The Scrum Task Board and the Self-Managing Team

The Scrum Task Board and the Self-Managing Team

person at whiteboard

In the early days of Scrum, the quickest way to locate a Scrum team’s work area was to look for the task board, which was usually mounted on a nearby wall. Work was managed using index cards, sharpies and spreadsheets, and the task board served as a tool for tracking work as well as an information radiator.

Anybody walking by could simply look at the task board and see the team’s progress at that point in time without having to ask a single question.

However, what inevitably happens in nearly every field is that new technology and tools are developed over time with the intention of “making it easier” to manage work, and the world of agile is no different. Some tools were built from the ground up to manage agile project work, while others were developed as add-ons to existing tools.

When an agile project is just beginning, it seems like the first question asked is always “What agile tool are we going to use?” Let’s face it, we in the IT industry love our tools, and I am no exception.

However, the technology we perceive as progress can sometimes have unintended consequences. Take, for instance, society’s extensive use of social media, texting, and other technological forms of communication. They were originally created to save time and effort, but we are only now discovering that these tools can lead to a sense of social isolation in certain segments of the population.

High-Tech Tools: More Harm Than Help?

So, what does this have to with Scrum teams? A Scrum team’s success is all about collaboration, which in turn is all about co-location and face-to-face communication. While technology can certainly enhance a distributed Scrum team’s collaboration, it also has the potential to hinder a co-located team: if the team relies too heavily on technology, it can start to act as an inadequate substitute for face-to-face communication and collaboration.

For example, I was working with two Scrum teams over the course of many sprints and, while all their information was readily available in a high-tech agile tool, I rarely saw it displayed on anyone’s screen. I also noticed that their stand-ups were functioning as more of a status report than an opportunity for the team to share information and level-set the team’s progress in the sprint. 

Although the team reported a high level of confidence in completing stories during the mid-sprint, I could see from the story point burn-down chart that they were scrambling to complete stories in the later stages of the sprint. I knew that all the team members were solid professionals, so their work ethic clearly wasn’t the problem.

Eventually, I realized that, while they may have been focused as individuals, they weren’t focused as a team. I also realized that the unintended consequence of technology was that the team’s most crucial information was buried in a tool that no one bothered to access.

A Low-Tech Solution

Since I didn’t have two 70-inch monitors to put in the team rooms, I decided to go old-school. So, the next day I came in with painter’s tape and put a task board on the wall. I then printed out the stories and tasks from our agile tool and recreated the task board to reflect the status of the sprint.

I told the team that, during the sprint stand-up, each team member would go to the task board to address the team. I also told them to focus on the team and ignore anybody else in the room, and that each time they spoke about a specific piece of work they would need to move the corresponding tasks on the board to the appropriate columns as well.

It took some time for them to get comfortable with doing the stand-up in this way, but the result was that the task board started to provide them with the focus they needed as a team. It had a constant presence, easily showed the team’s progress and gave each team member the satisfaction of physically moving their work across the board from the “to-do” column to the “done” column. 

During the mid-sprint checks, the accuracy of the team’s confidence level vote increased dramatically. And, when a mid-sprint check indicated that the team might have a problem, they used the task board to determine how to resolve the problem and re-allocate resources accordingly. For these teams, as well as many others, the task board quickly became their primary tool for self-managing.

The Value of Planning

I always tell my teams that the most important aspect of sprint planning is not the plan itself but the fact that they engaged in the act of planning in the first place. This is because the act of planning gives the team a shared understanding of what must be accomplished.

And, given that things rarely go according to plan, we must constantly re-plan “in light of what we know now,” and every team member should be fully aware of the changes in the revised plan. With the help of a humble task board, teams can easily collaborate, re-plan and focus for the duration of a sprint, and that’s the sign of a truly effective agile tool.



Jim Sywilok is an agile practitioner and agile coach with more than 25 years of progressive technical and business experience.

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