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Tag Archives: #azure boards

  • Scrum Master with kanban board.

    A little bit of styling can really help with your process. Using card colours can remove motion waste and save you time searching for things. Highlight, don't hide and run stylish stand-ups.


    Following on from my previous post there is much more styling you can do in Azure Boards. My favourite thing to do is to really lean in to the process with styles. Take daily stand-ups, they happen at the same time every working day and typically ask the same three questions:

    1. What did I complete since the last meeting?
    2. What will I do before the next meeting?
    3. What blockers and other issues are standing in the way of the sprint goal?

    All of these questions should be answered in the context of the sprint goal so lets make that really clear using a marketplace extension: Azure DevOps - Sprint Goal. This creates an extra tab at the top where you can keep your goal in mind.

    Next, remember that the reason for the stand-up is to discuss the sprint work items and their progress not focus on the team members doing the work. To that end I prefer to Group By: Parents so that work items are visible on the left.

    Group By Parents

    This does mean that some team members might speak multiple times as each item comes up but the order of discussion is in backlog priority. If you want to quickly see all work for a person use the person filter at the top.

    This is what a typical board might look like (note the sprint goal in the tabs at the top):

    Typical task board

    Even without seeing the detail I can tell this board has:

    • one task recently completed [green]
    • a task that is blocked (and its corresponding work item also blocked) [red]
    • a task where someone is requesting help [blue]
    • a task that is too large and needs to be split into something smaller [purple]
    • a task that has not moved recently and could be blocked [yellow]

    There is also an unrealistic amount of work scheduled for today since there is 12 hours of task in progress.

    How does this help with the standup? Lets go through the questions above, one by one. But first, these depend on having your stand-up at the same time every day. Styling based on date fields is a bit of a blunt instrument so if you vary your standup time they won’t work.

    What did I complete since the last meeting?

    For this I want to highlight tasks that were moved to the done state since the last meeting.

    Tasks done since last meeting

    • State = Done
    • Closed Date > @Today-1 (this is the magic, since yesterday selector)

    During the standup you can concentrate on your green tasks for this question.

    What will I do before the next meeting?

    Most people move tasks to in progress when they start working on them. I prefer to use it as a today view and place all the work I intend to do today in this bucket. That way I can see that:

    • I’m not taking on too much work because the sum of hours should be less than a working day. Typically 6 or 8 hours depending if you factor in some slack time to cover non-project work.
    • If at the end of the day there are tasks left I can make a call to work a little longer or accept the impact.
    • Similarly, if I finish early then I can also make a call to pull more work into the in progress bucket or see if anyone needs help on their tasks.

    Before I start moving tasks I want to make sure they are all small enough to fit into a single day’s work. This style rule shows them as [purple]. Its purple because I associate the colour with royalty and they are too posh to actually do any work.

    Tasks that are too large

    • Remaining Work > 8 (or use 6 if you factor in slack time)

    What blockers and other issues are standing in the way of the sprint goal?

    This last question uses the remaining style rules. We already saw how to highlight blocked tasks:

    Blocked Task Rule

    • Blocked = Yes
    • State = In Progress

    and blocked backlog items:

    Blocked Backlog Item Rule

    • Work Item Type <> Task
    • Tags Contains blocked

    But there are other styles that can highlight blockers. Firstly, if a task has not moved from the in progress state in the last day then something must be wrong since they are all supposed to be less than a day in size. Note, if you decide to stop working on a task and defer it to a later date I encourage you to update the remaining work value and move it back to the to do pile to keep the in progress = today list correct.

    To highlight these stuck tasks the following rule works.

    Task In Progress To Long

    • State = In Progress
    • State Change Date < @Today

    Finally, the [blue] task is simply a team member adding a help-needed tag. Blue represents ‘emergency services’ in my head. Since the goal of a sprint is to complete work and not start work, I prefer that the team works as a team instead of a bunch of individuals working in their own areas. To that extent, its always better to help someone else complete a backlog item than it is fo you to start something that potentially won’t get done in time. This is especially true in the second week of a two-week sprint.

    Task with Help Needed

    • Tags Contains help-needed


    Just a quick note on colour blindness. I know many folks might have trouble differentiating the colours I’ve used here so work with your team to identify combinations of hue and brightness that allows everyone to visually distinguish each style.

    I really like using styles to highlight areas for action. If you have a style rule not listed here then I would love to learn about it.

    Photo by Parabol | The Agile Meeting Toolbox on Unsplash This is clever marketing by offering great images for free so when attribution is made then your company name shows up in relevant web sites. However I am not making any recommendations here; only attributing the photo.

    This entry was posted in agile  and tagged #lean #azure devops #azure boards #card styles #blocked #opinion  on .
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  • Brightly coloured graffiti decorating the High Street Subway in Belfast City Centre.

    Tags are the simplest of concepts in Azure DevOps and other work item tracking systems. When you combine them with visual styles they become a powerful user experience feature.

    Whilst I was researching content for Task, state, column or work item? I came across Promoting “Blocked” to State from Status on Agile Board for better visibility which, IMHO, is absolutely the worst way to solve the problem of blocked work items. One of the comments even mentions creating a swimlane to put blocked items in which is especially bad since you can collapse the lane and forget about all your problems.

    There are a number of reasons why a blocked column is a poor choice most of which discussed here:

    Using my rules for states also implies that the only thing you can do to a blocked work item is to unblock it which isn’t the case.

    A far better way to indicated blockage is with tags. Leave the work item where it is and add the blocked tag. Don’t forget to add a comment as to why its blocked and, if possible, some tasks for getting it unblocked. The plain visual doesn’t stand out much but you can apply some colour either as a tag colour: Blocked tag colour dialog or card styling: Blocked card style dialog

    which looks like Blocked card … no missing that.

    The same principle also works for tasks on on the taskboard but instead a field called blocked is used instead. Blocked task

    Tags are so flexible you can use them in all sorts of ways. Some ideas for you:

    • Forgo the initiative backlog level, its always got only one or two items in and never any useful description or acceptance critera. Instead just tag your work items.
    • Use tags to differentiate different types of work item such as story, question, decision etc. This is more often used in the basic process.
    • Use tags to call out things - needs-discussion, ux-required, out-of-date, expired, etc

    Unfortunately, since tags have very little governance they can get a little out of hand. I use Tags Manager to merge misspellings and other issues.

    Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

    This entry was posted in agile  and tagged #lean #azure devops #azure boards #card styles #blocked #opinion  on .
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  • The look of someone who is not where he is supposed to be. My dog Thula looking rather sheepish as a puppy.

    It can be confusing knowing how to represent something in Azure DevOps. Should it be a work item? What about a task or new work item state? Here is my guide for you to classify with confidence.


    I see a lot of different interpretations on how to classify content in Azure DevOps. What makes something a work item? What is the difference between a state and a board column? I mean why am I even discussing states and columns in the same post as tasks and work items? Let’s dive in and look at each individually.

    Work Item

    The primary use for a work item is to capture something of value that needs to be delivered. If you were to describe the item to your customer and they respond with disinterest in you working on it then maybe you should consider one of the other three. I choose the work item level depending on the type of value:

    • Epic: it is a waste to just call these ‘large stories’. Instead consider them as goals or capabilities you want to deliver.
    • Feature: a complete chunk of value your end customer will understand. Imagine writing a user guide, these are the sections that users will search for.
    • PBI: might not all be user stories but most are and since stories are small and negotiable they tend to be considered a bullet point on a feature for end users. This is especially true once you have split stories to fit in sprints.

    Work Item State

    I don’t think folks pay much attention to states and generally treat them as a set of steps that work goes though until its done. This gives rise to my pet hate - the testing state, the idea that you don’t do any testing until the work has cleared development.

    I prefer to think of work item states in the same way as state machines:

    • A work item can only exist in one state at a time (obviously).
    • A state defines the set of events that can be handled and actions that can be performed.
    • Events determine transitions to other states.

    This is why, for cross functional scrum teams, the four states should be all that are needed:

    • New: candidate ideas, not yet on the backlog.
    • Approved: work items that are on the product backlog.
    • Committed: work items that match the sprint goal and are on the sprint backlog.
    • Done: work items that meet the done criteria and are potentially shippable.

    A cross functional team will perform all sorts of tasks on a work item in a committed state - writing code, updating documentation, writing test automation, performing exploratory testing, bug fixing, merging pull requests, etc. All of these happen iteratively and often concurrently.

    If your states represent the steps in a waterfall process then you are doing mini-waterfalls.

    More states equals longer cycle times - I once had a customer who had 20 states from new to done and was releasing work quarterly. By the time we finished transforming their process we had 4 states and releasing weekly.

    So where does it make sense to create new states? The only times I’ve needed to are for integrating into a wider, non-agile, organization at a feature or epic level. For example, if you have mandatory a hand-off of features to other teams - for example quality assurance then adding a new state at the feature level is possible.

    Board Column

    Board columns are a little like states but are only visible to the team that owns the board. For this reason the rules governing their use can be a little more relaxed but less is still better. An example of board columns I use regularly at feature or epic level is to rename the in progress column to now then add next and later columns. This gives a simple roadmap view of the future but its no different than using iteration paths.


    You have probably figured out by now that I think nearly everything that isn’t of identifiable value to the customer should be a task. Personally, I use tasks for everything. If its not written as a task I invariably forget about it. Plus the little dopamine hit you get from ticking a task off feels great throughout the day.

    Testing…task; writing documentation…task; reviewing a PR…task; updating a build script…task; if in doubt…make it a task.

    The one time this sometimes isn’t so simple is for bugs. If you find a bug in a PBI before its done is it really a bug? I wish Azure DevOps would allow you to create bug-tasks like JIRA that work like tasks but visually appear as bugs. Until then I prefer to create another task but style the card on the task board. Bug work items are reserved for defects found after the PBI has been completed and the sprint ended. This differentiation also helps calculate the escaped defect ratio for sprints.

    To aid with all these tasks there is a fabulous extension called 1-Click Child-Links but sadly I don’t think its been maintained and there are now plenty of issues. Alternatively using the az boards work-item command line can alleviate some of the grunt work.


    Hopefully the above provides a little bit of guidance on the use of various Azure Board features. What I haven’t talked about are tags which are incredibly useful when it comes to removing columns and states. More on this in a later post.

    Photo by James Snape on Flickr

    This entry was posted in agile  and tagged #azure boards #azure devops #opinion #work items  on .
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