How Mural supports Agile, from learning to development
September 1, 2023
Originally defined by the Agile Manifesto in 2001 to rethink software development, Agile has shifted over time to be more relevant to mainstream business. Partly because of that shift, it has also become a much-maligned approach in some circles, where deployment problems appear to outweigh intended benefits.
At The Institute of Design (ID) at Illinois Tech the author saw an opportunity to explore the integration of human-centered design and Agile to create a healthier working relationship. Basic Scrum practices were connected to IBM Design Thinking which bridged strategy to epic creation as foundational skills connecting strategy to work items through informed decomposition and traceability that deliver desired outcomes. Since its founding by Bauhaus émigré László Moholy-Nagy in 1937, ID unites science and rigor with creativity and rapid iteration turning design into a powerful tool anyone can use to transform systems that shape lives
What is Agile?
The original Agile Manifesto defined key principles to refocus software development on doing relevant and good work, including the following concepts:
Direct collaboration with diverse roles, skills, and experiences will improve the delivery of a solution
Team must be aligned through a social contract that guides all behaviors to increase communication, cadence, and velocity of the team
Open communication and visible work with shared tools and platforms drive daily work through stand-ups and showcases to show progress as it happens
Complex systems are broken down into small units of work, resulting in a clear backlog of work to be done that's assigned to team members through a Kanban
Every team member must understand how their work item maps back to the goal — if it doesn't map back, the team may question or cancel it
The principle of “fail early and fast” drives continuous learning and helps teams iterate towards a goal
Teams achieve real-time accountability through consistent feedback loops to requirement changes and market shifts
Time-boxing and maintaining a constant pace with frequent checkpoints avoids over-delivery, bloat, and scope creep
After every major delivery, the team reflects on what went right, what went wrong, and what opportunities there are to improve
These principles weren’t considered a list of separate to-dos; rather, a value-chain of codified laser-focused behaviors working together in a system. This system meant that individuals and teams could affect operations and take ownership of work items to deliver value through targeted work units.
How does Agile connect to human-centered design?
From a human-centered perspective, design thinking and research methods help reframe perceived problems into more powerful and meaningful opportunities to solve. This is referred to as "doing the right work." Agile primarily aims to "do the work right" by breaking down abstract goals and objectives into clear work units (usually called features and functions) drafted, refined, and prioritized through sprints.
Connecting human-centered design and Agile is critical to empowering teams to be more self-directed and reducing wasted time and effort. Understanding of strategy and ownership of work items by a team is critical. With experienced Agile teams, it's common to question a story or group of stories in the backlog, and recommend not implementing specific epics or stories because it's not meeting current or future goals, or it doesn't provide the correct value.
Scrum (the foundation for Agile) has mutated into many flavors, such as:
Dynamic System Development Method (DSDM)
Crystal, Feature-Driven Development
Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe)
Adaptive Software Development
Each is used in specific organizational and application contexts and has created an industry. The effects of these different agile approaches have a spotty track record. The Harvard Business Review special issue of “Agile at Scale” identified several key problems with Agile implementations, including:
Focus on big-bang transformations in risk-averse environments
Focus on employees needing to change, but not management
Struggling with reorganization of slow moving bureaucracies
Defending the status quo
Discomfort with reduced control for management
Most companies hear about Agile to accelerate production by doing things faster. Unfortunately, in the context of modern work, this focus on speed has added more protocols and gates, which slows work down and increases stress. That’s because companies stop at identifying doing the right work and don't know how to prioritize, implement, and continuously map doing the work right (called decomposition) back to the right work (called traceability).
The result: Agile has been reduced to a series of unworkable mandates in an attempt to increase speed within risk-averse cultures, rather than retraining workforces at a fundamental level to be more communicative, collaborative, and iterative.
The recent pandemic forced organizations to use distributed software platforms working from home offices, accelerating many Agile principles in a fractured way without understanding them. A new phrase, “new ways of working” emerged, which abstracted many Agile attributes to create a more flexible, responsive, and resilient way for organizations and teams to meet company objectives. This was a good turn of events for employees, who could take direct ownership of work without traditional managerial oversight.
Unfortunately, to be autonomous, nimble, and effective, teams need clarity on why they are building, and confidence that they are doing the right work. While virtual work proved distributed work could be accomplished without workers being co-located in offices five days a week, there are still many problems with communication, collaboration, and outcomes.
Integrating Agile into design planning
A common problem when implementing any strategy is figuring out how to translate the abstractions of purpose into detailed work items.
The main reason for this problem is that strategy is about intent and purpose at the macro level, while planning is about taking a strategy and operationalizing it to meet specific objectives. A strategy is only as good as its plan, and an outcome is only as good as the plan defining the details to achieve the strategy and supplying the resources to secure it. There are too many barriers between all of them.
For many years, there was no reliable way to connect a strategy to work items consistently. Design thinking is good at defining the right work — but not at managing the work. Agile is good at getting work done — but not usually associated with strategy.
Role of digital platforms
So, how do you bring them together to drive business outcomes? The challenge is moving from the qualitative reframing of problems to the creation of solutions that are ready for the market.
What they discovered was that Mural is well-suited to helping Agile teams “plan the plan.” Program increment (PI) planning, for instance, brings multiple teams together to align on vision and mission, discuss capabilities, plan the development cycles, and identify dependencies. Mural provides a dynamic online space for teams to sort out these conversations over several days, regardless of team member location.
One Institute of Design (ID) student in the Design + MBA program, Arrenius Karunakaran, used Mural for his team’s project work.
“Mural is the place where you actually see the work. That’s how you achieve transparency in all subsequent conversations. The end result is better alignment of work and of team members.” -Arrenius Karunakaran
One of the critical values of Agile is that there is no hidden work. There should be total transparency about all work items, and every team member should be able to view, interact with, and monitor (through notifications) the progress of specific work items over time.
In later development phases, Mural also serves as a shared space to conduct daily standups, hold retrospectives, and unblock team members with creative problem solving. It’s not just an “up-front” tool for research and planning — the value of working visually for everyone to see and get aligned continues throughout the Agile process.
A considerable challenge to using several digital platforms together is the cognitive overload due to 1) using multiple platforms; and 2) using various channels within a platform that are always on. This continual wave of updates can cause stress. People feel overwhelmed when they can't keep up.
That’s why it's essential to choose platforms carefully, and to be clear about what each platform is used for. With the rise of APIs, specific capabilities in one platform can be connected to another platform as an ecosystem of continuous improvement. API integrations between platforms can help increase collaboration, clarity and reduce cognitive load. In the course Agile Culture, the professor clearly defined what each platform was to be used for and how they worked together.
While a well-integrated tool stack is necessary to cover different project needs and team communication patterns, it can also lead to confusion. During his project work, Karunakaran’s team struggled with multiple locations for conversations and documents.
“Mural provided a single source of truth,” Karunakaran told us. “It became the reference point to disambiguate diverging understandings or opinions.”
An example of this was when student teams used relative estimating in Mural to size their stories in GitHub. Moving stories between small, medium, and large efforts and continually moving them based on story comparisons allowed for greater sizing accuracy. The results were reimported back into specific GitHub stories.
Using Mural as a bridge in Agile
Mural’s key value is for organizations to quickly visualize shared content that can influence how work is rationalized and implemented.
Templates provide a great starting place for teams to quickly leverage Mural as a bridge to organize work in Agile development. While a rich template library already exists, every team and every situation requires customization. Having the ability to be flexible and to adapt existing design and Agile practices to meet the needs of specific contexts is key. As a dynamic, customizable workspace, Mural provides the right balance of structure and freedom.
Mural’s core value is frictionless collaboration in a defined space. It’s a mapping and relationships platform, where creativity and ambiguity are explored for improved thinking, group alignment, and a greater understanding of concepts and frameworks that are then directed at specific initiatives and work items.
With the rise of data and automation, Mural has responded by carefully opening up the platform to other services on other platforms that teams use to complete their work.
In both Institute of Design courses “Agile Culture” and “Agile for Design Outcomes,” Mural was instrumental in accelerating team performance by providing focused socialization of concepts and details for teams to quickly get to work and focus on their content to propel them forward.
Example murals used in the “Agile for Design Outcomes” course:
Mural was an essential ideation platform for Institute of Design students to collaborate, map, and align on critical issues that refined user-centered strategies and operationalized implementation definitions to create an informed backlog of work.
Using specific Murals to decompose a goal into details can keep the relationship between strategy and tactics clear and aligned. When connecting human-centered design efforts to Agile, Mural is a bridge to organize, explore, align, and reframe the right work and begin to understand how to do emerging work right.
Using Mural’s APIs into GitHub, teams can transfer content quickly to repositories for further action. Mural content can help in the creation of epics, stories, and sizing of a backlog of work to continually trace back to purpose and accelerate overall team progress.
A note about the authors
Adam Kallish is a trained designer and professor at the Institute of Design. His career has focused on systems design and merging human-centered design to Agile for a purpose-driven and aligned culture. "Can Design be Agile" addresses his key learnings. He also was part of the enterprise rollout of Mural at IBM and has been an active user of Mural since 2014.
Jim Kalbach, Mural’s Chief Evangelist, worked in Agile teams for over a decade as a designer. However, his two latest books — Mapping Experiences and the Jobs To Be Done Playbook — point to a more strategic orientation of connecting human-centered thinking to the development and delivery of products and services.
About the authors
About the authors
Instructor, Illinois Institute of Technology
An articulate, proactive practitioner with entrepreneurial abilities, Adam has an established history of leading creative and technical teams for consultancies and enterprises.
Jim is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in innovation, design, and the future of work. He is currently Chief Evangelist at Mural, the leading visual work platform.