The Power of a Whiteboard

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Agile software development teams often use low-tech, manual methods for tracking their work. Post-it notes or cards on a whiteboard. Charts drawn by hand. Sketches for architecture and design.

But why, for such a high-tech industry like software development, would agile teams do this, when there are plenty of project management tools available; even tools that are purpose-built for agile software development?

Personally I can see why. I think a whiteboard offers loads of advantages over electronic tools. They’re mainly soft factors, I admit, but I think a whiteboard is hard to beat.

First of all, a whiteboard is visual. And it’s BIG. You can see at a glance how things are going.

When you’re part way through a Sprint, and most of the cards are still on the left of the board, you know it’s not going so well. Or you’re coming towards the end of a sprint, and the cards are mostly – reassuringly – on the right of the board, you know it’s going fine. The Burndown Chart shows you instantly whether the team is on track. And, if not, by how much. All at a glance as you walk past the board. Whether you made a special effort to look or not. The visibility is unbeatable.

When you see something in print, somehow it seems more real. I guess because it’s physical. A large number of post-it notes on a whiteboard looks like a lot of work. Probably because it *is* a lot of work! Its sheer physical presence reflects the amount of work the team is actually doing. It feels busy. It feels like a place where alot is happening, which feels good. A long list of tasks on a project plan, or a long list of rows in a spreadsheet, simple doesn’t have the same impact.

A whiteboard is also flexible. Infinitely flexible. You can put literally anything you like on it. Wherever you like. In any position, any size, any shape. Unlike an electronic system, there are never any constraints. No-one ever says you can’t do something because the whiteboard won’t let you.

It’s fast and efficient to change. You could completely reoarganise a set of cards in just a few moments. Or sketch something important in seconds.

It’s also more tactile. For people that like tactile, it feels good to move a card to done. You feel a sense of ownership when you pick up a card. A business owner feels a greater sense of responsibility – real acknowledgement – when they add something to the board and take something else off the board to take it out of scope. It feels like something was actually, physically removed from scope.

It’s also novel. When a team starts doing agile – and they create great visibility using the whiteboard – it’s remarkable how many people want to come and look. Senior people have a sudden interest in what the team is doing. And even in the process itself. That would never happen with spreadsheets and tools! I can’t ever remember a Director asking to come and walk through my project plan, or walk through my product backlog. In fact the very thought of it fills most people with dread! It just doesn’t happen. But the whiteboard is interesting. It’s interesting to look at. And interesting to talk about. When someone walks you through it, it’s actually enjoyable.

Because a whiteboard has no set structure, it suits the way many people think (not all). Many people think visually. Not in lists, but in shapes, sizes, colours, etc. The whiteboard’s lack of structure allows the information to be organised and presented however suits.

Important information can be highlighted easily by putting it on the whiteboard. Important information is not buried with loads of other documents and files in a project folder somewhere, which few people would browse and certainly wouldn’t notice in passing.

Its visible nature can prompt people to remember things when they see them, rather than relying on their memory to go and look somewhere else that’s out of sight.

But above all else, the whiteboard is a place for collaboration. It’s a focal point. Like a campfire in days gone by. Or a fireplace in your lounge. Most team discussions happen round the whiteboard. Discussions about progress. Discussions about issues. Discussions about design. All sorts, sometimes even when the whiteboard isn’t even needed. It becomes the hub of information for the team. The hub for communication and collaboration.

And last but not least, the unstructured nature of the whiteboard allows it to be be personalised by the team. The team can express itself through the things it puts on its whiteboard. It starts to show the character of the team, and therefore helps to create a visible sense of team spirit.

Tools can certainly help to organise information more efficiently. But I would challenge any tool to do all of that! I’m not against tools. Not at all. But I think they should supplement the whiteboard, not replace it. Tools should be used for things they can do that a whiteboard can’t. For instance, keeping track of longer lasting information, doing calculations, searching, etc. But personally I don’t think I’d ever use tools instead of a whiteboard. There’s simply too much to lose.