The scrum board: dead on arrival

A few years ago I wrote…

The longer I teach and coach scrum, the more I become convinced that the physical workflow board is the heart of scrum. Without the workflow board, a team has no center, no focus, no hub.

More recent experience has shown me that this heart has no beat. Here’s the problem: a scrum expert comes in to work with a team. This well-meaning, and often very caring person helps the team create a physical workflow board to visualize the work in progress. Good start. Then the team starts to use the board, and—no surprise—it doesn’t accurately represent the actual workflow of the team. The board, with all the best intentions, is dead on arrival.

Context is everything in software development, and attempting to force-fit a team’s way of working into a tool designed by someone outside the team creates blocked arteries, a disconnect with the life-force and a lot of pain. Ultimately the team experience a kind of living death.

Why does this happen? It is an unexpected consequence of the well-intentioned help. The team see the scrum expert as, well, an expert. This person must know what they are doing, so we should use the board as designed. I’ve visited many scrum teams using physical workflow boards with columns and rows that mean absolutely nothing to the team. They struggle to have the board make sense in their context. It doesn’t. It is ultimately abandoned, or perhaps even worse, kept in it’s half-life state by a dedicated scrum master, tasked with “ensuring the integrity of the process”.

A workflow board—like a heart—must be a living, emerging entity, adapting to circumstance. The board, like the work process itself, is a quest, it is not a state. Quest will take us on a journey. State will halt us in stagnation.

Learn about different ways to visually map your work. Read, explore, listen to experts, certainly, and then throw away all the advise and begin with a new mind to create something meaningful to your own team, your own context. Frequently question the value of this artifact, and frequently seek improvements.

Only then will you create a beating heart; the blood will flow, coagulation will be minimized; you’ll have freedom to breathe, and energy to dance.

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