Advanced Template is an Oxymoron

How many templates to you encounter in your daily work?  How many of them serve you? How many are you a slave to?

Templates should free you from the burden of thinking about format and allow you to focus on the content.  Something is wrong if you encounter a super-complex template that limits your ability to share information.

A client recently asked me for a more Advanced User Story template.  They wanted more than the typical "As a _____ I want to ______ so that _____." They wanted a way to capture impacts and the complexity of their work.  My answer to this was ‘When you are truly advanced you don’t need a template.’ If you need to capture more information, capture it!  As you travel down the maturity path, you become less reliant on the template. Advanced Template is an oxymoron.

Here are some guidelines for happy templates.

Reduces work.  A good template makes it easier for people to share information.  Free us from formatting and worrying about whether we missed something.  The template is my servant, I’m not a slave to the template.

Is a thinking tool.  A good template helps the author think through their ideas.  

Not a ton of N/As.  If your template has a ton of space for things that usually don’t apply, and we have to read through each one and figure out if it applies, you are causing extra work.

Flexible space.  When you design a template you don’t think of everything.  Give me someplace to put the stuff you didn’t think of. And somewhere to put something that makes it interesting.

Don’t suck the life out of the Content.  Once I saw a presentation from a team before and after they put it into a template.  It was like Invasion of the Body Snatchers had sucked the life right out of the information.  What had been compelling and interesting was now lifeless and dull. It was the same information, but it had lost its spark.  Leave room in your template for creative content.

The template is not for the consumer of information.  I hear people tell me that they want a template so that everything looks the same and we can know what we are looking at.  Nope. Having all your information look the same doesn’t help us consume and process the information it, it just puts us to sleep.  

Use picklists only for aggregate tabulation.  I’m sick of limited choices in a template that don’t apply and no one is even using them for aggregate reporting anyway.  If you are going to tabulate and analyze data across multiple projects, then yes, by all means, use a picklist. But otherwise, just let us type the information in freeform.  Otherwise, we end up with a cryptic document that always needs to be accompanied by an explanation.

Use templates as thinking tools.  Back to the client who wanted advanced User Story templates.  User Story templates and other thinking tool templates are ‘prompts’.  They jog your thinking and prompt you to think about things in different ways.  They are great for teams that are starting to think in a new way, but eventually, they become a crutch.  Advanced teams that keep using the User Story template are constraining themselves from thinking of things in ever-expanding ways.

What templates have helped you work better?  What templates have hampered you? Let us know!