Why I love physical agile boards, part one

After years of exclusively using virtual Scrum and Kanban boards, I am using physical boards again. In the process of adapting, I’m rediscovering many great things about using a physical board. One benefit of a physical board that I didn’t expect is that your stories and tasks tend to be less formal.

Last week there were two stories on two different team’s boards that made me laugh. One was:

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The other (which I didn’t get a picture of) was “do the thing with the thing“.

A good agile coach would point out that both of these were under-specified and poorly written. A better agile coach would point out that as long as the whole team understood what they meant and there was an agreed-upon definition of done, then the wording doesn’t really matter that much and it is fine for the squad to have an occasional story like that.

Neither of these would have ever appeared on a virtual board. By being on the computer/net, the virtual board has two features that the physical board does not.

One is longevity. “Do the thing with the thing” is fine if it is a story under discussion every morning at standup, and tossed in the trash when it is done. “Do the thing with the thing” would be a cryptic mind-f*ck a few years or even weeks later if someone was reviewing old stories.

Now this longevity element is something that I used to like with the virtual boards, having the history and being able to see how things developed and where they came from. In reality, you don’t really ever have time for that and instead it becomes another digital barnacle that isn’t really that useful.

Another property of a digital board is transparency. Theoretically, anyone in the company can see it. This again, is both a positive and a negative thing.

Having a board that anyone can see means that what your team is doing, will do and have done is available to anyone. Status reports are (theoretically) not necessary. If anyone asks what you’re working on, you can tell him or her to go look at Trello/Pivotal/Jira/etc and bug you if they have any questions.

With a physical board though, they need to come to the team and look at the wall. This means that any misunderstandings can be cleared immediately, and communication is actually improved by, you know, people speaking to each other.

When you are creating stories, tasks and notes on a virtual board, you are writing for an indeterminate audience. You are writing for yourself and your co-workers, but you never know who else will be reading it. If something you write has to make sense to anyone, ever, you will be a lot more guarded in what you say. You will be wary of not only how the story is perceived, but also, how you as the author are perceived. It is the difference between the conversation you have with a coworker over a beer and the item that you post to a blog or twitter.

That consciousness of the potential audience takes all the spontaneity and fun out. The formality makes stand-ups and planning take longer as well.

If you work on a co-located team and are using a virtual board for your agile practice, try going old-school for a while. I’m betting that your stand-ups and planning will go a bit smoother if you know that the stories and tasks that you write are for your team’s eyes-only.

Whatever you do, don’t forget to do the thing with the thing, and while you are at it, unf*ck everything.

[see part two: where I discuss how physical boards help you keep a manageable time horizon to your planning]

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