Here we are today, in the year 2016, with an amazing choice of different ALM tools to pick from. At the same time we hear this little voice inside our heads. It says: "is the shift to all-digital world actually worth it?". And: "are we really more efficient this way?". In his article entitled "Why Physical Task Boards Still Matter" Joel Bancroft-Connors claims that it is worth considering a balanced approach. The digital and physical approaches to project management can coexist and in many ways provide mutual back up. Joel's conclusion is derived from earlier observations. It seems that engaging more senses in information processing helps in better understanding and remembering the data later on.
But will it not introduce an unwanted procedural overhead?
Forceful sensory limitation
We are amazing creatures, equipped with fantastic senses and capable of using them to communicate and collaborate with others. And yet we limit ourselves. We spend so much time with computer displays, keyboards and mice where neither of our senses can be used to the full extent. And most of them are not used at all. We claim to be able to collaborate with others using software. But we communicate through the bottlenecks of sensory limitations implied by the very hardware we are using. Are we longing for engaging our senses to fuller extent? Are we feeling a sense hunger? Let's see if there are other examples of this longing.
How the sensory gap gets filled
Anyone who has ever worked or even visited a typical open space office has undoubtedly noticed one thing. There are very few non customised cubicles. You will find at least one of the following: rubber ducks, nerf guns, magic 8-balls, dozens of pens and erasers, fluffy bears and flowers. The objects are there to serve the purpose: to satisfy the perception hunger, limited by the 2D screens of computers. Do you have such a desk yourself? Have you noticed that sometimes, when you have a "slower day in the office" it feels like the proverbial rubber duck is the only thing that could keep you fully focused?
We tend to put a lot of gadgets and toys on our desks.
Let's take a look at another example. It is hard to imagine a happy childhood without some incarnation of building bricks. LEGO® is a company which made a huge success of this simple observation. But there is a bit of a problem to it: the imagination of the builder is limited by the amount of bricks in possession. Here is where the digital world came with an aid. The games like Minecraft® were born. In the digital world the amount of building blocks is not a problem any more. Perfect solution? Perhaps. But how do you explain the fact that LEGO® has launched an extremely successful line of LEGO® Minecraft® series? The physical Minecraft® bricks! Perhaps the digital bricks are not as entertaining and engaging as one might think.
Let's have another example, but this time let's focus on something more serious. In software development industry the Agile methodologies are known for many years and have been implemented with success across projects of different types and sizes. With evolution of different Agile approaches one thing remains constant. The focus on people, communication and collaboration keeps on growing. At the same time we observe the departure from process-oriented and tool-oriented approaches. Originally the Agile methodologies were organised around the local teams. But with the increase of projects delivered across multiple geographical locations the software tools came with help. Just like in case of Minecraft® the digital world came with the promise of unlimited instant scalability. But it also came with the aforementioned perception bottlenecks.
Fear not, the help is coming
A few years ago we have introduced a product called Agile Cards for JIRA®
Here are the benefits of using the physical boards for the task tracking.
- Your team is provided with the natural gathering place. Regardless if this is a pre-planned standup, or the team members pass the board by on their way to the coffee machine, the board will be a silent invitation to think about the tasks, their respective dependencies and statuses. The team members will be on the same page, and they will be more likely to participate in discussions.
- The physical boards do not require the URLs to be remembered, nor the new browser tabs to be opened, nor the login credentials to be recalled. Humans, despite their noble aspirations, are lazy by nature. Tedious tasks are likely to be avoided if they come with any repeated unnecessary effort.
- Physical boards do not have to serve just one purpose. If you have ever tried to bang the nail with the pair of pliers, just because the hammer was not around you know exactly what I mean. Physical boards add no cognitive overhead and they can be easily adapted to other purposes. You can pin pretty much anything to the board, right? They can act as idea containers, ad-hoc to-do tasks lists, message boards, etc.
- You can use physical and virtual boards at the same time. In fact they can coexist naturally. Remote and local teams can use them where needed.
- Physical boards can speed up your Agile adoption. Fancy tools often drive us away from the more important goals. It is especially visible in case of companies trying to adopt Agile. They often start by implementing the procedures and purchasing the new toolsets. While in reality they should start the transition with simplification. Agile Boards are a great manifestation of the primary Agile principle. They are simple and easy to adopt. And they do not obscure the purpose they are used for.
How does the product work?
Agile Cards developed by Spartez support three main scenarios.
In order to use the physical board first you have to build it and populate it. Acquiring the physical canvas is easy. It is up to the users to figure out whether they prefer to use the cork board and pins or a magnetic board and magnets. We at Spartez use both, because it is... well, twice as fun and engaging.
With Agile Cards you can print from boards, columns, individual tasks or even from the search results. You can also customise the printouts in many ways to allow for different cards' sizes, page layouts and the way the information is laid out on the cards. It is even possible to print cards on both sides, so that the additional information not fitting on the front side can be easily available if the card is flipped.
- Scanning the board for status updates
This is only where the true magic begins.
Each of the cards as well as column dividers and the board itself come with a scan code. Why would anyone want to scan the whole board at once? Because the product also allows for a very convenient synchronisation of the physical boards with the virtual boards in JIRA®. Scan the QR code of the board and upload the photo of the whole board with just a few taps. After the photo is processed the respective tasks' statuses are automatically updated in the virtual board as well. Yes, it really works!
- Scanning the board for backlog ordering
It is also possible to order the backlog of tasks based on the order to printed cards on the physical board. Like in case of status' updates - it takes just a few taps and one photo to be uploaded.
From left to right:
1. Agile Cards print preview.
2. Photo of the wall boards we use at Spartez. It's not a mess. We know EXACTLY where everything is.
3. Mobile view of the Agile Cards scanner with the uploaded cork board photo and the cards already recognised.
Office tasks can be made engaging and fun on many levels and even the tedious activities like daily stand-ups can become straightforward and natural. Our product, Agile Cards is helping here a lot by making the fuller use of our senses. In the end it is all about the productivity and we believe that in the modern times you can only be truly productive if you are using the tools to their full extent. Including those tools we have evolved with as a species: our five senses.