Secret sauce

Why visual tools enhance collaboration in your teams


Collaborative skills can make or break an agile team – Jayathirtha R Rao shows us how big visual charts (BVCs) can help.

Roughly a billion experts in behavioral sciences, not to mention every Scrum/Agile coach in the world – has probably drummed out the same message by now – team collaboration is the secret sauce for Agile teams.

But what is the secret sauce that can actually drive collaboration? In this article, originally published in JAX Magazine, Jayathirtha R Rao looks at the concept of Big Visible Charts (BVC) and how they can help your team.

Why have a chart at all?

Because people need to know.

Projects have a lot of stakeholders. And project status reports are meant for the sponsors, project managers and senior leadership more often than the delivery teams. Even if these are distributed to everyone, chances are that they do not make too much sense to the people in the team. So if a regular report does not work for the team, what does?

Teams need to understand how they are progressing and who needs help or can give help around the team. From a different perspective, the “feel” for the collaboration comes from the daily standup, but the team does not have any objective data to take decisions if they only rely on the standup. BVCs fill this gap.

What should you put on the chart(s)?

Is there anything you want to share with the team? Anything you worry about while you work? Impediments that seem to recur? Progress on acceptance tests? Defects that are slowing you down?

Some examples:

  1.  Open defects by day

  2.  Acceptance of features by day

  3.  Open queries and change requests v/s features

  4.  Burndown or burnup chart.

  5.  Tests designed v/s executed to show you if you are keeping pace

  6.  Successful builds versus failed builds

  7.  Number of interruptions per day.

Anything that allows the team to see the patterns that otherwise get drowned out in day to day work is a candidate for being put up in a BVC. However, make sure you ask the team what they want to keep an eye on.

How detailed should the BVCs be?

Ideally enough to show patterns to the team so they can figure out what to do. Not more. Too much detail in the charts leads to analysis by pure numbers, not utilizing the feel and inherent capabilities of the team to advantages.

And yes, BVCs are impartial. You can see both the good and the bad news as it happens. Charts can stay around as supporting the team, but when a good or a bad pattern emerges, it can help the team make a decision on what to do to move ahead.

Also, BVCs are a good way to bring focus to the major impediments during the retrospective. Going back to the root causes is easier when you have a clear starting point.

Simply going into a project area should give you plenty of ideas about the project progress if you use BVCs as information radiators.

Hand done versus electronic BVCs

A lot of tools today have features where you can create all sorts of charts based on the data the team is putting in. So why not just use those? Well, there are advantages to hand done BVCs

  1.  It encourages team participation in updating the charts manually, pushing the case for ownership and teamwork.

  2.  Hand drawn BVCs are typically put up next to all the other post-its – and the team uses this area the most. So, it gets the team the data they want, without any interference from outsiders. Putting it up electronically leads to more and more stakeholders looking at it and asking questions – making the BVC more likely to become an impediment for the team.

  3.  You can add quick notes on hand drawn charts – not so easy to do in the electronic copies.

  4.  They just look and feel better than an electronic one !

Beyond the team

As the manager for multiple delivery teams myself, I often find myself in a position where I wish I could understand a bit more of the details as the team goes about executing. Attending the standups is one way of doing this, but it is always a distraction and interferes with the flow for the team.

Much easier to look at the BVCs which give a clear idea of how the team is doing. That aside, understanding the pattern may sometimes raise questions along the lines of “Why did we stop working on this story for three days?” or “Are query resolutions really taking that long? Maybe I should take that up to ensure we can close those questions quicker”. BVCs may get your managers involved in helping the team – in the way they should.

Jayathirtha has worked in a variety roles as pre-sales consultant, project manager, ScrumMaster, program manager and delivery manager in a career spanning 14 years. He has worked in multiple domains managing delivery for supply chain, manufacturing, telecom and insurance projects.

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