Why Physical Task Boards Still Matter

WRITTEN BY Joel Bancroft-Connors

If your agile teams are not using physical task boards, you don’t have all the context

That’s the theory I put forth to you today. My theory is based on the June 2014 Journal of Psychological Studies article entitled “The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard – Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking.”

The debate of pen & notepad vs. keyboard & laptop is not a new one. Past studies have been done on the effects of multi-tasking (and the lure thereof) with laptops. There have also long been theories, based on understanding of brain science, that the human brain stores electronic data differently than it does written data and that the written data is stored in a way that is easier to access again.

However, Dr. Mueller and Oppenheimer’s study specifically tested the results of using offline laptops, specifically to just take notes, against longhand written notes. I’m not going to rehash all the data here. For a good article outlining how the study was conducted go to Fast Company and you can download the entire paper at Academia.edu.

The key points are:

  • When it is important to form a deeper understanding of the material, take written notes.
  • Even when you have the full type written data to study, you will do worse on tests both on factual and contextual data.
  • This can apply to task as well, as Mueller states in the Fast Company article.

Connecting this to Agile

Based on this study and my own years of reflection on this (I stopped using laptops for notes back in 2010) I believe this explains why teams who use both a physical task board and an electronic one (Rally, VersionOne, AgileCraft, etc.) do better than those who just use the online tool.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying get rid of the online tool. I absolutely believe an online tool is useful when dealing with anything more than the smallest agile programs. What I’m saying is, while counter intuitive and seeming to cause more work, having a physical task board in addition to your online tool can be a big boost on your way to becoming a high performing agile team. It is not unlike the seeming disconnect of pair programing being more efficient than parallel programing. The added work of keeping two boards is minimal compared to the benefits of making your team more effective and delivering better final product.

How

When doing your release and sprint planning, do it all with old-fashioned cards, blue tape and pens. When you’re done, someone takes all that and puts it into the online tool and then it gets up on the physical task board. During the daily standups, keep the laptops closed and move stories and tasks on the physical board. At the end of the meeting someone (cough… Scrum Master) can update the online tool. The benefits will be worth the little extra work.

  • Technology doesn’t get in the way: No one is hiding behind a computer during planning. No worries about connections, projectors and so on.
  • The act of writing and collaborating together will create a greater joint understanding.
  • A week into the sprint, when you look at the User Story, you will remember the whole context and that while the PO forgot to update the acceptance criteria, you remember he wanted this story to work on Android and iOS not just iOS.
  • There is nothing more satisfying than physically grabbing a story card and moving it from Doing to Done. Celebrate the moment!

Real World Application

Having been in the longhand vs. laptop note taking debates for years I know it can be a hard concept to grasp that written notes are more effective. On this count I can speak only from first hand experience. When I review written notes I can visualize the meeting. I can remember who was sitting where, who was giving who sidelong glances and more.

When it comes to teams and physical boards, I’ve also seen it work. In one instance we had three Scrum teams who were struggling with their transition. After suggesting physical boards on top of their online tool, two of the three teams saw a marked increase in effectiveness and decrease in churn around acceptance and quality. The third team didn’t put in a physical board and while they had a lot of contributing factors, the lack of the board is one of the reasons I believe they failed.

In another experience our general manager was very hands on with the division. He was also a very classic “too busy” executive. While he had full access to all our information, he never had time to look at it. The physical board was in a high traffic hallway on the way to his office. He knew exactly what was happening at all times and this in turn led to him being less hands on not more.

And lest I seem overly biased (I am), in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal IBM’s CIO Jeff Smith was observed:

He also makes use of physical, visual tools such as storyboards. He found that the signs and sticky notes that characterize Agile workspaces work best if they remain in the physical world, not the digital one.  After some experimentation, he found that the physical signs gave people a place to go, and that gathering point fostered more group learning. WSJ.com – CIO Journal

Distributed Teams

A colleague rightly pointed out that I hadn’t touched on this third rail. We can’t deny that in most enterprises having all your teams in one place is pretty much impossible. Even getting a seven to nine person team in one place can be a challenge. So isn’t the physical board only a niche player when the stars align and your team is all in one place?

Yes and no.

First off, the agile community has long recognized that colocation is rarely practical. Over the last few years the recommended advice of colocation has moved from “all” to “team”. It is a lot easier to have a seven-person team in one place than it is seven full teams. When you can get your team in one place, the physical board is still of value to them, just not as much to the larger organization.

When the team is truly distributed, then the physical board starts to lose value. If you have most of your team in one place, the board can still be used. You just have to engage some process and remote technology to keep the remote team members in the know. These are classic distributed team tools, so I won’t dive too deep. Get your teams together for major release planning. Have a web cam pointed at the physical board and burn down. Take hi-res pictures and send them to the remote team members.

And IBM CIO, Jeff Smith? His organization is 20,000 strong. Pretty sure they are not all in one room.

Conclusion

Don’t get rid of your online tool, that’s critical for enterprise organization. However, do grab a chunk of wall space and use your blue tape to create a physical board. You can be even more productive and generate a better, finished product.

Don’t take my word for it, try it for a sprint or two and see what the retrospective says.

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8 comments on “Why Physical Task Boards Still Matter”

  1. Col Sweetman

    Great post Joel, I couldn’t agree with you more. When I coach teams, I always suggest they start with a physical board, and only when the need arises add an online tool. moving fully online is (as you point out) a last resort and should be avoided in my opinion.

    Reply
  2. Steve Colasinski

    We started doing Agile before we had a tool purchased. Our first board was made of yarn and push pins. Although we eventually purchased a tool, all of our teams retained their boards and held their daily stand ups at their boards. It was a nice home for the teams since they did not have dedicated rooms and was a good source for conversation after the stand up meeting.

    Reply
  3. Dan Huynh

    Great post, Joel! Our team uses both a physical and online task board, and for weeks I’ve been trying to get the team to update their story statuses in the online tool. I think you’ve convinced me as long as the physical board is used, I can take away the burden of having to also do it in the online tool.

    Reply
  4. Andrzej Winnicki

    In our team, we have been struggling with debate physical vs digital many times. Finally, we have settled on using only the online tool. Why?

    We are working in a company where there are more than 40 Scrum teams in different locations so we need a common place to keep all our stories — in our case we use Jira. Having an online tool is a must so the choice is: whether to use both physical boards and online boards or just online boards.

    Many times we have tried using a physical board, but it never worked out for us. Keeping the data in sync was such a pain that every time we ended with having either one or another board out-of-date.

    You have said that: “At the end of the meeting someone (cough… Scrum Master) can update the online tool. The benefits will be worth the little extra work.”

    Little extra work? I doubt that!

    I believe that the good agile board needs to live. Not only on standup meetings, but all the time. People are switching tasks all the time, priorities can change, task status can change, there are ongoing discussions on stories that often need to be written down somewhere, stories are related to particular builds in CI environment, people create code reviews and relate them to particular stories, some people work remotely…

    If you consider all these actions it creates many items to be synced between physical and non-psychical boards. I don’t believe that Scrum Master is the person whose main responsibility is to copy-paste things from sticky notes on a physical board to online board. When SM doesn’t do this, then the team should do this…

    But it creates an overhead, a burden to work with. And as far as I remember, the main purpose of the agile board is to make people life easier not harder :)

    Having all that in mind, I honestly believe that no psychological research will be good enough to convince team members that having two boards is better than having one.

    Reply
    • Joel Bancroft-Connors

      Andrezej,

      Thanks for the reply, a lot of great insights and thoughts here.

      First off, the great thing about agile is that it is all about iterative
      improvement. If a physical board truly doesn¹t work for your teams, then
      absolutely don¹t use one. There is no silver bullet that will satisfy all
      needs. So it may very well be that your company has no benefit.

      Some other thoughts:
      – You are right, no phycological paper will convince a team physical
      boards are better. Only doing and using will convince anyone of the value
      of something. The data just opens the door to the possibility.
      – Your teams should be applauded for updating their Jira stories so often.
      In my experience the barrier of ³logging in² has always been a problem
      with getting engineers to update the status of work being done.
      – Physical and electronic boards don¹t have to be 100% in sync. Physical
      boards are more about creating context and visual road markers. As
      mentioned in the article, you don¹t need all the data since the act of
      creating the physical card creates a ³memory link² that allows a developer
      to remember the details of the story. The details that are in Jira.

      Circling back to my first comment, this won¹t work for everyone. Give
      it a try, if it works, great. If it doesn¹t, stop doing it.

      Cheers,
      Joel BC

      Reply
  5. Lance Kind

    Nice article that includes science about handwritten notes. Loved it! I also like the admission that busy upper managers actually work better with task boards and that reduced reporting overhead. I have had the same experience.

    Two times the article declares that enterprises “must live with distributed teams,” so don’t throw away the electronic tool. I think you’re being too nice. Enterprises should avoid creating distributed teams because that’s an impediment to most productivity (see Agile manifesto). And organizations should avoid electronic tools as they are less optimal for productivity. As an industry, we shouldn’t keep ignoring (or simply working around) the problems in the room. Organizations need to be conscious that those aren’t good practices and reduce their usage as much as possible. Let’s not operate with “defaults” that are less than optimal.

    Take care and thanks for the article,
    Lance Kind 康美国

    Reply
  6. Alex Stoneham

    I think they matter. Of course I would thats why I made http://www.scrumboards.com

    However they are a part of a whole…. not the be all and end all. And each persons one may be a little different and right for them. Plus its getting the work done ultimately that means most.

    Reply
  7. Larry Day

    Thanks Joel. You answered my question using Jira Board vs. Physical Board. You need both for clarification, follow-up, assurance, agreement, etc.

    Reply