The dos and don’ts of agile documentation

Reading time: about 8 min

Topics:

  • Visual collaboration

As teams have moved from waterfall to agile ways of working over the last two decades, a negative stigma has formed around documentation. 

Many teams have misinterpreted the Agile Manifesto's declaration of “working software over comprehensive documentation” to mean “no documentation.” While it’s true that traditional approaches to documentation are inefficient, eliminating documentation altogether can be harmful to agile teams, particularly as remote and hybrid work becomes more common. 

Consider trying to build a house. It doesn’t matter how fast, incremental, and efficient you are, if you never do your framing and foundation work, the house won’t stay standing for long. Similarly, documentation provides agile teams with the foundation needed to learn, adapt, innovate, and deliver value to customers. Without it, agile teams are misaligned, prone to error and miscommunication, inefficient, and lack the context needed to make decisions and adapt to market changes. 

In other words, while eliminating documentation may seem like a way to increase agility temporarily, it actually significantly decreases agility in the long run.

Rather than getting rid of documentation altogether, teams are faced with an opportunity to create better documentation. The solution isn’t going back to how documentation was approached in the waterfall days—teams need to embrace documentation that’s organic, living, adaptable, and highly visual.

What does an agile approach to documentation look like?

An agile approach to documentation follows many of the same principles as the Agile Manifesto itself. That is, it should be iterative, adaptable, and collaborative. The goal of effective agile documentation should be to:

  • Better share context among teams and eliminate unnecessary back-and-forth.

  • Enable teams to go to market faster by templatizing repeatable processes.

  • Create an efficient onboarding experience for new hires.

Given the growing complexity of business—there’s more software, more data, an accelerated pace of change, and the increasing adoption of distributed work—organizations can’t afford to forgo documentation. It’s a necessity to work efficiently and innovate continuously.

And as organizations face tightening budgets, employee turnover, and other threats to their businesses, better documentation helps prevent valuable knowledge from slipping through the cracks.

What are some examples of agile documentation? 

Agile documentation involves documents, diagrams, or templates that are simple to understand, highly visual, and help teams make decisions and move forward. This can include:

While these are important documents for keeping teams aligned, there are also less formal ways of documenting information that are just as important for continuous innovation.

For example, If you host your Agile events remotely, use a virtual team room to capture ideas, roadblocks, or feedback. This virtual space acts as a form of living documentation that provides a record of project context and decisions.

Multi-room scrum team space
Multi-room Scrum team space template (click to use template)

Visual collaboration software such as Lucid makes creating agile documentation easy with robust features and templates.

Learn more

The dos and don’ts of Agile documentation

With all this in mind, here are some tactical tips for approaching agile documentation:

Do: Document continuously as you work

A common criticism of documentation is that it’s an intensive process that takes time away from actual coding and product development work. It doesn’t have to be, though.

 An InfoQ article suggests an approach to continuous documentation that relies on coupling your documentation to your code and producing documentation “when best.” For example, you could create documentation immediately after a bug fix instead of at the end of a large project.  

Another approach to continuous documentation is creating an innovation repository by turning all the broader brainstorming, planning, and execution work you’re already doing into a “living blueprint” of how your business brings its best ideas to life.

Thinking about documentation this way makes it a natural extension of building, coding, launching, and monitoring—not a separate chore you do begrudgingly. It’s also more efficient to document as you work because you’re able to make process notes while they’re still top of mind.

Don’t: Create documentation for the sake of documentation

Throughout the process of creating continuous, agile documentation, it’s important to ask yourself the following questions to avoid creating documentation for its own sake:

  • What is the purpose of this documentation?

  • Who is this document for, and how will they use it?  

  • Does this document already exist elsewhere?

Adopting a mindset of continuous documentation doesn’t mean you need to do redundant work. Rather, you should be looking for opportunities to add to and improve existing documentation wherever possible.

Addressing versioning issues, optimizing a hard-to-find or hard-to-read piece of documentation, or adding screenshots and diagrams to a text-heavy piece of documentation are all important ways you can impact your company’s knowledge base beyond creating new documents from scratch.

Do: Look for opportunities to automate when possible

Adding data linking and other integrations to your documents can reduce errors and mistakes that come when you have to update documentation by hand—especially for entity relationship diagrams (ERDs) or other documentation showing complex data relationships. 

Automation can also help you save time and manual labor by refreshing key portions of your documentation without you even thinking about it (or knowing it's happening). Having the newest data at your fingertips rather than having to hunt for it can help you better generate actionable insights and uncover patterns you otherwise might have missed.

Don’t: Wait until the end of your project to document

Waiting until a project is over to document carries the risk of forgetting information, introduces more room for error, and adds an unnecessary burden at the end of a long sprint when the enthusiasm to do “one more thing” will likely be at its lowest.

By approaching agile documentation from the perspective of building an innovation repository in the moment and over time, documentation becomes embedded as a natural part of the project—from ideation and planning to design and launch—rather than a tacked-on task.

Don’t: Produce documents in a silo

It’s inefficient to spend time creating documents individually, and then only gather feedback when you’re well into a draft. If the scope of your documentation is off, or critical details are missing, you’ll now have to spend time on a major rework that was completely avoidable.

Involving others early on to find out what documentation is actually needed—or by collaborating on the documentation itself—will save you time and pain later.

Do: Create documentation collaboratively as a team

Documentation doesn’t have to be a solo endeavor, especially when you’re building your documentation from code, brainstorm boards, planning maps, or other documents you’ve already created together as a team.

Involving others in the documentation process ensures their awareness and buy-in. It also creates  collective accountability to make sure team documents are kept up to date. For newer or more junior employees, being involved in the documentation creation process can also be a good learning experience.

This release planning event template is one example of documentation you can collaborate on as a team while you do the actual planning instead of one team member documenting the planning session later. (Click to use template.)

One of the biggest pain points with documentation is how frequently it has to be updated and how much communication and distribution work needs to happen to make sure everyone is aware a new version is available.

Using a cloud-based storage option—preferably one that accommodates visual collaboration in order to make information even more understandable—means you don’t have to deal with versioning issues and ensures team members have access to the information they need to make decisions quickly and confidently.

Don’t: Use documentation to replace conversation

While clear, visual documentation can enable asynchronous work, it should supplement conversation, not replace it. Creating better documentation isn’t about eliminating the need to collaborate with team members—it should make those connections stronger and inform conversations that lead to breakthrough thinking and innovation.

Remember this Agile principle: The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation. For hybrid teams, this could be as simple as jumping on a quick Zoom call. 

Do: Use engaging and simple visuals

Documentation that prioritizes visuals over just text helps you clarify complex information, show relationships between entities clearer, and is more easily digestible at a glance for stakeholders.

Imagine joining a new company only to find out that sprint plans are shared in Google Docs or Google Sheets only. While a bit of an extreme example, the same principle applies to using visuals for any kind of documentation. Clear visuals save the reader from having to do work to understand complex structures, relationships, and dependencies, freeing up their time to focus on actual job responsibilities.

Use this sprint planning template to make your sprint planning sessions visual and engaging (click to use template).

Don’t: Create overly dense, text-heavy documents

In an attempt to be thorough with documentation and get your thoughts down, it can be difficult to remember that you aren’t necessarily writing the documentation for yourself. If you’re writing for yourself versus everyone else, you may glance over important steps, miss glaring information gaps, or bury important information in a dense wall of text.

The problem with this is you’re often left with a document that might make sense to you—because you have expertise and context on the process—but is inaccessible to others.

If you find documentation is regularly taking a lot of time to produce, it could be because you’re being too verbose. If documentation is so dense that it’s not clear and goes unused, it’s not good documentation. Simpler is often better.

Now that you have some tips for creating better agile documentation, learn more about leveling up other Agile practices across your team.

Learn more

About Lucid

Lucid Software is a pioneer and leader in visual collaboration dedicated to helping teams build the future. With its products—Lucidchart, Lucidspark, and Lucidscale—teams are supported from ideation to execution and are empowered to align around a shared vision, clarify complexity, and collaborate visually, no matter where they are. Lucid is proud to serve top businesses around the world, including customers such as Google, GE, and NBC Universal, and 99% of the Fortune 500. Lucid partners with industry leaders, including Google, Atlassian, and Microsoft. Since its founding, Lucid has received numerous awards for its products, business, and workplace culture. For more information, visit lucid.co.

Related articles

  • Agile Manifesto co-author James Grenning on the importance of documentation

    In this interview, Agile Manifesto author James Grenning discusses how modern-day Agile teams can strike the right balance on documentation to work efficiently.

  • Turning collaborative activities into documentation

    Here's how to convert the important collaborative work your team is doing on a daily basis into valuable, visual documentation you can reference forever.

  • The go-to toolkit for effortless documentation

    To get you started with collaborating visually and documenting as you go, we’ve compiled a toolkit of templates for common use cases.

  • How to turn your document repository into an innovation repository

    Not all document repositories will help you innovate. Find out how to create one that boosts alignment and creativity here.

Bring your bright ideas to life.

Sign up free

or continue with

Sign in with GoogleSign inSign in with MicrosoftSign inSign in with SlackSign in

Get Started

  • Contact Sales

Products

  • Lucidspark
  • Lucidchart
  • Lucidscale
PrivacyLegalCookie settingsCookie policy

© 2024 Lucid Software Inc.