Agile Walls, what are they good for?

Some thoughts and resources for design teams using physical wall space.

Paul Smith
Nov 18, 2018 · 5 min read

I have been working within agile delivery teams for quite a few years now and have often been nominated, asked or took it upon myself to help my teams establish their ‘physical wall-space’.

Below are some thoughts about why Agile Walls can be really valuable and hopefully some inspiration for when you create your own.

Walls are a team’s vital signs

Walking around a team’s work area is usually a good way to establish the status of a team and the work they’re doing.

Browsing a team’s wall-space should give you key information about the situation at hand in much the same way that a patient-chart and health monitor at the end the bed, can give a doctor or passer by the key information they need while a patient is sleeping.

Image of at-a-glance information useful to passers-by.

The vital signs for an agile delivery team might be:

  • What are they striving to achieve? (and how will they know if they
    have done so?)
  • What are they currently doing? (What and how many things are in-progress?, what is planned?)
  • Who are the team?
  • Who are they doing it for? (and who is involved)
  • What is blocking them from getting stuff done?
  • What metrics are they using?
  • What insights have they uncovered?
  • Are they generally happy?
  • What is important to them about how they work together?

Of course, there is no set way that teams should be using their workspace but as a general rule:

If you can’t answer those questions from a team’s physical space then I’d say that the walls are probably not working hard enough for them or their organisation.

A wall within Well Digital for a store transformation team

Leisa made an excellent point in her post “What walls are for” when she said that:

Sometimes the walls are not for you but for other people.

Walls are a team’s campfire

I heard this analogy for something else recently and I really like it when thinking about a team’s agile walls.

People gather around Campfires to have conversations and tell stories. They’re not formal and you don’t need to build any serious infrastructure to support them.

Tips for using agile walls

Make them clear

They are supposed to be rough and ready, the lack of polish is what makes them quick and easy to use but they should be clear and make sense the following day and to fresh eyes.

Don’t overcomplicate your wall, take some time to design it upfront which is usually best on paper.

I sketch a rough layout of any wall I want to create prior to getting out the postIt notes and Blutack. This might seem like overkill but it is the work that enables good work. It will help you make the best use of space.

Rebekah Cooper, Jen Pye and Kim Morley discussion the team wall design

Make them easy

If a team is combining a physical wall with digitals tools (like Trello, Notion, Jira, etc), then that could be why the information you’d expect to see is not visible on the physical walls.

If it becomes too much effort to maintain the physical walls then I’d say they are being over utilised.

To make them easier for people (and better for for a wider audience) my advice is to use the walls to display higher level information that answers the above questions. Put the detail into digital tools.

Don’t break the magic string

When using digital tools, I think the information from digital tools should bubble up and out to the walls.

Rather than a live feed, I try to make the physical wall is more like the highlight reel.

That way it is less arduous to maintain parity between the physical and the digital. The information on a physical wall should be a little more permanent and necessitate less frequent change.

This helps people working remote, they can update the physical wall whey they are present or ask for less changes from a colleague who is.

Arun Zachariah, an excellent agile coach I worked with on a government service, had a great expression, he’d say to the team:

“Don’t break the magic string!”

He asked us think of an imaginary ‘magic string’ connecting the physical and digital walls and that we should not put anything on the digital delivery management tools (Trello, Jira, etc) that was not also some how represented on the physical wall.

If you didn’t do that, you would be breaking the magic string that was joining the two and he would fine you actual cash-money that he put in a pot towards charity.

If your team does use both physical and digital walls, my advice is to think carefully about how to use and maintain them so not to let one of them stagnate. Play to their strengths.

The whole team should own their walls

One or two people updating and using a physical wall will likely lead to the rest of the team being disengaged. It needs to be just as much their wall as it is yours.

It is everybody’s responsibility, you should encourage each other to contribute as all team members will have valuable things to share.

Print headings (and constants), handwrite the rest

Lastly, I think it is important to make the walls inviting to others and to feel like some effort has gone into them.

Handwritten headings on scraps of paper or PostIt notes are fine to get going but if they are up more than a week, get them printed.

I have found that stakeholders and outsiders to the team are far more likely to ‘walk your wall’ if they think it is more than just your latest workings-out on the wall, make it so they can clearly see headings and which items relate to each other.

As Alan Cooper says, throwaway drawings, discussions and notations are what whiteboards are for.

White-label wall templates

So to help you with some of the above tips and suggestions. I’ve made available some agile wall templates I’ve done for my friends and colleagues at Well Digital.

I have written a separate post to describe them and their use. Head over to White-label agile wall templates.

Further reading

Paul Smith

Written by

Designing, prototyping and coding for everyone.

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