Digital Boards and Physical Boards

Episode 45

February 02, 2012




The Agile Weekly Crew discuss the pros and cons of digital vs physical boards.

Episode Notes

Clayton Lengel-Zigich, Derek Neighbors, Jade Meskill and Roy van de Water discuss the pros and cons of physical and digital boards:

Benefits of physical vs digital boards

How our brain wiring works

Visibility instead of hidden data

Mind playing tricks on me

Visual speaks volumes

Don’t have to fight tools to try new things

It takes a long time update the board

Overhead, saving paper, distributed team

Historical data

Lack of team trust

Lines of code and function points

Self Organization should rule

Working with other teams

Serendipity happens

Simulate colocation


Pragmatic Thinking and Learning by Andy Hunt

Forget Why You Walked Into the Room?



Clayton Lengel‑Zigich:  Welcome to another episode of the ScrumCast. I’m Clayton Lengel‑Zigich.

Jade Meskill:  I’m Jade Meskill.

Roy van de Water:  I’m still Roy van de Water.

Derek Neighbors:  I’m Derek Neighbors.

Jade:  So like Still Water…


Jade:  …is like because you’re European…What you?

Roy:  We’ll mix up the verbs and other things.

Clayton:  Quite, you’re so European, you don’t even know, to get the things up.

Today we’re going to be talking about Digital Boards and Physical Boards. Let’s say that I’ve got a digital tool and has my Scrum board in it. And I’ve a physical collocated team, is that going to be problem or can never just look at a computer screen.

Derek:  Certainly, everybody could. The question is what are the benefits of a Physical Board versus Digital Board. Andy Hunt’s “Pragmatic Thinking and Learning” is a great book that talks about some of the brain science behind physically writing things down versus typing them into a computer, or versus seeing them on a computer.

It cements something different in your memory. I like to equate this to when I see great schoolchildren or even college students, being asked to memorize vocabulary words or terminology. Usually the teacher requests that they write them down, write them in a sentence, write the definition down. Then they memorize from there. They don’t just give them a printed sheet and say, “Go read the printed sheet and memorize it.”

It’s because something in our brain is wired differently when we actually do the act of writing things out. When you’re forced to write out the story or write out the sprint items or the tasks, I think that something wired different in your brain happens. The second thing is, nobody goes to their computer to look at all that stuff.

When there’s big visible charts all over the walls, it’s much easier for somebody not involved directly in the project, or somebody on the outside, to ask questions. They’re not going to go look at the chart in some digital tool eight things deep, find something out, and then send an email, or not very often. Usually it’s too late. If they’re getting to the point where they know something is that wrong and they’re looking at the tool, it’s probably too late to help.

Jade:  If you are physically collocated team, it’s much more difficult to hide from a physical board that has a presence in the room that you’re in, where it’s very easy to minimize a window and just essentially ignore everything that’s going on inside of the software system.

Roy:  We’ve even seen examples where we would send emails of our burndown chart for example to everybody within the company or post a picture of it in the chat program we use, and still nobody really commented on it or noticed it even though it was being hand‑delivered to you saying look at me, it still didn’t really have the same effect as to something you occupy every day.

Jade:  I saw a really interesting study that really talked about the brain and how when you move from room to room, that the doorway actually creates some physical barrier inside of your mind and that when you walk into a new room, it basically forgets everything about the old room.

I started thinking, “Does that apply to windows in our applications”? Like when you minimized that window, does your mind like basically shift gears into, “Well, now I’m doing something new and I’m in a new room. I can disregard all the other stuff.”

Clayton:  What are some of the other benefits that you would get if you were a physical team having a physical board? Does that help promote collaboration or communication? What are some things you would get from that?

Jade:  I think it’s a lot like having a face‑to‑face to conversation. There’re a lot of things that are communicated without words, and by placing it up in a physical dimension, you can tell so much more out of glance than looking at your screen which can only convey so much information and so much detail, just due to its limited size.

You can get away with a whole lot more. You can have a lot of more informal statistics or data that becomes very difficult for a computer to calculate. If I want to write something up on the board, I can just do it. I don’t need a special place to put it or if I want to post something new that we’ve never tried before, I don’t need a code to let me do that. I can do it with a piece of paper.

Derek:  Some of it goes towards…if you’re really trying to be agile, you want to be locked into some best practice? That starts to…

Jade:  Or at least a practice. [laughs]

Derek:  Yes, that starts to cramp. A good example on build now on what Jade said is, “The nice thing about blank index card is it’s a blank index card,” so anything your mind can imagine to do with and index card, from shredding it up to adding new elements to doing anything, is possible. Whether you want to use pushpins with different colors to meant different thing, if you want to use different colors with a type of marker, the sky is the limit.

So if you want to try something, a great example I’ve seen our teams do in the past on occasion is, “Hey, we really want to enforce time boxing. We want to see how we’re performing against tasks, because a lot of people are questioning that. It’s as easy as drawing, if we think this is going to be a hour long task drawing one square for each one of the tasks, and then filling it in as it’s getting completed.” That would be really difficult to do in a tool that didn’t have that functionality already built into it.

The nice thing is, you can experiment with that. If that works really well, great. Maybe you keep doing it. If it doesn’t work well, or you get the data that you need to make the decision, I think in a lot of the cases I’ve seen a team think, “Oh, well the problem is our tasking is really, really horrible. It’s taking us way longer than we think to do the task.”

When they do something like that, they realize it’s not that the tasks that we are putting out there are taking too long it’s that we’re doing really crappy planning. We are not putting out half of the tasks that actually need to be done to complete the work. We put task A is going to be half an hour, and task B is going to be half an hour. We find that it really only took half an hour to do each one of those tasks.

But we totally glossed over the fact that there were tasks C, D, E, F, G, H that we just totally didn’t even talk about in planning. In reality, we need to fix our planning, not fix the estimates of our tasking. It allows you to play with things in a lot more easy format without having to fight against the…you never hear, “Well the index cards don’t do that.”

Jade:  [laughs]

Roy:  Right.

Clayton:  To play devil’s advocate a bit, I’ll ask, “Doesn’t it take a really long to update your physical board”?

Right:  Right. Everybody…

Clayton:  Yes, it does. Is that what you are saying?

Jade:  Doesn’t it take a really long time to update your digital board?

Roy:  Every Agile team at some point, it seems like, gets into the, “OK. We need to start replacing the physical tools with digital tools.” I feel like they always have four big reasons for doing that. The first as I say, it’s way too much overhead to update a real board; which I think is kind of bullshit, because it doesn’t take any less work in my opinion, than filling out a digital tool. And it gets you a lot of value.

Another reason why they oftentimes want to go with digital as opposed to a physical board is because they say they want to save paper, which I think is just bullshit altogether.


Derek:  You’re European, so it makes sense.

Roy:  The third reason is because they are a distributed team, which I think is the only reason that I can come up with that has any validity at all. The fourth reason ‑‑ I forget at the moment, but I’ll jump in a second with it.

Clayton:  Oh, I have another one. I would use a physical board, but I need to keep track of everything we’ve done, because what if I need to look at it again later? If I have a digital tool, it will save it all for me.

Roy:  Yeah. So, you’re never going to need that data.

Clayton:  Yeah, but I really, really do.

Roy:  No, but you really won’t.

Jade:  When you need it, you can write it down on the index.

Derek:  I think a lot of this goes back to…


Jade:  You can save all the cards.

Derek:  …a lot of teams still have project manager mentality. The idea is, “I need to track tasks and I need to track who is doing the tasks. I need to track the actual hours against the tasks. I need to track all this data because at some point I need to hold somebody accountable.” The truth is, if your team is doing that, you’ve got way bi