Agile Project Management Tips #5: Broadcast with Information Radiators

First coined by Alistair Cockburn, an information radiator is the “generic term for any of a number of handwritten, drawn, printed or electronic displays which a team places in a highly visible location, so that all team members as well as passers-by can see the latest information at a glance.” Information radiators provide succinct visual messages for anyone who is in the area; similar to how a construction zone sign proclaims “187 days without an accident” to both workers and those who drive by. The goal is to convey current project status to people who are not involved on a day-to-day basis and to provide enough information to avoid interrupting the team with questions. Posting this information also implies that the team acknowledges the status of the project and is willing to share it with anyone.

Information radiators are one of the best low-tech devices for broadcasting the status of a project. Since they are visibly posted, it is a passive process. No one has to seek out the status or refresh a web page. As Cockburn mentions “online files and web pages generally do not make good information radiators, because an information radiator needs to be visible without significant effort on the part of the viewer.”

Our information radiator shows:
  • The current sprint’s stories and related tasks
  • A Kanban-style board with work under progress
  • The current build number and timestamp
  • The most recent release number and timestamp
  • All the stories from the product backlog
Other items that might be useful to post are:
  • A graphical display of the number of tests planned versus passing
  • Any planned resolutions discussed during the most recent sprint review
  • The status of any of the team members if they will be on vacation or otherwise unavailable
At a glance, anyone can tell how many more items are in the backlog for the current project and which stories are under development during a sprint.

Information radiator showing product backlog
and retrospective of previous release
When we first started using an information radiator the work space presented some challenges. It lacked large areas of windows or walls, and the facilities staff was reluctant to hang whiteboards due to the newness of recent renovations. Also, the development area was in a quieter spot, so not many people passed by.

Fortunately, we overcame those problems. Instead of a whiteboard, we used the cubicle walls for posting the backlog. Since it was difficult to get sticky notes to adhere to fuzzy cubicle walls, putting a long piece of strapping tape on the cubicles made a non-porous surface that worked better. The development area lacked space to display everything together, so we compromised by posting the backlog in one area, and the sprint status items in a slightly different area, but still visible from one spot. Moreover, passing traffic increased when sales materials were stored in an area just past development. Now the sales and training staff pass by the information radiator on a daily basis. Recently I saw a sales person looking at the cards, understanding what we are working on.

The biggest benefit of the information radiator is for the team itself. It creates a sense of completion as the backlog whittles down, and the sight of a once-daunting project dwindling down to a small tail of outstanding stories is a sure morale booster.

The Agile Alliance has more about information radiators here.

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