.


      2. Both my co-presenter, Chirag and I don't consider ourselves to be natural visual thinkers and are quite terrible at drawing. But a couple of years ago, we were very inspired by the book 'Back of the Napkin' by Dan Roam that got us started down the path of using visuals in our everyday work. We've come to realize that using some techniques and some practice we could cultivate our visual and spatial skills. We do cover some simple techniques from the book that we think can get anyone started down the same path, even if they don't think of themselves as visually inclined.

      Does this answer your questions?

  • Joel Tosi
    By Joel Tosi  ~  4 years ago
    reply Reply

    Hi Tarang,

      I appreciate this submission, it helps people be creative and more expressive, hopefully leading to better communication.  When you have ran this session in the past, what type of questions come up?

     

    Will you be providing sample data to work with or expecting the audience to have some data to use?

     

    Best,

    Joel

    • Tarang Baxi
      By Tarang Baxi  ~  4 years ago
      reply Reply

      Hi Joel,

      When we ran this in the past, at the start participants asked whether people needed to have particular drawing skills (Ans: No), or be skilled in use of graphing and drawing tools (Ans: No). Later in the sessions questions were around our experience using custom-visuals on real projects (Ans: We've been trying to use them a lot, but not nearly enough; we're still on the path to developing our visual thinking skills, but we've try to practice it every opportunity that we get).

      We do provide sample data for the initial part of the project simulation. For the rest of it though, based on the kinds of challenges we list, we ask the team to improvise actual data points, because the focus is not on the math or the data, but on the visualization and visual communication process.

  • Sachin goel
    By Sachin goel  ~  4 years ago
    reply Reply

    Hi - I am curious to know if some of your suggestions for the visuals require additional data gathering over the project lifecycle, which may not have been collected otherwise. Additionally, are these visuals driven from any standard practices / theories or evolved over time due to extensive usage? Thanks - Sachin

     

    • Tarang Baxi
      By Tarang Baxi  ~  4 years ago
      reply Reply

      Hi Sachin,

      Thanks for the comment. The types of visuals we focus on typically don't require additional data gathering if you're using most types of electronic card tracking tool (like Mingle, Pivotal Tracker, Jira, etc). So if you're already tracking things like cycle times, estimate changes, new scope vs baseline, defect severity, etc then thats already sufficient. Also there isn't a fixed set of visuals that we talk about. The focus is on coming up with simple visuals to effectively communicate the core messages you're trying to get across. These would obviously vary from situation to situation.

      Does this answer your questions?


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    Can you go faster with less weight?

    We have all learned the benefit of reusing application servers like JBoss, ORMs like NHibernate or dependency injection frameworks like Spring that "solve all the plumbing code for you", but how real are these benefits really? Most developers struggle using techniques like test-driven development and refactoring effectively in their day to day project. Many developers spend a majority of their day finding out which magic incantations will make your framework solve your requirement.

    Yes, frameworks probably will reduce the size of your code base. But will their reduce the time it takes to develop that code base? And perhaps even more pressingly: How certain are your estimates when you know that a the majority of your work is to find out exactly which few lines of code you need to change by debugging, reading documentation and searching for answers on stack overflow?

    When I was first learning math, my dad told me that I didn't to use a calculator before I could do the math without it. In the same tradition, this talk builds on the premise that you shouldn't use a framework that you can't do without: I will create, live, a realistic web application without generators, without frameworks and without bullshit. Instead, I will use test-driven development to ensure steady progress to a solution with no magic.