Distributed teams and Online Scrum Walls

There has been widespread debate around physical Scrum Walls vs digital Scrum Walls for teams for some time now.  I know that this totally depends on the situation of your teams as to which method you choose.  Personally, having used both physical and digital walls I feel at home using both.  Each has their benefits depending on what type of team you have, whether the team is collocated or distributed and the ease of locating space on a wall big enough to house your board.  As always I would say research both and pick which one is most suitable to your needs and way of working.  If you find that either is not working, don’t be afraid to change!

When I started with Scrum a long time ago now, our Scrum Walls were physical.  Lines drawn out with the iconic blue 3M tape adorned every spare piece of wall in our office.  No wall was safe!  Our development teams were based in one location, our Product Owner was based in another and the task of keeping the Wall up to date was a mammoth task.  It was easy for our developers to physically walk up to the board and move a task to the relevant position on the board once it was completed, but it was hard for our Product Owner to keep abreast of what was happening.  It was dependent on constant communication from the team to the PO to keep him up to date with how work was progressing.  It is easy for a PO based with the team to look at a wall to give any status reports, but it is more of a labored task for a distributed PO to see a physical board and quickly give an update to a stakeholder, so it was important for us to always keep the PO in the loop.  Sometimes the communication would fail and with that work slowed so I needed another solution.

This problem sent me on a quest to find a Scrum Wall that worked alongside our existing physical wall but made this available online without compromising the work of the team.  One that would make the wall available online but deliver notifications if tasks were assigned to the PO.  If you have read my previous blog post about the online Scrum Wall that used QR codes placed on our User Stories and tasks to plot them to an online Scrum Wall, then you will see how highly I rated this at the time (although, my teams didn’t rate it as highly as I did and I put this down to the inner tech geek within me that though QR codes were cool at the time).  It did seem as though it would work well in theory but in practice it was a logistical nightmare as you had to print the cards out, physically write on the cards, use a high definition camera to take a picture of the board and then upload the picture for the system to map out the points and move cards to their new positions by comparing it against the last photograph taken.  If you missed a photo or if sunlight was hitting the board the wrong way the picture would be spoiled and have to be run through again.  Even writing out that process makes me tired.

Eventually we opted for the tried and trusted method of pointing a webcam at the board and carrying out our Daily Standups.  It wasn’t without its problems but it worked for us.  Our teams then moved in house with everyone located in the same building and we concentrated on our physical walls and our efforts to move to digital were put to bed.

When I started with my new company I realised that my teams were distributed again.  But thankfully the days of everyone piling into a small room with a 2 megapixel camera, one microphone and a raft of background noise have passed.  The infrastructure now available for teams to communicate is out of this world compared to a few years ago.  We are currently using Skype for business (Previously Lync) and our systems are equipped with HD webcams and advanced conference phones with webcams to help our teams keep in touch.  This is a lot better than previous methods that I have used and it is a useful tool for distributed teams.

With an improvement in infrastructure, software tools have also come a long way since I started with my first distributed team.  Online Scrum Walls have become a lot more advanced and usable.  The main online Scrum Wall that I use is a tool called Kanbanize.  This is a tool that makes it simple to make online Scrum Wall’s or Kanban boards and allows you to tailor them to your specific team.  The god send for the Scrum Master is the ability to utilize Kanbanize to automatically import Bugs or PBI’s from Team Foundation Server or Jira when an item is created by the team.  When a PBI or Bug is created we have set Kanbanize to import the task to the relevant Scrum wall, complete with PBI/Bug number, description, link back to TFS and which Swimlane the task should reside in.  We then pull the PBI from the backlog to the Sprint backlog when it is needed.  So no more manual input and precious time saved!  It allows you to tailor the columns or swimlanes to match your physical Scrum Wall as shown below.

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Tasks can be colour coded and each user can set their own avatar that will appear on each task assigned to them, mirroring our usual physical Scrum Wall.  With alerts being sent when a task is assigned or switches assignee or if a task is blocked it really is a useful tool for helping teams work together when they are not in the same location.  We share our board on screen as part of our daily Standup so it really is like we are meeting in front of our Scrum Wall every morning.

You can check out Kanbanize’s feature list here but it would be interesting to hear your views on Digital Scrum walls, your experiences or oven opinions on other tools that I should consider for a distributed team.

I will admit, I do love a physical Scrum Wall and I have created one in addition to our online Scrum Walls in our office.  You are probably thinking, why does he need this if he has them online?  Well, I find that it is a good information radiator for people working on the project or different projects.  I also find it useful for people randomly walking past and asking what the board is, what its purpose is and generally showing an interest in Scrum.  All of this is beneficial even though it does require a little overhead.  So there you have it, an example of finding what works well for you and making it happen.