I’ve heard many objections to the use of physical scrum boards in recent years. “Do you hate trees?” “Isn’t electronic more efficient?” and so on, and so forth.
But, there is a reason why I prefer a real physical board to an electronic one. And it’s not what you might think.

Let’s get personal

My partner, Mike, and I have two six-year old girls. As you might imagine, they’re energetic and opinionated, and can be a real handful at times.
One particular weekend earlier this year, the house looked like a junkyard.
With a To Do list as long as my arm, a partner who was more interested in Football Manager than helping, and two wild animals running around causing chaos, I needed a plan of action.
So, I flicked on the kettle, reached for my trusty sticky notes and sharpie, and started to write my To Do list whilst it boiled.

Screen-Shot-2017-11-06-at-11.32.42

Before I knew it, I had more than 20 sticky notes.
Arranging them on a giant noticeboard on the kitchen cupboard that said ‘To do’ and ‘Done’, with a line down the middle, I made my brew and picked up the first task.
At some point Mike came into the kitchen and saw the list of things that needed doing. The next thing I knew, I could hear the hoover being used upstairs. Ten minutes later, he raced downstairs, came into the kitchen and stopped short at my new board.
“Oi!” he said. *“You’ve moved my sticky note! I’ve been racing around upstairs so I could move a sticky note – and now you’ve moved it.” *
He was incredulous, irritated and determined that the next sticky note would be moved by him. I’d got him.
At no point had I said that he wasn’t pulling his weight, or that he needed to help out. I simply put the jobs that needed doing up on the cupboard and he joined in. Usually at home, my To Do list is a paper list. It was only because I happened to see my sticky notes that I created a physical board on that occasion.
My board was so simple that everyone could instantly see what needed to be done – and how the board worked.
From that point on, I’ve always put tasks and shopping lists on the kitchen cupboard and we’ve bashed the list together.

How to translate this to the workplace

1.
My board was really simple. It was immediately obvious to anyone who walked in the kitchen that there was a list of tasks that needed to be done. Once a task was completed, it was moved to the ‘Done’ column. The workflow was so unambiguous that anyone could pick up a task and join in.

2.
When a note was moved to ‘Done’, it brought a real sense of achievement. We’d ticked an item off the list. How many of us using To Do lists will add tasks that we’ve already done, skipping the ‘To do’ column entirely?
The sense of achievement when an item enters the ‘Done’ column is very real. Moving our own tasks to ‘Done’ is important and Mike actually felt cheated when I moved one because I took that away from him. With an electronic board, most teams have one person updating it during stand-ups. They move all tickets along the board and to ‘Done’ on behalf of the team. Where’s the sense of personal achievement there?

3.
Another benefit is that you don’t need to rely on remembering everything or expecting psychic powers from anyone else in the team. Forgot a task? Easy: write it on a new sticky note and stick it in ‘To do’.

Anytime something new crops up, it goes on the board for somebody to pick up. For Mike and me, this gave us a shared ownership and we worked as a team to get everything done. I cringe writing that, but it’s true.

When I was busy, Mike picked up the next task – and vice versa. It didn’t matter who put the task on the board: everything needed doing and we could see the changes in real time.

Learnings

When using a physical board at work, the team has a focal point. We move away from our desks to have a stand-up. We’re not distracted by emails pinging in to our inboxes, or tickets being added to our backlogs.

When we have an issue or need clarification, the board provides an informal team space where we can talk about how one issue impacts the next. We can see the whole board and there’s no need to scroll around, upload or wait for the computer to refresh.

Since we can clearly see the scope of what we’re working on, we’re much better at making everyday decisions. We can also show people outside the team the impact that any unplanned work will have on us – and on everyone who’s dependent on us finishing our tasks.

Get creative

Being creative isn’t something I’m generally accused of. You’ll notice that our home board is anything but. And yet, a physical board allows us to release that creative streak in ourselves, if we so wish.

Want a cyclic flow rather than linear? Go for it. Want to use eight different colours? Why not?

That’s why I’m a real believer in physical boards. There are many features you can get from an electronic tool. But for me, the personal interaction with something physical and the full visibility of the workload (not to mention the fun factor!) is something you can’t replicate electronically.

/Some cautions…
If your tasks are too small, you’ll be feeling great about achieving very little. By all means split bigger items into smaller tasks, but try to keep things similarly sized – this should help keep you from doing all the small, easy tasks, while not tackling the bigger items that add more value. To be fair, this is a warning that’s equally relevant to electronic boards.
The physical approach works for more complex processes/boards too but it’s important to be explicit – ensure the purpose of each column is clear to everyone using it. Where a task is expected to undergo multiple processes within one column, make this explicit (look up ‘policies’, ‘rules of the board’, ‘definition of ready’ and ‘definition of done’ for more information). Again, this is important for both physical and electronic boards.