How to work with a whiteboard (scrum/kanban board) with a distributed team?

On agile conferences and on agile mailing list every once in a while the same question pop’s up:

“What tool should I use to keep track of my team.” or what is the best tool…”

I answer this every time again with a question: what are you using right now.
I want to know why people want to use a tool.
I do this because the BEST tool does not exist. Now don’t get me wrong. These days there are a lot of nice tools out there that can help you. And I have friends amoung most of these tool makers. I ask the question because before you buy a tool, you should figure out why you need the tool.

If your team can’t get itself under control with a whiteboard, no tool will help you to solve that problem. And tool makers agree with me. They don’t want to be blamed them for something they do not want to solve.

Yes I know, we are in the software building industry, so we think that every problem we have, can be solved with some software. And if the software does not fix it, then we switch to another software.

I don’t believe that. I think you should first fix the problem, and then find the software that helps you best with your new process.

In my opinion “Low Tech” is a better to figure out how you want to work together with your team.

On a whiteboard the information is also much more “in your face”. If it is online in one of these fancy Agile project Management software, you have to realize that most software developers in your team will not open the software. And if they do, they will not got have a look at those fancy reports every day. They will look at the papers on their whiteboard. Especially when they are discussed during the standup.

Yes Yves you are right, but that won’t work for our distributed team…
When I started with my first distributed team (2005), I read everywhere that agile and distributed teams could not work together. I did not agree. I worked fine with our distributed team.

Today we have distributed agile experts and they claim (And I agree) that if you want/have to work distributed agile is the only/best way.
When I started with that first distributed team, I look around at some of the agile tools, I did not find any of them that really was good for what we wanted to do.
I have played around with whiteboard and different techniques on how to communicate the information with the team.

My favorite at this moment: TeamBuddies
This works best with two subteams that are of similar size.

Have a whiteboard on either side.
Hold a daily standup on both sides. Everyone states his own tasks, like he would do with a collocated team. On top of that everyone also states the work of his buddy on the other side.
Yep, everyone has a buddy in the other sub-team. Before the standup, they explain to each other what they have done.
Extra advantage: because for some people it is a kind of rehearsal of what they will say, the people in the team are much more focused while they speak during the standup.

This way you have a whiteboards that is up-to-date on both sides.

Extra advantage that I never saw comming:

Every member of your team that has a very close communication with one a person on the other side. That is very good for the teamspirit. When you rotate your buddy’s every week or so, you can create a much bigger binding in your team then you usually have with a distributed team.

When you work like that you don’t need a software tool to spread that information in a distributed team. And you get a much healthier team on top of it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that these tools don’t bring any value. I’m saying that you should not replace your whiteboard with software, only because you work distributed.

Oh and if the excuse is that these board look to unprofessional, read Xavier’s blog on Visual management to upgrade your whiteboard to look more professional. I “stole” the picture from his blog.