My troubles with digital boards

Posted: August 2, 2017 in Agile, Kanban, Scrum, Team
Tags: , , , ,

I am currently working with a distributed team and we use JIRA for our sprint task board. We use it in our daily scrum (I can’t call it a stand-up) via Zoom. Over time, I’ve noticed that there are some things that come “for free” with a physical board, but are hidden or not as obviously visible on a digital board (at least not in JIRA). We have found workarounds for some and not for others and, perhaps, depending on the team, not having some of this information “in your face” might be OK. However, I thought I’d make a list of things to look out for if you happen to be using a digital rather than physical board for your team. Also this blog is all about learning 🙂

Please note, I’m only basing my observations on JIRA for this blog post because that is what we use. I suspect that most digital task boards have similar issues.

1. Who’s doing what?

My teams in the past have used personalised avatars to indicate who’s doing what task(s) for the day. We found this had two related benefits:

  1. You were naturally constrained to the number of avatars you happened to have available to you (although it was still fairly easy to take on more merely by initialing the sticky).
  2. It was very easy to see at a glance where a task had too many people, or where one person seemed to have spread themselves to thin, or where someone hadn’t committed themselves to a task.

When asking the question, “what do you notice about our focus?”, it was easy for the team to notice where they may have over- or under-committed themselves for the day. Or to notice and confirm where they were swarming for the day.

In JIRA, only one person can be assigned to a task. It’s not visually obvious where multiple people are working on a task. Also, because we usually only expand the story we’re currently talking about – and usually our full sprint of stories doesn’t fit into the view if we expand all rows – it’s very hard for the team to see good and bad patterns in how they have allocated themselves to tasks for the day.

2. Where are we stuck?

One of the tools one can use on a physical board when it seems a team is taking a while to get things done, is to start dotting tasks. The idea is that a task gets dotted for every day that it has been in progress and not finished. As the task develops measles, it’s pretty obvious where someone may be blocked or may need help.

JIRA does have the concept of task-dotting, but it’s very hard to see (it’s a light gray) and unfortunately the dots don’t stick around. They disappear as soon as someone moves the task to the next column on the board (so, for example, a task that may have been in progress for two days will suddenly have no dots when it moves to the show me column).

When dots have measles, it’s easier for the team to notice where tasks are dragging on for days and do something about it. You don’t really want tasks that have started to take more than a day to finish.

3. How big is our story?

This is probably (hopefully?) a JIRA funny. When we’re viewing the active sprint and sprint board, the story points aren’t visible. Assuming you use story points, they can be useful in helping the team notice when a story is taking too long – a supplement to the burn-down (see below) and tasks with measles (point 2 above). We have a workaround in that we add the story points to the end of the story title. It would be cool not to have to do this.

4. What’s our progress?

JIRA generates a pretty cool burn-down. But it’s not visible on the sprint task-board (which is the view we use for our Scrum meeting). How you’re doing on your burn-down is quite an important piece of feedback for how to adjust your plan for the day. Our workaround is to publish it on Slack before we meet, but it would still be useful to have it visible for the conversation.

5. What’s our goal?

I love (good) sprint goals. I find they give the team something specific to aim for that still allows for creative ways to respond to minor changes that emerge during the sprint. Goals are also a really useful way to bring the team back to the bigger picture in terms of sprint progress: “Are we on track to achieve our goal?”; “What are you doing today to help the team achieve the goal?”. So we create an awesome team sprint goal and ideally we want to have it front-of-mind when planning our tasks for the day. On a physical board, this is easy: it can be as simple as printing your goal on a piece of paper and sticking it to the board (ideally in colour and with sparkles). On a digital board, one needs to get a little more creative. In our case, we write the goal as a story at the top of the sprint and try remember to refer to it before we start our daily conversation. It seems to be working, but it does blend into all the other sprint work.

6. There are other aggregate data questions that are harder to answer

As Jacques de Vos once said: “If you have to scroll, you can’t see the whole“.

With a physical board, the team can usually notice useful things when answering questions like:

  • What do you notice about our tasks in progress?
  • Where do we seem to have the most focus?
  • What do we notice on the board about stories not started?
  • What do we notice about the state of our overall sprint in terms of stories in progress and not started?

Usually a quick glance at how stickies (whether stories or tasks) are grouped in the various lanes of the task board can provide a lot of insight into how things are going – especially if the distribution pattern is looking different to what the team is used to and/or expects to see. With JIRA, this view isn’t easily available. Expanding all of the rows creates a very busy view which is also not guaranteed to fit without the need to scroll. Collapsing the rows hides the task distribution (which may hide other things) and also the story status is represented by a word rather than the story’s location relative to the board’s columns and other stories.

7. There’s usually a driver

The way we use JIRA, someone screen-shares the taskboard in our Zoom session and that person automatically becomes the ‘driver’. What I’ve noticed about this is:

  • People are less likely to interact with the board during stand-up: they’d rather ask the driver to make updates or create emergent tasks
  • Some people are scared to drive (probably a tool thing – either JIRA and/or Zoom), so never do
  • The driver can get distracted by the mechanics of having the right story expanded, or making changes in JIRA, or whatever – so are not always fully present in the conversation
  • If the driver ends up being someone in a “leadership” position (e.g. a senior developer, the Product Owner), then sometimes they subtly control the decisions the team makes in terms of what they plan to do for the day because they can move things or assign things before the team have finished their discussion
  • All of the above means that the negative aspects of “you do it, you own it” sometimes sneak in…

I shared some of these challenges on the #zacoachclub channel in the Coaching Circles Slack Group and got some useful ideas to try out:

  • Write down in detail what information you really need the board to show so that it becomes your information radiator. Then lose all pre-conceived notions of how a board should look and how your tool sets up its boards. Based on the info you need: what could a board in your digital tool look like?
  • Try to represent the info you need in something other than your tool (i.e. JIRA) – maybe Google Draw or something. Once you have something that works, try implement that in your digital tool.
  • If the problem is too many things on the board, could your sprint/commitment be smaller to fit everything in one view?
  • Create a filter that filters out “old” done items and try to only work from the top story (limit work-in-progress).
  • Shift some of the information elsewhere e.g. Say pairs work on the story – they break down tasks in another place (Trello?) and feed back only relevant info to the greater team on the story which is in JIRA. Feedback to their mini team is much more granular and on another board/tool.

Do you use a digital board on your team? What challenges have you experienced? What did you try?

Scrum-Task-Board

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