Whether you call them work boards, Scrum boards or Kanban boards, visualizing work using physical boards or online tools is a common practice for both operational and project teams.

Such boards can provide a number of benefits including:

  • Helping team members to see what work remains to be done
  • Giving them an opportunity to pull work items at their pace as capacity frees up
  • Focusing the team’s attention on blocked work items
  • Providing stakeholders with a lightweight, pull-based method of understanding what’s going on

But there are as many different ways for boards to be set up as there are ways in which teams do their work. And sometimes, the way a board is configured might not be optimal for the way the team works.

One example of this is the decision to use or to not use multiple columns to reflect items being worked on.

If a team has adopted the Scrum framework, is made up of generalizing specialists and is engaged in cross-functional activity where multiple team members collaborate to complete work items, then having a single In Progress column works well, especially when their work items are completed in a “small” amount of time.

But, if that same board is used by a team made up of specialists who often work solo on different work items, or where the work items take more than a small amount of time to be completed, the team and stakeholders will miss some useful information. In such instances it might be better to replace the In Progress column with individual columns representing the main steps of adding value to the work item.

Another decision is how to represent work items which are blocked due to factors either within or outside of the control of the team. Some teams will flag the work item within the column they are currently in. This is sometimes done by changing the color of the work item.

Other teams will choose to use a Blocked column and move stalled work items to that column. There has been a lot written about the evils of using a Blocked column including:

  • It encourages the team to keep pulling in new work items rather than focusing on un-blocking the stalled work items and over time, the Blocked column becomes a garbage can
  • Blocked is not a value-adding step in the process of completing work items

I wanted to understand what approaches were most used and ran another poll in PMI’s LinkedIn Project, Program and Portfolio Management group .

Out of the twenty-six responses I received, 62% indicated they used a simple three column (To Do, In Progress, Done) board. 19% indicated they did the same but also used a Blocked column. And the final 19% of respondents indicated they used multiple columns for active work items as well as a Blocked column. No one indicated they used multiple columns for active work items with no Blocked column.

As Scrum continues to be the most popular agile framework, the majority response for the first choice is not surprising. What is surprising is that more than a third of the sample were using a Blocked column in spite of its downsides.

Context counts whether we are choosing a delivery life cycle or individual tools and techniques.

Rather than blindly adopting a work board configuration, take the time to understand what best fits the team’s context and their objectives for visualizing the work and work flow.

(If you liked this article, why not read my book Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice which contains 100 other lessons on project leadership? It’s available on Amazon.com  and on Amazon.ca  as well as a number of other online book stores).

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