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Much A-D-O about nothing? Act II - Seven Tips for making the most of Azure Boards

In this two-part article, Oaklin’s digital workplace team help you get to grips with Microsoft Azure DevOps aka ADO. Here in part two they give seven tips to help your organisations take its first step into ADO by using the Azure Boards component.

"The beauty is that your organisation or team could use Boards to manage any type of work or project – it doesn’t have to be software development."

What is Azure Boards?

Today, we’ll focus on Azure Boards. Azure Boards is one of the five components that make up the Azure DevOps suite and it is a logical first step for any organisation or user to take. Boards is a Kanban type tool that allows you to create, prioritise, manage and assign packets of work. Based on agile methodologies, the software provides a platform for the tracking, planning and prioritization of work items from high level initiatives and themes all the way down to bugs and tasks. The beauty is that your organisation or team could use Boards to manage any type of work or project – it doesn’t have to be software development.

For anyone who has used the likes of Trello or Microsoft Planner, you’ll instantly recognise the use of sticky-note style packets of work that you can quickly drag between work phases, assign to different team members, and add development notes to. However, as we said in part one of this article, ADO is feature heavy, perhaps overly feature heavy, and the payoff is that new users could find it a little too complicated and a little off-putting.

Top Tips

Below are seven top tips for making the most of ADO and ensuring that your instance of Azure Boards brings genuine value to your teams.

Tip #1: Technical implementation is but half the battle. The other half is getting your users to engage and use it.

When planning to implement ADO you need to invest heavily in planning measures to ensure your users can use it. This means much more than an email comm, a couple of FAQs, and the silent prayer that your colleagues will overnight change the habits of a lifetime in terms of the tools they use to manage work. As well as the obvious such as training and comms, you will need all the ingredients of a good change management campaign: visible and persistent sponsorship from leadership; a clear case for change that colleagues buy into; an articulation of “what’s in it for me” for your user base; proactive management of colleagues who for valid reasons might resist the change; dedicated time to learn and practice; and periodic reinforcement a good length of time after your initial launch.

Tip #2: Know thy menus. 

As we’ve said, ADO and Boards is a big beast with stacks of functionality. But this makes it hard to start and to get to grips with. Boards alone offers a good six different menus to navigate, from sprints to queries to backlogs and delivery plans, and with many more add-ins to choose from! We’d recommend you identify the top two or three menus which will be most useful to your projects and then equip your users with a solid understanding of these. The Boards, Backlogs and Sprints menus would be a good set to start with.

Tip #3: Standardise, standardise then standardise again

Picture this, you’re in the admissions team at a prestigious university and today is the day that you review each applicant’s application. However, you start to read through the applications and for some odd reason, bits of information are missing for each applicant. Some have only half of their grades, some don’t have a report from their previous school, and some are missing their extra-curricular activities. If all had at least their grades there might be a way for you to choose – or even just their extracurricular activities, however because the data is not standardised you can’t compare them. You can’t achieve your goal because of your lack of information. This same problem occurs in ADO when you don’t apply standard rules around minimum requirements for work items. The saying: ‘junk in, junk out’, applies heavily to ADO.

We suggest that when getting started with ADO, the team jointly agree what it is that they want from the reporting of the instance and then subsequently think about what information they might need to populate in their work items to achieve this. If you as a team want to understand and can visualise your deadlines, you might want to ensure that you have all of your target dates populated for your Epics and Features. If you as a team want to focus on optimising your capacity, you might want to ensure that the ‘Effort’ field is always populated. Configure your instance of ADO to meet your reporting and operational needs.

Tip #4: Resemble reality  

Depending on the size of the project or programme that you are overseeing in ADO, bridging the gap between the ADO world and the real world can be tough. If trying to apply ADO to a small scrum team working insularly on a small aspect of an app, this task might be easy. However, if applying ADO to a large programme or department you must think seriously about the way you structure the teams and work items which teams you create.

When segmenting teams and creating your area path structure you must think about whether this structure would make sense in the real world. This may seem obvious, but if ADO is not set up in a realistic way that mirrors individuals working practices, the instance will slip from being an agile planning tool with the possibility to bring great benefits to a team to a box ticking exercise for individuals to complete as part of their to-do list for the day. This happens because users don’t feel that the tool mirrors their work and as such can’t bring insights. It is essential that strong thought is given to the structure of both work items and backlogs in ADO and that these conversations are regularly re-visited at all levels.

Tip #5: Tailored tagging  

Tags are a simple and effective way that you and your team can categorise effectively against niche properties that might not be catered for in the possible fields of a given work item.

For example, say your organisation is a large manufacturer of agricultural machines and you would like to get insight into what other parts of the business are also working on projects that involve machinery needing to withstand below freezing temperatures.

In ADO you would be able to add a tag like #below0. If used appropriately, this tag would allow for individuals across the business to query against work items that involve this type of machinery. Providing, at the click of a button; all of the individuals that you could confer with on this topic, all of the work that is in progress and that has been done, all of their attachments and notes relating to this topic and finally, all of the revisions and lessons learnt about his technology between now and the ADO instance’s inception.

Tip #6: Dashboards aren’t one size fits all

At this point, we have the desired level of data quality in our work items, we have these work items structured in a way that makes sense with regards to on the ground work being delivered and we have made use of some applicable tags.

Dashboards can now be employed to give some additional insights into the speed, accuracy and trends pertaining to the work being completed. Dashboards, like most things in ADO are highly customizable and can be built to suit the needs of those that are reviewing the dashboard. The types of charts, widgets and reports that you can use are expansive and specifically targeted towards agile metrics so you can include things like burndown charts, sprint capacity charts and many more. However, you can also use them for more basic activities, such as quickly navigating to your assigned tasks or the use of a widget for the quick creation of work items.

The value that dashboards bring to each team will be dependent on the thought that they give to the customization of their board. The fact that these dashboards are so customizable and are consistently being updated with new options (for widgets, charts etc.) means that teams will be able to optimise the dashboards to suit their needs and thus get the optimal value from the dashboard available to them. 

Tip #7: Pleasant planning  

Like Dashboards, Delivery Plans are a way for teams to visualize their work, specifically by thinking clearly about deadlines, capacity and progress of work to a given point. Delivery plans rely heavily on start dates and end dates of work items being populated, but once they are in, the rest of the work will be done for you! The delivery plan add-in is a simple but powerful tool to automatically view your timelines across a programme, a scrum team or even just for a given feature.

If you want to learn more about ADO, or to discuss how to implement it and how to ensure your users use it, then get in touch with Oaklin’s digital workplace team of Simon Mould, Joe Thomas and Steve Girdler on

Joe Thomas

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Joe Thomas


Joe is a management consultant with a proven record delivering digital transformation alongside clients in the private and public sector.

He is passionate about leveraging innovate solutions to generate growth, weather uncertainty and solve business challenges. Joe enjoys writing thought leadership papers, looking to explore sustainable business solutions via new technologies.