Most software development teams are comprised of cross-functional members spread across multiple locations around the globe. And we're not just talking about large teams. A survey we conducted of over 1,000 product teams around the world revealed that the smaller the team size, the more likely they were to be distributed.

Embracing a remote work culture provides several benefits, including less regional competition for talent, reduced infrastructure costs, and improved employee morale.  It also incurs measurable and substantial costs, however, due to communication barriers, time zone barriers, and cultural barriers. These barriers create opportunities for miscommunication, which hinders development and leads to delays, waste, and increased costs.

The Agile movement has introduced a number of methodologies to encourage direct communication and decrease miscommunication. This lean paradigm, borrowed heavily from the manufacturing world, focuses on personal communication and the use of physical aids such as visual boards. For distributed teams, there are several problems with this method; information is difficult to share across multiple locations and information is often lost, which hinders information exchange and learning.

When teams are not co-located, strategy decisions and planning cannot always be made synchronously. IT support tools can solve some of these communications issues but they are not very visual nor appropriate to supporting a lean meeting structure. Bringing team members together physically can work some times, but for distributed teams that need to meet on a weekly or even daily basis, this is both impractical and costly.

Communication and Coordination - the Central Tenets of Visual Planning

Several years ago, we began researching better visual planning methods for distributed software development teams. We started by examining the methods used by large, global manufacturers, many of whom had been employing visual planning techniques for decades. Their methodologies were fine-tuned and worked well. The major outcomes were that communication and accountability improved and projects where more predictable.

This was a major cost and risk elimination success, but it wasn’t enough. They were global companies, some with hundreds of facilities spread across several continents, and the wall-based visual management methodology they used were impossible to synchronize across multiple facilities – even facilities in the same time zone. How do you develop a visual planning tool that keeps the good parts of the methodology while simultaneously enabling multi-site collaboration?

We asked a simple question: why had prior attempts to solve this problem failed? This was not a new problem so it seemed likely that someone, somewhere, must have worked on this problem before. As expected, we identified hundreds of projects that attempted to develop a workable solution. All of them failed for one reason or another.

Among them are a wide range of project management, digital whiteboards, and traditional product management systems. We placed all of the systems we studied into one of two categories. The first are digital whiteboards. Several companies identified the physical process of writing or drawing on a whiteboard, and sometimes placing notes on a whiteboard, as the main problem. Thus, it stood to reason that creating a digital whiteboard would solve it. Counter-intuitively, what we discovered was that the whiteboards themselves are not the problem.

The second category of software is also the most common: legacy software systems with a couple of tweaks bolted on to make it more "visual". Not surprisingly, this does not work and in many instances exacerbates the problem.

What we quickly realized was that most of these products failed because the companies behind them failed to properly define the problem.

So, What is the Problem?

First and foremost, visual planning is a methodology. It is not a tool. It needs support and structure from the entire company in order to function properly. While a digital whiteboard is great for enabling global meetings, it won’t make a company successful by itself. The whole success of visual planning lies in the structure of the meeting and, even more importantly, how the meeting is conducted.

Furthermore, which ever tool you use must strike a proper balance between visibility (what you can see), flexibility (how easy it is to operate and modify), and process (the knowledge of how to conduct and manage visual planning activities). All three components are essential, and the most difficult part is to find that balance. Digital whiteboards, by themselves, offer too much flexibility, which is problematic when trying to define a company process. Traditional collaboration systems offer too little flexibility and are not useful for visualizations.

A Better Solution

Although the vast majority of business processes are now computerized, most software development companies continue to rely on simple pen and paper-based visual aids and static boards for managing their visual planning activities. The primary reason for this is that analog systems are reliable, the tools are inexpensive, and they afford near-universal usability and infinite customization. This reliability, flexibility, and ease of use, however, comes at a significant cost.

Because information flows continuously through the collaborative-workflow cycle, gaps or breaks in the data chain are created as information is converted from digital to analog and then back to digital. It is here, within these gaps, that so much miscommunication and error tends to accumulate.

Based on years of research and development, we conclude that a properly balanced visual planning system will provide, at minimum, the following:

  • Support for multiple locations and multiple devices
  • Continuous, real-time updates
  • Version control with all changes and updates tracked
  • Searching of data
  • The flexibility to create customized workflows that can be standardized
  • Intuitive and easy to use and understand for all participants
  • Integration with existing project management, documents management, and workflow systems

As stated previously, it is critical that software development companies invest the time and effort to a) standardize their workflows and b) learn how to conduct remote visual meetings. Whether done in house by committee or through a consultancy, a standard method of visually moving information and activity through the development process is critical if communication and productivity gains are to be measurably improved. This hold true even when working within less rigid methodological environments such as Agile.

Conclusion

At minimum, software development teams should establish methods for iterating on their workflow processes. This has traditionally been difficult to do digitally, however, as most visual planning and visual management systems do not allow for this kind of flexibility. Instead, organizations are forced to mold their processes into rigidly programmed structures. This requires them to adapt their workflows to the limitations of the system with little to no ability to change the environment or scale. To finally rid ourselves of the pen-and-paper paradigm, digital visual planning systems must provide the highest possible degree of adaptability, flexibility, scalability, and customization.

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