Why Visualisation is the key to being Agile

Posted on November 8th, 2011 in Agile by siddharta || 2 Comments

This coming weekend, I’m going to be talking at Agile Tour Chennai about visualisation in the context of agile teams.

It is my belief the visualisation is the key to being truly agile. Why? Read on..

Imagine for a moment that you’re playing a sport. Lets say football (soccer). Also imagine that the players in your team are told to wear blinkers (blinkers are what they put on horses so they can see only ahead), giving them a limited vision range, maybe just 1 metre in front of them. Only the coach can see the whole field. Therefore the coach has to tell the players where to kick the ball, and the players blindly follow the coach’s orders. How effective do you think this football team is going to be?

Donald Gray has a fabulous case study about three different leadership styles brought out while managing traffic at an intersection. This is a fantastic article and I suggest everyone read it and come back here. He shows how a policeman manually trying to manage the traffic is a lot less effective compared to leaving the drivers to figure it out themselves. Anyone who has driven in India knows this already. The traffic here is utter chaos, but it flows, even when the traffic lights aren’t working. In fact, if you see a long jam, chances are high that policemen are manually regulating the traffic!!

What these stories tell us is that when lots of complex decisions are to be taken, it is a better to decentralise decision making lower in the system.

Lets rewind back to the football team. Anybody can figure out that playing the team with blinkers, and the coach directing every move is a bad idea. It’s so obvious that you wouldn’t even consider it for a single moment. But, isn’t that exactly what we are doing in our software development teams? The project manager is often the only one who knows whats going on in the bigger picture. The team is developing with blinkers on. The project manager makes the move, communicates it to the team and the team executes the move. It’s not a very effective way of working.

In fact, like the policemen story, a single project manager who makes decisions on behalf of the team is likely to only make things worse. A project manager who assigns tasks to people in an attempt to balance work, is more likely to overload some people compared to each person picking up a task themselves when as they get free.

#1 A team is more effective when they make team level decisions for themselves.

But of course, thats not enough. If the blinkers are on, the team is going to flounder. You cant expect a team to make decisions effectively when they can only see a limited view. So you need to remove the blinkers. They have to see the same picture that the project manager sees when making a decision. They need to know what everyone is working on, and whats stage each work is in, and what is upcoming.

#2 Make the work visible.

Making work visible is good, but humans find it hard to make out patterns (unless its really obvious) from a table or spreadsheet. In this amazing TED video, David McCandless explains how the visual bandwidth of the  human brain far exceeds any other sense. Analytic capabilities are tiny by comparison. We are genetically predisposed to being very fast at identifying colour, shape, pattern and geometries.

Here is an example: Take 10 seconds (no cheating! :) ) looking at this, and see what you notice

Did you notice these things:

  1. Everything going to Test is being blocked
  2. Lots of things in progress, nothing completed
  3. Sid is overloaded with work and is multitasking many stories

How does this team move forward? Take a while to think about possible next actions, before heading to the next section.

Now take 10 seconds looking at this:

Find it easier to see the patterns?

Now, how does this team move forward?

  • It would seem that the first step is to unblock test and get those cards to completion. No point finishing Development cards and adding it to a blocked test queue. So the developers drop what they are working on, and pair with the Ram & Arjun to fix the bugs and get those cards passed
  • Then Ram & Arjun (now free) help Sid to cut down the multitasking and get get some of the cards through test
  • The bottleneck at test and development are now both untangled. The team discusses how the queue got blocked, how Sid landed up with three cards in progress, and how it can be avoided

Go back to the spreadsheet. Did any of these steps jump out? Come back to the visualisation. Did these steps jump out?

These are the kinds of decisions that team members can take for themselves when the blinkers are off. Much better than the project manager trying to make the decisions.

#3 Visualise the work

Visualisation leads to understanding. Understanding enables team decision making. Team decision making enables collaboration and agility.

Some of our case studies back this up. When teams could visualise work, they collaborate more, and self organise better, leading to better agility.

The best part?

Project managers get to take a break from all that decision making and can focus on much higher value activities, like steering the team towards the goal.

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2 Responses to “Why Visualisation is the key to being Agile”

  1. Ubiquitous Visualisation » Tools For Agile Blog » Blog Archive Says:

    […] is the subconcious way in which everyone knows whats going on in the team. I already blogged about why visualisation is the key to being agile. I’ll just summarise that post here. Click the link if you want to read the whole […]

  2. home Says:


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