Post-It Notes aren't Agile - they're wallpaper

Post-it® notes are the life-blood of Agile. So we're told. Those little flaps of paper, usually hastily scribbled on, are the only way to prove you're Doing It Right™.

I'm not a big fan. They're environmentally wasteful, inaccessible, and a bit crap for remote workers. But some people love them, so who am I to judge?

Recently, I visited a fairly large company who are making the painful transition from providing mega-software into to being a nimble, digital supplier. Their walls were plentifully decorated with multi-coloured Post-it® notes.

Decorated being the operative word. A quick glance at them showed titles like "To-Do 2018" and "Easter Fire-Break" and "FAO Jerry".

"Who is Jerry?" I asked.

"Oh... I think he left a few months back," came the reply.

Now, not all of the Kanban Boards were outdated - some were obviously in use and had teams performing their daily rituals in front of them. But the majority seemed abandoned.

Perhaps abandoned is too strong a word. They were like cave paintings. Evidence of the hunt, sure, but now decorations to be marvelled at. A way to indoctrinate new members of the tribe.

Perhaps the Post-it® notes were good-luck charms. A steady stream of investors would have walked through the hallways and seen "evidence" of an advanced civilisation.

Perhaps the Post-it® notes were to ward off evil spirits. A cranky manager would have been mollified that his team were truly agile, and then left them alone in peace to carry on their waterfall development.

What I'm trying to say is this. You can't put up wallpaper and pretend it is structural transformation.

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9 thoughts on “Post-It Notes aren't Agile - they're wallpaper”

  1. Agree with the sentiments of your post and it doesn't take long before a neglected kanban board resembles an abandoned building as post-its peel and fall to the floor. I particularly like the cave drawings reference though, many of these boards look like they were created with crude implements in a forgotten language.

  2. Andres Hermosilla says:

    True, but the same can be said of digital boards. The problem with digital boards however is that they hide abnormalities. At least when you walk into a "physical shop" like the one you described, you knew immediately that they were not transforming....they were just wallpaper. That's the whole point of this technique, see problems early and do something about it. Don't pass on bad work. See TPS

    1. Anders is right. It’s all about the agile mindset and principle of transparency. What you’re observing is lack of transparency not abuse of post-it notes. Blaming post-its is easy. The hard question for your leadership is if some teams are not being transparent by not keeping their boards up to date, what are they going to do about it?

      1. rmvt says:

        I disagree. Digital boards can show as much (and as little) and in fact they can show it in a lot more detail if you want them to. That should help you assess the situation in a much better way. On the contrary, the “physical shop” boards hide information and require people to maintain more than one board (nobody actually uses just the physical board). I’ve had countless discussions around this and I’ve never been presented with a decent enough argument that adequatelly portrays physical boards as the better choice. Again, the transparency argument is a fallacy.

        From my experience post-its are usually a sign of something else – the “we’re agile” mentality. The problem is that it’s just that, a mentality. There’s not much “agile” going on and people that work this way usually just push down their vision of what agile is on everybody else. They have their interpretation of the agile values and defend it as religious belief, even when it’s clearly not working. They cannot fathom that just like a lot of things, you should question those principles and find out if they’re really working for you. It’s not because it’s written and a lot of people force it that it works for everyone, all the time.

  3. says:

    I agree with the sentiment, but I'd fear anyone thinking that the alternative to Post-it® is to squirrel away into an hour long meeting sat round a screen while people dryly take turns to explain why lines on a Gantt chart are where they are to noone else listening.

    The act of huddling round this self adhesive wallpaper is the rapid collaboration ceremony that inspires inclusion. The very act of scrawling a few notes on a piece of coloured paper and handing it to other members of your team is a way of taking joint accountability. As an agile coach introducing these concepts I deliberately ask members to hold the cards before positioning on the boards, or pass it between the team as they add acceptance criteria.

    Yes it's wasteful.

    But there are interesting magnetic alternatives for professionals. This approach almost guarantees their use because of the extra cost. That is at least until a screen solution fulfils the tactile bond between work items and the team members that are handling the stories.

    1. says:

      You say "inspires inclusion". How do you blind employees work with post-its? Do your remote workers feel included if they can't alter the board? Do your dyspraxic colleagues feel nervous every time they have to hand-write something? Do your short team mates get frustrated when tall people unthinkingly put the notes at the top of the board?
      Inclusivity means making sure it works for everyone - not just people who are similar to you.

      1. says:

        Powerful points Edent, and I agree that these would be barriers. I meant that it encourages people to attend who might not have done it before. I absolutely fight for ensuring that facilities in the work place work for the entire workforce. When the workforce changes that's when you innovate, and I would love to encourage more diversity in the workplace.

        I'm not convinced that digital is the only alternative.

  4. says:

    Funny story about sticky notes...

    I was on a team where I swear the leads were in bed with 3M, they used so many. We had a whole conference room COVERED in them. No matter how often we begged them to put it into something easier to share, they insisted that this had the best "energy."

    One long weekend, the AC went out at the building. No big deal, no one's in, so they weren't in a rush to fix it... When it came back on, something was weird and it got BLASTED, turning our floor into an icebox.

    Something about this combo caused all the stickies to NOT be sticky. We came in to a meeting room carpeted with notes... The leads tried to convince us to spend a day transfering them and putting them back up, but we ignored them and transferred the notes where they should have been: A set of shared docs.


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