Monday, 23 June 2014

Print Your Sprint Sticky Notes... or Not?

Printed sticky notes in action
I usually use a task board and a burn chart to help track my training courses and to make the progress visible to all attendees. I also let the trainees take turns in updating the task board in my Agile fundamentals course.

Having to repeatedly handwrite sticky notes over and over led me to figuring out a way to print the sticky notes instead of writing them by hand. Later, my training coordinators decided to assume responsibility for printing the stickies along with the other preparations they need to make ahead of each run, giving me even more reasons to like the idea.

With almost every run, many attendees show admiration of the nice looking sticky notes and ask me to share the tools I use. They also look puzzled and disappointed when they feel my reluctance to share the secret. The reasons for my hesitation are not probably easy to digest for those just starting their agile journey! That doesn’t help either.

Why it might not be a good idea to print your iteration sticky note

There is a certain, essential I might claim, quality in having team members define and write their own sticky notes. It encourages participation and does not place an authority on defining tasks. Even inside an iteration, when someone discovers a missed task (which happens more often that you’d like to), there should be no restrictions on defining the new task and making it immediately visible. The more steps needed to prepare a task the more cumbersome it gets. What's worse is when the printing process becomes a filtering process with someone effectively in control of wording, or becomes in a position to question the validity of a task or its estimate. 

So if you ultimately decide to print your sprint sticky notes, because they look cool or because the handwriting of half the team sucks, make sure the process is easy and accessible to all your team members. It might also be a good idea to pre-print a few blank sticky notes with only branding and design elements to hold the task, estimate, actual, remaining, or whatever you need. This will make it easy for the team to write their emerging tasks by hand and have them blend in the batch that was printed after or during iteration planning. 
Finally, if you find that printing adds to the sprint overhead, or causes the team not to immediately go to work after sprint planning because they are waiting for the tasks to be printed, then drop it immediately, its evil! 

How to print those sticky notes anyway?

If all that didn't deter you, here's the technique. It’s not difficult at all. I use an inkjet, and I feel it might not be a good idea to try a laser printer. The later produces a lot more heat while printing, which might cause the sticky notes glue to loosen while they are rotating around the drum. That's definitely not the kind of paper jam I want to risk. 

What you need to do is lay the sticky notes as flat and straight as possible in defined locations on an A4 or letter sized template, then feed that template through the printer and voila, you have printed sticky notes. When feeding the template with the affixed sticky notes through the printer, you must ensure that the adhesive side of the sticky notes goes into the printer before the loose side. If not, you're asking for a paper jam!

You can download the PowerPoint file I use for this task from here. Feel free to edit it as you deem appropriate. The first slide is my A4 template prepared for, the typical, 75x75 mm sticky notes. The second slide is where I fill in the information I want printed on sticky notes, along with simple design elements and branding. The design in the second slide accommodates for 6 sticky notes of that size. The procedure is very simple:

1- Print as many copies of the template slide (slide 1) as you need for your sticky notes. For instance, if you need to print 60 sticky notes, print 10 copies of the template.

Sticky notes placed on
template and ready for
2- Affix blank sticky notes onto your printed templates, alighn the notes to the printed boxes, making sure the sticky side of the note is closer to the word top printed on top of the template page. This ensures that the sticky side goes through the printer first, as I explained already. Try to keep the sticky notes as straight and flat as possible, this is easily accomplished by trying not to bend the sticky note as you pull it off the stack. 

3- Go back to PowerPoint, duplicate slide 2 as many times as needs, then fill in the details for each sticky notes. You are now ready to print.

4- Put the template with the affixed sticky notes in the printer paper feeder. If you have a separate feeder for heavier paper, use that. Inkjet printers usually print on the bottom side of the page, so you need to place the template with the sticky notes facing down. Check your printer to make sure this is true, otherwise you'll need to place the template with the sticky notes facing upward.

5- Ask your computer to print and hold your breath. You should get your first batch of printed sticky notes in a few seconds. 

Reading through those steps makes the process seems more elaborate than it really is! In fact the technique is simple enough that I later expanded on using it in other areas as well. For instance, I use small sticky notes (51x38mm) for an affinity estimation exercise that shows the effectiveness of relative estimation in my Agile fundamentals courses. The trainees lay down the sticky notes on pre-printed A3 sheet with columns for Fibonacci sequence 1-20 range. I find using sticky notes for this exercise, and others, to ease the visualization and encourage collaboration because sticky notes can be easily moved from one column to another during group discussion.

That's it, the technique, the tools, and the warnings. If you ever find it useful, let me know.