Let's Get Physical

At work I do a lot of stuff. I help teams produce software that is used by millions of people. When I am home on the weekend I do more work, but it's different work. I work with my hands producing things. Physical things. Although what I do at work is valuable (far more valuable in dollar terms than my attempts at DIY) I almost feel more of a sense of satisfaction at seeing a finished thing worth $50 roll out of my workshop than a million dollar project roll out of one of my teams. Because it's real. Because I can touch it and pick it up ( well, maybe pick it up... some of them are quite heavy). Because it is a physical thing.

I react differently to physical things than I do to electronic things. Maybe this is because I am not in my first flush of youth and don't qualify as a "digital native". Maybe to younger people, electronic stuff feels just as real as physical things but I doubt it. People are hardwired to treat things they can see and touch as more real than things they can't. Even in the physical world. People will often take the single chocolate bar they can see now, rather than wait for ten chocolate bars that are waiting in the next room. The one they can see is more real than the ten they can't.

It's the same with work. I can look at a to do list on the work PC with a hundred huge items on it and not feel as overloaded as looking at the materials for three small projects stacked in my garage. Because one is physical and the other isn't.

This situation comes up all the time at work as well, particularly when talking about visual management boards. The temptation is always to somehow make them electronic. The argument goes - we run an electronic story tracking system anyway, so why not use it to generate a VMB dashboard, available on demand, wherever you are? Why rely on a physical board covered in post it notes and index cards that you have to get up and walk to when you want to change something?

And the answer is – because one is real and the other isn't. A list of stuff in a tracking system feels very different to a stack of cards on a wall. Clicking a checkbox to say "done" feels very different to physically picking up a card and moving it to the "done" pile. A stack of work represented by physical things feels more real than the same stack of work represented by lines in a spreadsheet. If a task feels real, people treat it differently. People take more ownership of a task when that task is represented by a physical thing than they do when it isn't.

Teams with physical boards tend to achieve a stable velocity sooner than teams with an electronic board. Teams with physical boards tend to have less tasks left over at the end of a sprint than teams with electronic boards. Teams with physical boards tend to work better as a team than teams with electronic boards.

Yes, there are issues with physical boards. It often involves double handling as things need to be updated electronically as well. There are ways to make electronic boards as interactive and real seeming as real boards but those solutions tend to be expensive. I find the small investment in double handling time is well worth the results. If I had a choice, I would throw away the electronic story tracking system and just keep the physical board.

There are situations where electronic boards are the only thing that works – distributed teams for example, but wherever possible I always put in a physical board. I like to keep things real.