A simple answer would be: spatial memory.
A slightly longer answer could be: spatial memory and confirmation bias.
(Oh, and by the way: They should be visible all the time only for the people who need to see the information on them)
But let's put that into context. Why are spatial memory and confirmation bias important for the way we use boards in Agile teams?
As many people have pointed out in the past Agile doesn't fix any problems, it just makes them visible, so that it is easier to do something about them. One of the tools agile teams started to use early on to facilitate this is visualization. A team, working towards a goal, visualizes the information they need to know about. This can be all kind of information –which might be a topic for another blog-post–, but one of the most prominent visualization techniques is the taskboard. Taskboards are especially helpful for knowledge workers because the very nature of our work makes it impossible to directly perceive the status of the work – let alone knowing how much work is currently in progress. The Kanban method went so far as to have the notion of ‘making invisible work visible’ at its very heart, albeit many so-called Kanban-boards are merely task-boards.
To really make use of this visualization we need to leverage spatial memory and counter confirmation bias.
Why spatial memory?
If the great benefit of (Task-)boards is, that they make work tangible and agile only makes problems visible, then it is important, that we help our brain to make use of this information. With a visible board, it is plausible that the amount of information displayed is still manageable. With electronic boards on the other hand: not so much.
Physical work (what David Allen –of getting-things-done fame– calls "cranking widgets") takes up a defined amount of space and most of the time also a defined location. So, for example, when working on some home-made stuff, during sanding it is easy to remember that “the blocks on the left side of the table still need work, and those in the upper row need some special treatment because they felt ’strange’.“ In this case, ‘left-hand side’ would be associated with unfinished and ‘top row’ with special treatment needed.
Likewise, if we have a number of boards physically placed throughout the workspace, location gets mapped to meaning. After a while, we just ’know’ that we have to look at the board on the wall behind Jenny to see the current status of Portfolio initiatives. Or at the board in the hallway to see the state of affairs with regard to the committed user-related features.
One could argue that having electronic boards for the same information works almost the same, because with electronic boards we just ‘know’ that we have to go to «boards»->«companywide»->«MyDepartment»->«Initiatives» to find the portfolio information and we have to go to «boards»->«MyDepartment»->«Stories» to see the committed user-related features. But this draws on a different kind of memory, which is accessed a lot slower. And takes more energy to activate. At least that's one of the learnings I took away from Sharon Bowman’s “Training from the Back of the Room”.
Even our figures of speech are quite informative here. Getting a ‘picture or the situation’ or having the ‘big picture’ are good examples of this.
And glancing at the walls just takes somewhere between a fraction of a second and a couple of seconds, depending on how much information you want to absorb. It even happens without conscious effort. Just walking by the feature-board in the hallway and the portfolio-board behind Jenny's desk gives you a certain amount of situational awareness - whether you want it or not.
What about confirmation bias?
Unfortunately, even though one of the original ideas behind Agile approaches was to make problems visible most humans are influenced by confirmation bias. We tend to look for helpful clues to help us to confirm whether a course of action is feasible. In earlier times that was helpful – and it even is helpful today as Jeffry Levine explains convincingly on quora. We wouldn’t be able to act in the world if we didn’t apply filters to the huge amount of information that comes at us all the time. And re-thinking topics we already thought about would –most of the time– be a waste of the rare resource mental power.
One of the implications of this is that we –in general– don’t go out there and look for things that are not as expected. We probably won’t open the portfolio board every day to check whether the portfolio item that our current feature relates to just got flagged ‘canceled.’ And neither is it likely that all portfolio managers look at the detail boards all the time. But, in my personal experience, they develop quite a keen eye for an agglomeration of blockers on features if they pass that wall several times a day.
To help people tackle problems and issues they care about it does help to make this information visible. Especially in those cases where nobody would actively look for the unwelcome information.
It's called visual management for a reason
Even if Agile and the Kanban method have both somewhat evolved from their roots in Lean, the whole board idea is based on visual control and the enormous lever for self-management it provides.
So, if you use boards, make sure the important ones are visible all the time to the right people.
till next time
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