Options for team task board when one team member remote

By Posted in - Agile on June 4th, 2009 2 Comments
Team task board

Team task board

A new client of mine new to Agile has the entire team located in one office except for one person, a DBA living in Texas, one time zone away. I want the local team to benefit from having a highly visible team task board, which usually means cards/stickies posted on the wall like the picture above.

At the other end of the spectrum, the remote member needs to be informed of sprint progress, to know what tasks to do and to update the tasks he is working on. That level of interaction usually means everyone has to use a digital tool, which in this case seems unfair to the local team’s productivity and communication, given all but one are local.

The best solution, of course is to find some way for that person to move locally. It’s not often that will happen, but moving is the first option to consider. The cost of having a remote team member is borne by the full team, so make sure the remote person adds enough value to justify the cost.

I then went on Twitter to ask for suggestions, and got two, based their experiences:

  • Rick Scott (@shadowspar) has worked as a remote team member for several years, mostly as a tester. He suggests using a web cam focused on the task board, or take pictures and post on a project wiki.
  • Andy Brandt (@andybrandt) proposes projecting a digital team board on the wall. The digital tool gives the remote person the means to update his work and get details like acceptance tests to do his work. The local team benefits from a highly visible task board.

My thoughts on these approaches:

  • Rick’s suggestion is ok for seeing the overall picture, but doesn’t go far enough. It’s hard to see all the details on stickies from a picture, and acceptance tests are often written on the back side of a user story card. Writing all details on the front is an easy modification, but that doesn’t solve the problem of seeing everything clearly. The remote member still has no easy way to update his progress either.
  • Andy’s idea seems like a good compromise. Everyone can access and read / update the same information. The local team has their highly visible task board. The key drawback is all changes are made through a tool. Mike Cohn feels that the difference between the two approaches is dramatic.

Idea: Synchronize physical with digital

I asked Mike Cohn for his insights on this topic, and he responded with a great post. The solution he proposes is to have the Scrum Master synchronize a physical task board for the local team and an electronic version for the remote person:

A shared spreadsheet is normally sufficient for this, but some teams opt for a more specialized tool, which is fine. Many tools offer 5-10 user free licenses and since the tool is only needed by the ScrumMaster and one remote employees, the free license is adequate.

Mike then suggests using a marker system to minimize the effort needed to keep the two versions in synch. The Scrum Master then only has to update the flagged tasks, saving her time. This can be done using post-its or coloured dots. The Scrum Master simply removes the markers after updating the tasks.

Derek Mahlitz, a Scrum Master for a team with one remote member confirms this approach is effective for his team:

We do this exact process for my team. We have 7 members in 1 office in NY and 1 member at home in FL. The collocated team updates our task board and I (SM) replicate in an Excel spreadsheet that is stored in our sharepoint solution. That way he can keep up with the tasks. We also do video for daily standup and all collocated team members have webcams for quick meetings throughout the day with FL home worker. We are a year into scrum and this has worked great without issue.

Out of all the solutions I’ve heard, Mike Cohn’s seems like the best approach without extravagant spending on touch screen surface hardware. My client suggested trying a Wii controller to update a web-based task board projected on a wall. Can’t go wrong in trying that.  🙂

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  • 14falcons

    I hope you might also consider Teamput (http:/www.teamput.com). You can create action lists with headings and move items within the lists or from list to list. You can also upload a template image and pin it to the canvas if you want to use sticky notes. Teamput is free if you collaborate with up to five users. $8/mo for unlimited collaborators. It's easy and incredibly effective. Give it a shot.