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The Pros and Cons of Electronic and/or Physical Taskboards

Interview with the bor!sgloger expert panel on the subject of internationally distributed Teams (Part 4)

Part 1: Does distance cancel out efficiency of internationally dispersed Teams?

Part 2: Should internationally distributed Teams be avoided?
Part 3: Scrum Spaces of internationally distributed Teams – the Do’s and Don’ts

Stephanie G.: You‘ve coincidentally already mentioned it in the previous round – the popular subject of whether electronic or physical Taskboards are better. Did you all use electronic tools or is there another probable option for internationally distributed Teams?!

Deborah W.: We used an electronic tool for the Product Backlog, but had a paper Taskboard hung up on the wall at the main location, which was filmed non-stop by a webcam. Thus, it was continuously displayed on a live-stream and gave the other Team members the possibility to keep the window open in the background of their computer screens at all times. Sadly, we never managed to put up a large screen on the wall. But by doing it this way, it meant that if one person moved a Task, it could be seen by everyone. In order for this to work, however, you need an excellent camera in a good position (best if screwed into the ceiling). In my case, it also only worked because the management really insisted on it – the Dev.Team had wished for  a digital Taskboard from the first Sprint onwards. However, the management had seen this as a measure for pushing its employees towards more communication.

Hélène V.: What works even better in terms of pushing employees to communicate, is to have a physical Taskboard at every location. Every task has an identification number, so that during the Daily (and outside of it, of course, too) the conversation goes a little bit like this, „Today, I am taking Task 162 on user documentation and I will need Peter’s assistance for it, as I’m not entirely sure about the necessary layout“. The number is just the reference, so that everyone at every location can synchronously move the identical Task. This way, whenever a Task is finished during the day and a new one is started, the necessary synchronisation forces the Team members to communicate immediately – in whichever way they like (chat, telephone etc.).

Ina K.: See, that‘s what I tried to introduce in my Team as well. However, it was certainly not easy trying to explain the necessity behind synchronising two manual Taskboards. In the end, we simply used the tool iceScrum and had the Taskboard depicted at all times on a large screen in both Scrum Spaces. Although the effect of pulling the Task to “done“ goes missing, it was pretty cool watching how – if someone at the other location moved a Task – it would show up simultaneously on our screen.

Stephanie G.: Your answers sound like distributed Teams still underestimate the effect of physically experiencing versus watching something move on a screen. I have heard of Teams using both types at the same time – has one of you ever worked with „double“ Taskboards?

Bernd K.: Yes, I‘ve seen Teams that use physical Taskboards, and JIRA for documentation. Thus, they use both…In my opinion, one can certainly do that, but you should watch out that it doesn’t start creating an overhead. Like Ina, I also have some experience with iceScrum, which is an alright open-source tool. My Team members weren‘t keen on it, but decided to use it anyway, as they needed it for generating documentation.  In my opinion, electronic tools may be useful for Backlog grooming, generating Burn-Down Charts, providing immediate Sprint Documentation etc., but they will never fully replace the agility and motivation that a physical Taskboard can offer.

Kristina K.: I actually found the electronic Taskboard to be a nuisance. We used Urban Turtle, since the Dev.Team saw a Taskboard made out of paper as too much overhead for a distributed Team. It really was of no help during the Daily: it took long to create new Tasks, the wrong Stories were accidentally discussed, it took ages to scroll down etc. Also, the tool did not place a maximum limit on the amount of characters that could be typed within a Task. I sometimes felt as if the simplicity of Tasks was ruined and turned into electronic essays or lists of reminders. The size of a sticky note limits exactly that. Honestly, if I could build my own electronic Taskboard, I would have a very long list of requirements, such as being able to see the whole board at once, allowing the writing of dots on Tasks that were not finished on the previous day (exclamation marks just don’t do it for anyone), better print views, simplicity of moving Stories into a Sprint, being able to read the titles of User Stories immediately etc.

Christof B.: I agree with my colleagues, but in the end, I believe that it doesn’t really matter what tool you‘re using, as long as everyone in the Dev.Team can work with it at the same time. This means that i.e. physical Taskboards should really have cameras set on them at all times and electronic tools should allow all Team members to see the moving of a Task at all locations at the same time. In future, this should work much more easily, as high-quality video conference systems will become more readily available on the market. However, I also believe that the Team constellation should have an impact on the choice of tooling: if the Product Owner and maybe some consulting architects are placed at one location, and the ScrumMaster plus his Dev.Team at another, I would most certainly say that a Taskboard made out of paper suffices. A picture of the Daily can then be sent to the PO every now and again.

Stephanie G.: I believe I can sum up and prioritize your suggestions in the following way:

#1 choice: Separate Taskboards made out of paper and sticky notes hung up on the wall at each location.

#2 choice: Paper Taskboard at main location with constant live-stream to screens hung up in other locations.

#3 choice: Electronic Taskboard with instant synchronisation (no tool preference).