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Physical Task Boards & Virtual Team Members

4 June 2014

More and more lately, people ask me, “What should we do when the team really likes having a physical task board, but one team member is remote? Do we have to move to a virtual task board?”
Before I answer that question, let me say that the ideal solution to this problem is to move the remote team member to the same location as the rest of the team. But let’s assume that is impossible for some reason, and move to the question at hand.
No. You don’t have to move your work to an electronic product backlog tool if the collocated team members are already used to and like a physical task board.
You will, however, need to convey the information that exists on the task board to the remote team member—and vice versa. Unless the remote team member is working on something alone and only needs to check in every few days, the ScrumMaster will likely need to create and update an electronic version that mirrors the physical task board. A shared spreadsheet is normally sufficient for this, but if you prefer using a more specialized tool, that is fine.
Normally the ScrumMaster updates the electronic task board once a day, usually right after the daily scrum meeting. Of course, reading the physical task board and updating the electronic one can be time consuming because the ScrumMaster has to look at each task in both places to see if that item needs to be updated.
One good way of minimizing the time the ScrumMaster spends doing this is to mark the cards on the physical task board. The mark indicates, “I've updated this task. Please update it in the online task board.” I like to use Post-It flags for this. As team members do their daily scrum, they stick one of these flags (of any color) on the card. If the estimate changes, if the task is done, if a new task is added, those cards are tagged with a flag. When the meeting is over, the ScrumMaster can very easily see which items need to be updated.
The ScrumMaster removes the flags once the online task board is updated. This approach also works in situations where the ScrumMaster updates the board more than once a day. Any time someone changes the board, that person flags the task.
So can a team use a physical task board with a remote team member? Yes. But only if someone ensures that the remote person is still able to see and update the information from the physical task board. It’s more work, but if you truly cannot all be collocated—and if a physical task board is the best choice for the majority of the team—it is doable.

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Current rating: 4.7 (3 ratings)
Mike Cohn
Hi Martin--

You raise a good point about a ScrumMaster not letting a team become dependent on him or her. However, I view the need to enter data redundantly as an impediment to the team's work. A good ScrumMaster will work to remove impediments--including this one.
11/9/2014 1:49:19 PM

Martin Lechner
Hi Mike,

Nice post but there is one thing I do not agree:
The ScrumMaster should NOT be the person doing the synchronization.
It is the duty of every developer to keep the board up to date - physical as well as electronic version.
And if the ScrumMaster does it he makes the team depended on him, supports their laziness, and impedes their self organization.
He should provide the means and find ways to make the synchronization easier but in my opinion he should never do it.

But there are other solutions than to move totally to an electronic board.

I am ScrumMaster and had this situation - 2 remote members.
We had an electronic board but switched to a physical one as the electronic
one was a pain to use during the daily (too small monitor, no overview, slow,...)
There is still an electronic board for the stories, but the task are now only on the physical board.

Our solution was to have the remote developers to participate at the daily (audio/video)
and afterwards to send a picture of the board to them.
We wrote the cards with big markers so the cards could be read and their tasks were updated during the daily.

This worked reasonable well.
The remote members felt a slight drawback, but it was a huge improvement for the local developers.

So for me, as long a I do not have access to a wall-sized touchscreen whiteboard, an electronic board will always be the last solution
and I will try hard to find ways around it.
11/4/2014 4:57:03 PM

Mike Cohn
Thanks, Rajeev. The more distributed a team gets, the more likely I will be to use a tool. But, the product owner and ScrumMaster being remote doesn't bother me too much, at least regarding the tool. The product owner and ScrumMaster don't interact with a sprint backlog in the same frequent way a team does, so I'd do whatever was best for the team--even possibly using a taskboard for them if they are all collocated.
9/17/2014 8:47:56 AM

Great Point Mike.
if scrum master and product owner are are remote ( remote to each other as well) and all development team members are colocated, what will you propose? Will physical task board is still useful or electronics taskboard will be better.
9/17/2014 12:39:13 AM

Muthaiya Nallalam Parasuraman
Actually 2 things I have noticed is, usually its more than 1 team member in remote environment. And usually some kind of service desk or backlog tool will be used as common for both teams. So usually what had worked for us is to having 2 scrum masters and more a sensible "DoD". A video conferenced daily scrum of scrums also helps. If there is no scrum master for the remote team, it’s not an ideal situation. But the scrum master here will have more work to facilitate both teams.
7/8/2014 7:15:26 AM

Mike Cohn
It can happen either way. If the tool is something the team members are regularly in, having them update it is great. If it's not something they regularly log into, I (as a ScrumMaster) have usually done the updating so team members don't have to--e.g., I'm removing an impediment to their progress.
6/27/2014 2:09:07 AM

Why should the SM update the electronic version of the scrumboard? In our teams we have the team members update both the Jira tasks as well as the physical scrumboard simultaneously.
6/27/2014 12:58:25 AM

Jai Singhal
Great points Mike!
One aspect of importance is to see if the remote team member can work independently. For interdependent work, lag is observed and collaboration is enhanced through IMs/Virtual chat and video conferencing. Today, technology has made these easier to attain.
When Scrum Master flags the electronic version and removes the flag, it only gives one time snapshot in a day. The updates and discussions occurring during the day is not visible. There is a lot happening during a day in Scrum as PDCA cycle as I have addressed in my blogs:
6/13/2014 9:55:35 AM

Steve Carter
We run this in reverse (in our project the devs are interested in many more tickets than the formal po is): devs update Jira tickets, and at stand-up we project the Jira board on the wall and update sticky notes. Then when the projector is off we still have an information radiator. Additionally, it's motivating to see the tickets moving at stand-up in front of stakeholders
6/5/2014 5:32:18 AM

Derek Mahlitz
With my first team we had 1 member not collocated so we kept the physical board and used that as the master and I kept an excel spreadsheet for the remote member, updated once a day before standup and it worked well for a few years. Once we picked up 2 remote teams in India on the project it became a lot harder and we moved to virtual tool.
6/4/2014 11:34:39 AM

George Dinwiddie
You don't need a virtual tool. Having a local physical board works well.

In fact, I think it works better. One of the problems with virtual boards is that things move "invisibly" without your noticing. If you're in the room with a physical board, you tend to notice when someone goes over and moves a card.

When you have a remote physical board, you need to keep track of the changes to communicate them to the other side (in both directions). This keeps everyone in sync better than a virtual tool.

Remember, it's not the documentation that needs to be in sync, but the people.
6/4/2014 11:20:06 AM

Lisa Crispin
I recognize that task board! We found having the SM maintain an electronic copy for our remote ppl was too onerous. We simply took photos of it each day and posted on the team wiki. We had good enough resolution so that the cards were easy to read. This worked fine for hte remote people. The key to making it work was one person was always responsible for taking the pictures and posting them, with a backup person to double check. Remote ppl emailed the SM to get cards moved.
6/4/2014 10:44:31 AM

Gene Gendel
We have tried almost an identical approach with multiple distributed teams, with the only difference that SMs used to sync up electronic boards with physical boards before daily stand-ups. This way, remove and local members would speak to the most up-to-date info. It required of SMs only 10-15 extra mins/day before every stand-up call to connect with each individual team member and ensure that virtual and physical cards were in sync. Also the team had portable video cameras capturing the physical board with people in front of it, sharing it via PC (WebEx) with remote people. In a standup everyone, even remote folks, would “talk to” a physical board, not the tool.
6/4/2014 9:53:44 AM