We started this series on the Scrum methodology with an introduction (LINK), followed by two pieces on two of the most important roles in the Scrum framework (the Scrum Master and the Product Owner, LINKS), and an article on the framework itself and why it's called a framework for Agile working (LINK). After that, we focused on the ceremonies or events around which a Scrum-based project tends to revolve.
When it comes to Scrum, a project consists of Sprints and Sprints are built up of events. The role which each of these events plays and the way in which they take place can differ considerably based on factors like the the product that is being developed, the experience of the people involved in the project, and the preferences of the team members themselves. In general though, in a traditional Scrum project, a Sprint contains at least four major events, namely Scrum planning (also known as Sprint planning, LINK), the Daily Scrum (LINK), the Sprint Review (LINK), and the Sprint Retrospective (LINK).
Besides the roles and the events that are relevant to Scrum-based projects, the so-called artefacts also represent a key element of the Scrum framework. Usually, there are three artefacts that present in every Scrum team, namely a Product Backlog, a Sprint Backlog, and a type of backlog that defines a “finished” part for you. An artefact in a Scrum environment is a type of tool that teams can use to solve complex problems together. Considering the particular role and importance of the Product Backlog to the correct functioning of a Scrum team, we also dedicated a separate piece to this artefact (LINK).
As you probably know by now, Scrum is an agile methodology to help plan, manage, and optimise product development cycles by cutting them up in a series of fixed-length iterations. As we wrote before, both earlier in this article and in separate articles in this Scrum series (LINKS), a Scrum production cycle or Sprint consists of at least four main events: Sprint planning, Daily Scrums, the Sprints themselves, and Sprint Retrospectives. In our series, we have also covered the Sprint Reviews, which take place after the Sprint ends and before the Sprint Retrospective is held. In order to help Scrum teams perform these events with ease and to chase the highest possible product value for the end customer in the most efficient manner possible, Scrum teams can make use of several sets of tools that were especially designed for use in Agile projects.
For Scrum teams, one of those tools is the Scrum Board. To put it very simply, a Scrum Board is an easy-to-interpret visual display of the project in question and its progress, either in virtual or physical format. As a part of our Scrum series, we are also covering a few of the most common and frequently used Agile tools in detail, starting with this piece on Scrum Boards. We will take an in-depth look at what a Scrum Board exactly is, some of the Scrum Boards on the market right now, the best way to make use of a Scrum Board, and brief comparison overview of the cons and pros that come with using a Scrum Board.
What is a Scrum Board exactly?
First of all, it's probably a good idea to start with studying what a Scrum Board is, because we can imagine it can sound pretty abstract to someone who has little or no experience with the Scrum framework yet. As you know, Scrum is an approach to project management and Scrum-based projects consist of Sprints, which in turn are built up of events or ceremonies. A Scrum Board is literally a physical or virtual board that is used to visualize all of the work that needs to be done in a given Sprint. For a Scrum approach to be successful, it's essential that all of the work is fully scoped and meticulously prioritized during the Sprint planning meetings, which take place before the Sprints are started, so the development team can get to work as soon as the Sprint begins. The features of a Scrum Board, which we will look at into more detail later on in this piece, keep track of the work that is being tackled in each Sprint, so your team can stay focused on the tasks at hand, instead of worrying about planning and project structure. A Scrum Board is basically a modern kind of whiteboard.
Another way to look at the added value of a Scrum Board is to take the Scrum project's artefacts as a starting point. Once the Product Backlog is groomed and prioritised by the team's Product Owner, possibly with the help of the Scrum Master, the development team takes this to-do list into consideration and determines which items from the Product Backlog can be moved into the Sprint Backlog, which contains all of the items that need to be delivered at the end of the next Sprint. A Scrum Board helps Scrum teams to make these Sprint Backlogs visible, regardless of whether the tool in question is a physical or a virtual Scrum Board. The use of such a tool is completely in line with a Scrum team's values regarding transparency and optimal productivity by focusing on finishing small iterations at a steady pace.
Some of the most effective Scrum Board on the market
A next useful step in better understanding Scrum Boards and what they can do for Scrum teams is to explore the current market a bit and find out what some of the most frequently used and popular Scrum Boards are. Over the past decades, the Scrum methodology and the Agile approach to complex project management in general have experienced a considerable surge in popularity. As a result, the number of tools, including Scrum Boards, that is available for Scrum teams has grown exponentially as well. It's useful to know that most Scrum Boards come as part of more extensive project management software that also boasts other Scrum tools, such as burn-down charts and Sprint reports.
Most of the Scrum Boards you will find have a very similar structure. It's usually divided into a least four different columns that help define the workflow:
- Stories: this columns contains all of the relevant User Stories for the Sprint in progress.
- To do: this column contains all of the tasks that have not yet been started.
- In progress: this column contains all of the tasks on which the development team is currently working.
- Done: this column contains all of the tasks that have been completed during the Sprint.
As for the types of available Scrum Boards, here are some of the most popular ones:
A Scrum Board based on Sticky Notes and possibly a classic whiteboard is the simplest and most straight-forward way of project planning. Scrum teams who implement this method will usually make use of Sticky Notes in different colours to indicate task types and categories across the board. One of the bid advantages of this type of traditional offline Scrum Board is that it's one of the best ways to communicate the project's progress not just to members of the Scrum team, but to all external parties involved as well, such as top management and stakeholders. Seeing as this is a physical type of Scrum Board, it's important that it's placed in a central spot where all of the team members have easy access to it, for example in the central meeting room at work where the Daily Scrums tend to be held.
Scrumwize is an online project management tool that has been on the market for about ten years now. It's the perfect solution for Scrum teams who prefer working with a straight-forward task board without a lot of additional frills and business management features. Scrumwize makes it extremely easy to create custom boards for different Scrum teams, while it boast a few other very useful features as well, such as easy backlog management, a clear and detailed activity history, and the possibility to integrate with GitHub.
Zoho Sprint is quite similar to Scrumwize in the sense that this piece of project management software also endorses the no-frills approach to organising complex projects. The design of Zoho Sprint is very intuitive and the set contains all the necessary features to help a team manage their tasks in a more efficient manner, including the creation and integration of User Stories, and easy prioritisation of work items.
We often assume Scrum teams work in close physical vicinity to each other, but that is often not the case. What happens a lot is that complex projects require the work of either different Scrum teams in different locations, or the work of the members of the same Scrum team who are located in different locations. Whatever the situation is, if there is a need for remote team management, OrangeScrum is currently one of the best solutions out there. It's focused on providing accurate information and constant transparency, and it offers all of the necessary Scrum features, such as velocity charts, different backlogs, and the possibility to create and adapt User Stories.
How to best use a Scrum Board (+ why + tips)
When using a Scrum Board, it's important to keep in mind that, in the end, it is a tool. In order to use this tool as efficiently as possible, certain knowledge of the Scrum framework and the tool itself is required. As we explained before, a Scrum Board can be as simple as a whiteboard with coloured Sticky Notes, or as complex as extensive and expensive Scrum-specific software used by product development teams. Each type has its advantages and disadvantages, but what matters most is that all team members have easy access to the Board, as transparency is one of the key values of the Scrum methodology.
We briefly went over the columns each Scrum Board generally contains, namely one for User Stories, one to-do list, one for work in progress, and one for completed tasks. In its simplest form, a Scrum Board shows a list of work items that needs to be finished to complete a project. This list is the Sprint Backlog and the items are usually referred to as User Stories. All of the columns are vertical, and display the work and projects of the Scrum team in question in its various stages. Each row on the Scrum Board represents a story, while each work item, which is usually represented with cards in virtual Boards or Sticky Notes on a whiteboard, is displayed and moved across the columns during a Sprint as it passes through the framework's workflow.
The way in which a Scrum Board is set up and managed can differ enormously from one team to another, because not every project requires the same kind of approach and not every team is comfortable with the same general working methods. Still, there are a few tips and techniques that can help any Scrum team get more out of their Scrum Board, so we will list a few of them here below.
Don't forget that User Stories are features described from the end user's point of view
Much of the value of a well-developed User Story lies in its accurate description of what the end user wants to get out of the feature in question. That's why it's very important to keep the tone and style of these User Stories conversational. What we mean by this is that it's important to maintain the human aspect of this element within the Scrum framework, instead of steadily reducing User Stories to combinations of codes and tracking ideas.
Location, location, location
Generally, this rule is applied in the real estate sector, but it can also be applied to physical Scrum Boards. One of the goals of using a Scrum Board is to have the entire team on the same page at all times in a very transparent manner. That's why it's important to place the whiteboard in a location that is easily accessible to all members of the Scrum team, and very visible. Like this, in an ideal situation, you will see teammates, stakeholders, and possibly members of other teams stop by the Board for discussion throughout the day. This should only benefit the final results.
Keep the work moving
We have seen Scrum teams who were not really concerned about work items on their Scrum Board that were not moving anywhere. This can become a serious problem over time though, as it can result in User Stories being moved from Sprint to Sprint without real progress. The members of the development should keep an eye on this, as they are in close contact with the Scrum Board every day, but Scrum Master should also make efforts to recognise and avoid such situations.
Take retrospective action
As we have written several times in our piece on Sprint Retrospectives (LINK), out of all the events that can and should take place during a Sprint, the Sprint Retrospective is one of the most important. It's the ideal moment for a Scrum team to look back on its most recent work and collaboration, and to determine where the next Sprint can be improved. Don't skip these meetings and don't just work on a list of bullet points to be sent to all team members via e-mail. Chances are that people won't look at them any more. Instead, you can, for example, write them up and hang them alongside the Scrum Board during the next Sprint. Like this, everyone can see what has been reviewed after the last Sprint and what needs to change for the next Sprint.
Using a Scrum Board: pros and con
Pros of using a Scrum Board
- Using a Scrum Board to improve the planning and management of complex product development cycles can and should lead to an improved operational efficiency. It helps to bring the team together, and to see who is doing what and where possible help or support is needed.
- The purpose of a Scrum Board is to help the implementation of Agile values, such as transparency and accountability. The Board should provide a clear overview of who is responsible for which part of the Sprint in question. It allows for easy sharing of responsibilities and for the identification of potential issues before they became real obstacles.
- Another good thing about the Scrum methodology is that it's a relatively inexpensive way of project management, at least as far as the necessary tools are concerned. The cost of a plain whiteboard and a set of coloured Sticky Notes is negligible and even though a virtual Scrum Board might cost a bit more, for example in the form of a small monthly fee, it still won't break the bank.
- Even though the whole Scrum framework and all of its values and elements might seem a bit complex and abstract at first, the set-up and deployment of tools such as a Scrum Board to help development teams is actually not very difficult at all. The easiest type of Scrum Board to set up is the classic whiteboard and Sticky Notes combination, but most virtual Scrum Boards are practically just as easy to get started with.
Cons of using a Scrum Board
- - This goes more for teams with little or no experience with Scrum, but it's an important point to keep in mind in any case. Whether the development team in question is using a whiteboard and Sticky Notes or a type of Scrum software, the team will be required to get used to a new way of working. The correct application of the Agile approach, while not hard to understand, does require some training, dedication, and patience, and the same goes for using Scrum Boards.
- This second con of using a Scrum Board is closely related to the previous one. Becoming familiar with the Scrum approach means learning a set of new concepts and this could provoke a certain amount of resistance from the involved staff. This can especially occur in the cases of people who are part of the Scrum team, but who are not very directly or closely involved with the day-to-day dealings, such as a marketing manager who needs to keep the team informed on market developments or a finance manager who takes care of the project's budgeting.
- As part of our list of pros of using a Scrum Board we stated that it's quite a cost-efficient way of managing projects, but in reality that is not always the case. Not because the tools are so expensive, but because teams who are new to the Scrum methodology often need a Scrum consultant to get started. This expert generally takes the role of external consultant or Scrum Master to show the team what they need to do to become a self-learning, cross-functional unit.