Essential Scrum hardware - lots of whiteboards

10 August 2012

Peter Hilton

by Peter Hilton

environment set-up :tags: [scrum,methodology]

In case you’re wondering how many whiteboards your Scrum team members need, the correct answer is ‘one each’.

One person’s whiteboard

The Scrum board is not a whiteboard

A development team often only has one whiteboard that gets used for the Scrum board, because it’s a convenient way to draw the board. Whiteboards aren’t just for the Scrum board: you need them for day-to-day discussions, because whiteboards are really rapid-prototyping tools for text and diagrams.

It’s a waste to write on paper stickies with a whiteboard marker, and then stick them to a whiteboard. Any flat surface would do, although you may get in trouble if you draw columns on the wall with a marker. Instead, you can just tape paper signs to the wall to indicate the Scrum board columns, such as To do and Done.

High-bandwidth communication

Scrum is all about verbal communication, which it emphasises over written documentation. Scrum does this for three reasons: to keep software requirements flexible until as late as possible in the development process, because verbal communication doesn’t take as long, and because a conversation between two people has higher bandwidth than writing a specification.

The highest bandwidth communication between two people is face-to-face verbal communication… plus a whiteboard. It’s a conversation with quick diagrams.

It matters that the diagrams are low-fidelity back-of-the-napkin-style diagrams, because these are quick to draw. If you draw diagrams on a computer, the diagramming software invokes a time warp: time slows down while you endlessly fiddle with box alignment and arrow placement. A picture is also worth a thousand words in that it takes just as long to produce.

Team whiteboards

Despite whiteboards’ usefulness, many teams have a shared whiteboard. Just one. If there’s only one whiteboard then there can only be one high-bandwidth conversation at a time. This isn’t what you want: centralised discussion is for old-fashioned school classrooms and meetings, not for productive teams. Treating a whiteboard marker like a team’s talking stick would be as annoying as a version control system that locks files on check-out.

Sometimes you can tell that you don’t have enough whiteboards: they’re all full up, and people have to write ‘DNE’ (do not erase) on whiteboards that other people use. Here’s a simple rule of thumb: if you have fewer whiteboards than people then you don’t have enough.