“Can we go back to the Excel Backlog?”

The day I heard my organization was transitioning to Rally was an exciting one. I couldn’t wait to retire what seemed like an antiquated method of managing the team backlogs. I talked it up. I started some serious trash talking about our current method of using Excel and insisted that this would change our world… and it did.

Do you remember being introduced to that sweet kid, Anakin Skywalker in Episode I? If you suspended your Star Wars knowledge of what was to come, you’d have had high hopes. Here was this incredible rising prodigy with an amazing tool at his disposal. This lovable 9-year-old underdog, living in the slums and still innovating beyond his years is met by Jedis who can help him master the force and use it for the good of the empire. Except that’s not what happens, is it? Watch a couple more episodes and we meet the jackwagon of all bottom-feeders, Darth Vadar.

I’m not suggesting that my teams became Darth Vadar. I am however proposing that some of their leadership did. Here, we had a talented group of individuals that were thriving and now exposed to a device that could help improve their day to day activities. This tool however, was used for the wrong reasons. The force was strong. And the force was more concerned with using this as a control mechanism vs. a planning tool. And so began a long and arduous journey of having to protect and serve my teams in a manner I had not anticipated.

It’s worth noting that there were definite wins with the new system. We certainly embraced the user-friendly interface and ability to manage and measure our workflow. These obvious benefits however became overshadowed by the dark side. At least once a day, we were asked why we didn’t have our task hours booked for 100% of the actual hours we would be at our desks during the 3-week iterations. There were also about 56 new metrics that were presented to us, oftentimes with zero context. To the credit of the distributors, they at least did us the favor of jazzing them up with some pretty yellow and red colors across the endless lines of data. The questions that arose were not bad. The pressures that came along with those questions however, impacted everyone. Fear became a driving force. With every action came a reaction and the bad practices bred even worse habits. It really hit home for me when I heard a teammate ask “Can we go back to the Excel Backlog?”

If we fast forward about 5-years, there’s a happy place with rainbows and butterflies. But we didn’t get there without our battle wounds. In retrospect, there were things we could have done differently to have avoided our own Star Wars episode. Failing to educate our leadership created chaos. Turmoil had engulfed our empire and the Jedis were just as much to blame as those who were misguiding the force that had been thrust upon them. Lucky for us, there was no revenge, but it took more to achieve an awakening than had we prevented the phantom from surfacing in the first place.


4 thoughts on ““Can we go back to the Excel Backlog?”

  1. I am a product owner who is not allowed to talk to the team. Instead I should talk with the head of development as a proxy. Isn’t that kinda weird or even more Ironie?


    • Yes, that is weird.
      How about a dialogue, or feedback as part of the demo’s (sprint or release demonstrations), I used to set-up a structured Q&A as part of the demo.
      Structured mostly so developer’s/engineers learn to say, “we’ll review and prioritize”, versus ‘sure that’s easy’… But it provides a great forum for negotiations, and direct questions to the Product Owner from the builders themselves, just needs to be couched in stories and epics. [ Scrummaster insert yourself here as broker.] – 2 cents – Derrek


  2. Every time I teach or coach a new team, I use low-res tools: whiteboards, a paper-based kanban board, lots of post-its and hand-made, paper or whiteboard based, burndown charts. After all, individuals and interactions over processes and tools. So, using your reference (kudos here also), I prefer to harness midi-chlorians prior to use tools that can also be used to build the Death Star. As quite a lot of my teams are formed by remote workers, we use a lot of Google tools, such as Google Spreadsheets instead of your Excel. We even ended up working with automated burndown charts using the Google Spreadsheets tools. More recently, I had the opportunity of working with teams I trained on low-res tools and now we are moving to Atlassian tools. In a nutshell my question is: has your team worked on low-res tools prior to going to Excel or Rally? Did your team harness enough midi-chlorians? May the force be with you!


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