Products, Teams, and Entrepreneurship from Zach Larson co-founder of SideReel

Write on the walls! Information radiators and you….

with one comment

Firstly, let’s make sure we’re all talking about the same thing. When I say information radiator, I don’t mean the back end of an Orwellian memory hole (it has to go somewhere, right?). I mean stuff, important stuff, put on the walls. Stuff you’d usually type into a tracking list, a wiki, or some sort of electronic document. Put it on a whiteboard or a big sticky note, put it on the wall. BAM! Information radiator. That’s really it.

I’ve used them for things like sharing who is working on what, keeping track of how a system is performing, questions to ask during user testing. Things like that. It’s random and serves whatever purpose you need it to. It’s such a versatile tool that trying to define it any tighter would be too proscriptive.

Make information publicly visible and place it in a highly trafficked area

I started using information radiators at SideReel from the very beginning, over 4 years ago. We wrote up a bunch of user stories, voted on the minimal set things we thought we needed to get to release and hung those on the wall of the loft my fiance (now wife) was kind enough to let us squat in. It was a linear progression, left to right. Stories were masking-taped to the wall and you, literally, ran into them when you came up the steps.  Everyone could see what was being worked on, what was coming up next, and how far away we were from our release points. When the two founders who weren’t in the room every day came by, they could easily see what had changed.

(Sidenote: we went from inception to Public Beta in 4 months through Vicious Prioritization. More on that later.)

We still follow that pattern today. Essentially it forms the core of most of SideReel’s management patterns.

We use the same model for our month-to-month theme (stories -> themes -> epics) planning. Currently it’s just a bunch of printed slides taped to a wall.

Information radiators should be light on information

I spent a lot of time tinkering with how much information should be in that radiator. Changes in estimation, riskiness, etc. Ultimately they became so information dense that it was a) hard to process quickly and b) annoying to update. The purpose of the radiator is to inspire more relevant and useful conversations. Once someone has the basic info, it’s easier for them to ask the questions that really matter to them.

Make them cheap

Don’t worry about having fancy wall monitors or cool wooden rails. Tape works fine, so do pushpins. For over a year our user stories were tacked to a $4.99 corkboard. Treat it like craft day in kindergarten. Tape, big markers, bright colors, butcher paper. If you keep supplies laying around it makes it easier to put the information up and having it up is better than having it locked away. Which reminds me:

Don’t make your radiator a refrigerator

In the beginning we argued a lot about whether stuff that was on the walls also had to be in an electronic format. Having the info online does help folks who aren’t physically proximate, but I find them harder to maintain. When there is disincentive to update it, it will go stale fast. A stale set of information is rarely useful and usually generates more problems than it’s worth. That being said, we’ve now moved our backlog system to Pivotal Tracker that is displayed via a big monitor on the wall.

Lastly, if it’s not useful STOP DOING IT

Don’t let a radiator trap you. Just because it was useful at one point doesn’t mean it’ll continue to be useful. As soon as someone asks, “why are doing this?” or says they don’t find it useful I do a quick poll and then stop doing it and take the radiator down. If someone misses it, I put it back up but know there’s something to be tinkered with to make it useful again. Remember, the point of these things is that they’re not hard to maintain. Don’t let the fear of a maintenance burden keep you from using an information radiator.

Had a time when an information radiator helped or hindered you? Share your stories in the comments!


Written by zachlarson

May 5, 2011 at 9:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized