Paper v Electronic Dashboards: Goals and Values

It’s almost a matter of dogma that, for agile teams, low tech project tracking tools and artifacts are superior to electronic ones. The usual reason you might hear for preferring a physical task board to an electronic issue system are are that a physical task board is more visible and encourages communication and collaboration. I appreciate this, and have seen it, but I’ve also seen teams do well with issue tracking systems. From time to time I see a discussion of this “physical v electronic  tracking” issue and I find myself frustrated by it, but not sure why.

Reading Scott Kirshner’s article Incubating ideas from the rank-and-file in the March 4, 2012 Boston Globe led me to think more about this. The article is about the value of listening to people in your organization when seeking ways to work better. This in itself seems aligned with agile values. In particular, this quote caught my eye:

Many of the ideas presented were dazzling. And almost every one sprang from frustrating experiences. Why, in the 21st century, was the hospital still manually updating whiteboards with information about patients’ health status and the teams taking care of them, Lynn Darrah wondered. So she developed a digital display that was just as easy to update, but the information was visible on any computer in the hospital.

While I take issue with the premise that using whiteboards is too low tech for the 21st century in all cases, I wondered how it was that a computer system for tracking patient status could work in a life critical situation, while it might not on a software project. The problem is that the “paper v electronic” discussion focuses on the wrong thing. The issue for agile teams is not about paper v electronic, it’s about collaboration, visibility, improvement, and results.

I do believe that, when you are trying to change a culture, introducing a radically new approach can be a way to encourage people to think about how they work. And it’s certainly true that “we’ve always done it that way” isn’t a reason  to continue doing something. But you need to focus on goals and results, not the tools you use. Changing tools should be a result of the tool not helping you to meet your goals.

Yes, I do prefer a physical task board in many cases. And if your team does a sprint review and isn’t meeting goals, and communication seems to be an issue, try a physical task board for a sprint or two and compare. But is the if the team has a good sense of where things are during a sprint, communicates frequently, and meets goals, insisting on a physical task board might actually be contrary to the agile value of  putting individuals and interactions over processes and tools.