Category Archives: enterprise

The only 2 questions to ask in your daily standup

Stop statusing and start standupping with the only two questions that have any business being asked in your daily standup. Take back your team’s time and its sanity—and more importantly, put the standup to work helping you deliver!

bsktcase crosspost project

I’m cross-posting selected blogs from Northwest Cadence. Here’s the original post from 24 March 2015.

In 2013, I wrote that the traditional “three questions” in the daily standup are wrong, and contributing to a plague of bad standups, and that focusing on The One Thing would help teams get the value they want from those dreaded 15(+) minutes per day.

Well, I’ve never been accused of being great at arithmetic. After more than a year of coaching teams on a new approach to the standup, they’ve taught me that The One Thing is exactly right, but in practice there are actually Two Things. Two One Things.

I recently taught a Scrum team The Two One Things, and I could tell by their reactions—even just facial expressions—that we were onto something. Previous client, in 2013, discussing The One Thing: “huh?” This team, in 2015, presented with The Two One Things: “oh! wow!”

In fact, this recent team took The Two One Things so deeply to heart, and they so reliably ask these two questions and only these two questions at every daily standup now, that they engaged the five-year-old son of one of the team members to create artistic representations of The Two One Things, which are displayed prominently in their team room and serve as a focal point and a daily affirmation of their awesome new habit!

Tragically, the images of Conner’s artwork were not captured by the Wayback Machine and have been lost.

The first only question to ask in your daily standup

The original One Thing and still the best.

“Are we on track?”

If you’re doing Scrum, you might ask, “are we on track to meet our commitment within our sprint?” (If you’re doing the new lame Scrum vocabulary, you might substitute forecast for commitment, except don’t do that, because it’s lame.)

If you’re doing Kanban, or something else continuous that doesn’t feature timeboxes or commitments, you still need goals, short- and long-term. So you might ask, “are we on track to meet our goal by our target?”

If your team doesn’t know what its goal is, don’t you think they might oughta?

The second only question to ask in your daily standup

The new, improved, Second One Thing.

I’m an adherent of Patrick Lencioni’s Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable, in which he posits that the purpose of a meeting is to make a decision. One and only one decision! In this case, the purpose of the daily standup is for each team member to make this decision:

“What is the most valuable thing for me to do today?”

The One Thing, “are we on track?” is, of course, not a decision. But it satisfies the Death by Meeting Rule because we ask it in service of the decision. If the team is not on track, there’s a good chance that the most valuable thing for me to do today, to help us salvage and deliver as much value as we can, is something different than I expect. And that’s certainly the most valuable thing for us to talk about!

What’s really wrong with those three questions?

“Well, that’s fine in practice, but does it work in theory?”Steven Borg

As I said in 2013, the traditional three questions (whether in their original or revised forms) focus the team on the wrong thing, and almost inevitably turn the daily standup into a status meeting. If you’re familiar with Principles of Product Development Flow by Donald Reinertsen (and you should be because it’s the sacred text of lean product development which is why agile even works, but I digress), you’ll recognize an important framework we can use to understand why the what-did-you-do-yesterday standup is so fundamentally flawed.

By orienting the daily standup around the people on the team, we’re emphasizing utilization. Utilization is the enemy of flow.

That’s certainly borne out by my frustrating experiences with the traditional three questions, which I watched team after team dutifully answer while simultaneously failing to even notice that their sprint was collapsing right in front of them—often literally in front of them, totally visible and obvious on their Kanban board!

By re-focusing The Only Two Questions around the work the team has undertaken to complete, we’re emphasizing delivery. This dovetails nicely with lean concepts, especially work in process, and it enables flow.

Even without formally introducing new terminology like “WIP limits” or “swarming,” we can point out that the most valuable thing for me to do today is to help get a near-complete item across the finish line. That’s true whether the sprint commitment is in peril or not!

A gentle reminder

Don’t forget: just because the team is all in one place at that time doesn’t make the daily standup an appropriate place for other announcements or discussion. If you really need to have a 15(+)-minute team meeting every single day for administrivia (hint: you don’t), by all means schedule one, but give it another name and hold it at a different time. Don’t hijack your standup.

And if members of the team want to collaborate together after the standup to solve a problem that arose during the standup, that’s awesome! collaboration is awesome! but don’t forget to let the uninvolved members of the team leave if they choose. Their most valuable thing to do today may be something different!

Do the two one things work for you?

Now that you have The Two One Things, and you can make your own awesome artistic renderings of them, how do you find your standups? Are they still boring? Do team members show up late and/or mentally check out during? How do you find your sprints? Are you catching problems early and salvaging more value delivery even when a sprint starts to go wrong?

Let me know what you try, and what you learn!


Kanban boards: physical or virtual?

Physical vs. virtual kanban board: which is best? What are the options? How do you choose?

bsktcase crosspost project

I’m cross-posting selected blogs from Northwest Cadence. This is the first installment, and it turns out I found all kinds of opportunities to update the content as well.
Here’s the original post from 15 October 2013.

Which type of Kanban board do you prefer? A couple years ago now, I found myself in the middle of a huge enterprise agile engagement with a global corporation, and we focused a great deal on Kanban boards to improve their Scrum capability. I started out with a clear preference for physical boards, but as some teams pushed back, or just plain ignored me and self-organized around virtual ones, I developed a broader perspective.

Spoiler alert: my preference for physical over virtual still hasn’t changed, but I continue to fine-tune my appreciation of the tradeoffs. I don’t tell my clients’ teams what to do, but as a result of this analysis and in the years since, I’ve taken greater initiative and have asked many of them nicely to consider the advantages of a physical board.

Researching this post in 2013, I looked around the consultosphere for a complete overview and didn’t find one, so I have taken the liberty of presenting my version here. I have limited experience with online boards (see: preference for physical ones), but I looked up a few and they’re included here superficially. I have a fair amount of experience with TFS/VSO, so it’s included here with a bit greater detail.

Have I overlooked your favorite virtual board? By all means, clue me in in the comments!


Pros of physical boards

  • Engaging
  • Passive radiator; unavoidable; information is always available without the team having to intentionally open it
  • Visible (and unavoidable) beyond the immediate team
  • Tells a story from a distance/in aggregate
  • Go viral, generating enthusiasm and buy-in throughout the organization
  • Fun; team can own the board and play with it (fun avatars and other art, beer column, etc.)
  • Engaging
  • Flexible, easy to make incremental process change
  • Can display definitions of done per column and elsewhere
  • Can display column and aggregate (system-level) WIP
  • Can support blocked flags in any column/state
  • Can support sub-states
  • Can support split/parallel states
  • Can easily indicate multiple team members working on one backlog item
  • Can easily limit a team member’s WIP (e.g., to 1) by limiting number of avatars per person
  • Can easily hold the daily standup at the board (if collocated)
  • Team members appreciate the physicality of moving a sticky across the board
  • Moving stickies focuses the team on the right things in the daily standup
  • Engaging

Pros of virtual boards

  • Provide equal access to distributed team members
  • Can enforce WIP and workflow rules
  • Can calculate cycle time and other metrics
  • Can populate CFD and other reports
  • Can track history of items
  • On a large monitor (esp. touchscreen), can provide many of the benefits of a physical board

Pros of TFS/VSO boards (to date)

  • Linked to check-ins, traceable
  • Linked to test cases, builds, documentation, other artifacts
  • Can drill into backlog items for more detail
  • Easy to decompose backlog items into tasks and visualize both on separate boards
  • Easy to aggregate backlog items to a portfolio (features, epics, etc.) and visualize each level on its own board
  • Easy to aggregate items from multiple teams onto a project board
  • Team-level customizable columns allow flexibility while mapping to consistent enterprise workflow states
  • Touch support out-of-box
  • Can display definitions of done per column! Thanks Gregg Boer!
  • Can support basic doing/done sub-states
  • Can support horizontal swimlanes (e.g., expedite)
  • Can color-code tags (e.g., blocked)
  • Can color-code columns (including cool dynamic query-based conditions)

Visual Studio Online has been rolling out new capabilities on its boards much faster than I can keep up, so this post is sure to be out of date by the time you read it.

The issues

A slightly deeper dive into some of the bulleted claims above.

Flexibility and placement

I’ve heard it said that physical boards are less flexible and harder to tear down to change. That can be a challenge, but I think there are tricks we can use to make physical boards more adaptable.

Magic Whiteboard won BBC Two’s Dragon’s Den, and no wonder: it’s brilliant. It’s 20m of whiteboard surface, on a roll, for £33. It static-sticks to hard flat surfaces. You can make a Kanban board of any size on any wall (or window, and it comes in clear), flow stickies across, and modify columns easily, with no hardware and no damage. In one of my clients’ offices, we were able to route their Kanban board around a wall-mounted clock on their only available wall, without losing the clock!

In the Northwest Cadence Kirkland office, we used layers of magnetic paint, chalkboard paint, and washable chalk to make an amazing Kanban wall. The size and location of the wall were fixed, of course, but the layout of the board could be changed at any time to accommodate any process. Stickies and avatars were laminated, erasable/rewritable, and mounted on magnets.

In open-plan offices I’ve used rolling whiteboards, which have the added advantages that they’re two-sided, and you can roll them into conference rooms for meetings. Clarus Mobile Xpress portable glass boards are gorgeous and functional. Quartet Motion, Wilson, MOI, and others have simple rolling whiteboard divider panels that work and look great.


Tagging independent of state

Items can become blocked in any state. You want to remember the item’s state and count it against your WIP limit for the state it’s in.

On some electronic boards, you can customize the color of individual stickies, which works just fine for this. In TFS, you can now apply any free-form tag and color-code multiple tags—”blocked” and beyond!

LeanKit, AgileZen, Silver Catalyst, and others also support custom tags and/or icons so you can make other facts visible about your items.

Sub-states, split/parallel states, swimlanes

LeanKit handles complex board designs, second only to dry-erase as far as I’m concerned. (Steven Borg‘s fancy circular Kanban boards are still going to require a wall and some markers.)

TFS/VSO now supports doing/done sub-states (configurable per column) and horizontal swimlanes (I don’t normally use these).

TFS/VSO doesn’t currently support the concept of parallel states (e.g., “coding” and “authoring test cases”) which both need to be completed before moving to the next state (e.g., “ready for QA”). If you think this practice smells a little bit siloed and waterfall-y anyway, I am inclined to agree.


Most electronic boards use image avatars. Their uncreative sales demos show these as team members’ security badge photos, or whatever. Obviously you’d want to use something more fun than that. :) Whether electronic or laminated, I enjoy a custom South Park avatar or custom Lego minifig avatar, but I have to say I was won over by one of my clients’ teams who had every team member bring in his or her choice of refrigerator magnet to use. We had fun and learned a bit about everyone in the process!

Touch screen

These might almost be good enough. I still miss the total ownership, fun avatars, and the impromptu doodling, but I think team members love moving stickies on a touch screen even more than they love moving physical stickies, which focuses them on keeping work moving, and that’s a big win.

There’s mild annoyance around putting a touch screen/browser into kiosk mode. Somebody’s got to be logged into the thing, and since the whole point is that it’s editable on-screen, now the logged-in user shows up for all the edit history. Even if you create a special kiosk account, you lose visibility into who actually made the change. Of course, edits on a physical board don’t track history in the first place.

I saw a blog suggest that a single shared touch screen is a good solution if you have “limited wall space” for multiple teams. Don’t do this. If teams have to fight for airtime on the big screen, you’ve thrown away the key benefit of the wall-mounted board: being a passive, unavoidable information radiator that engages teams (and bystanders) without anyone having to dig to find it.

There’s a big temptation to justify the expense of the screen by repurposing it for other organizational data. That’s manageable if the display automatically rotates, like a slide show, so the team’s board still shows up regularly.

Distributed teams

This is a tough one for me. As you’ll read below, my preference for physical boards is all about what they do for teams, that virtual boards just don’t. And yet, with a distributed team you end up having great benefits for the ones who are collocated with the board, while the distributed minority of the team are pretty much screwed: many of the “pros” aren’t available remotely. Pointing a webcam at the board, taking a smartphone photo of the board, or synchronizing to a shared virtual tool, are clunky and poor substitutes for having the board in-person.

Here’s why I don’t consider this a deal breaker, quite:

  • The disadvantages of physical Kanban boards for distributed teams are closely tied to the disadvantages of having distributed teams in the first place. Agile methodologies teach us that teams should be collocated, and one of the original Twelve Principles for Agile Software states that “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.” Kanban boards are meant to supplement in-person interaction, not replace it. Don’t blame the board.
  • Even when one team member is screwed, the benefits for the collocated portion of the team can sometimes be so great that they make up for the extra effort needed to keep the distributed folks in the loop. If your team are unwilling to do this, that’s another problem to not blame the board for.

Yeah, it’s a stretch. When teams don’t have any control over whether they’re collocated or distributed, no, it isn’t fair to blame them for the difficulties distribution can cause them. When I find this at a client, I leave the distributed teams alone and attack the issue two ways: I turn up the charm and try to persuade any collocated teams to use physical boards, and then with senior leadership I point to those teams’ success (along with the agile principles and a wealth of other supporting information) to get the organization to value and build collocated teams.

Bad reasons

I hear some #facepalm-inducing arguments against boards in general, especially physical ones.

Sync: the best and worst of both worlds

My client’s teams are typical engineers: they’re allergic to the faintest perception of redundant effort, like having to sync information from a physical board into a virtual tracking tool. Ever. I’m continually surprised by the virulence of their reaction when I suggest that:

  1. it takes < five minutes a day, and
  2. team members can update their own items in both places as they complete them, and/or
  3. the team can rotate the update responsibility among all members.

To me, it’s a no-brainer: the benefits of a physical board are well worth this paltry extra effort.

(If syncing the board and the tracker takes any longer than five minutes, it means you’re tracking way too many things on either your cards or your tracking tool or both. I’d confidently bet you a fresh kürtős kalács that nobody’s even using all that data. If your process is too heavyweight, don’t blame the board.)

In the spirit of my typical engineers, who delight in finding complicated tool solutions for simple people problems, I fully disclose the existence of Agile Cards for JIRA, which purports to allow you to snap a photo of your physical Kanban board, e.g., with a Smartphone, and promises to parse the photo and update your JIRA tracking automagically for you. I do not have experience with this plug-in, so I have no idea whether it even works, but my typical-engineer heart (yes, I still have one) finds the cool factor highly appealing…

Feeling the pains

One of my mostly-collocated teams put up a physical board, after weeks of cajoling, but abandoned it after just one-and-a-half iterations of use. The team reported that having a Kanban board was great, they loved having the information easily accessible to all team members and found it extremely valuable to know the project’s status at any moment at a literal glance.

“Really? Why’d you stop using it, then?”

“A physical Kanban board is just too much overhead to maintain. I mean, when the business interrupts us in the middle of the sprint and tells us to drop all the work we have in process, and start over with a huge amount of brand-new work, the effort to tear down the entire board and rebuild it with all brand new stickies is totally unreasonable!”


Any Kanban board, physical or virtual, is just a messenger. The whole point of visualizing work as step one in a Kanban adoption is to identify bottlenecks and pains, so the team can work toward solving them. When the Kanban board exposes a team pain, if your solution is to get rid of the board so you don’t have to face the pain anymore, you are Doing It Wrong. Don’t shoot the board!


To me, the Kanban board has one purpose above all others: to bring the team together. Technical folks have a habit of valuing individual (perceived) efficiency over fluffy crap like team spirit and morale and trust, which I think is why a physical board can be an uphill fight and is also why I keep fighting it.

I’ve seen physical Kanban boards transform teams.  They improve communication, foster a spirit of ownership over the work, and create active engagement in daily stand-ups (which were previously dull and seen as a chore). I’ve seen physical Kanban boards transform organizations. They go viral and inspire non-delivery departments within organizations: I’ve been invited (begged!) to teach agile principles to HR, finance, and receptionists.

I’ve seen a lot of virtual board adoptions and a virtual board is just another tool. Even when the team likes it, there’s no transformation. There’s no energy. It’s a fine tool but nothing more.

How do you get buy-in from senior leadership in a large organization for the changes needed to transition to agile? If your CEO’s executive assistant is able to show her real-time status updates of major work using a physical Kanban board, and when asked where that idea came from can answer, “oh, it’s a technique I learned from your agile software development teams, it comes from Lean,” um, how far does that get you? Or the CFO finds that productivity and traceability in accounting have noticeably increased and they’ve got your physical boards to thank for it?

At one of the locations of one of my clients, their CEO was in town for an office visit, and he stopped to take a look at the physical Kanban board for a high-profile project. Several of the team members engaged him directly in conversation about the board, which represented a level of access they didn’t normally get at all, and as a direct result of pains he saw on their board, the team was able to get senior management support for key solutions they had been asking for for months!

You won’t get that kind of organizational participation by burying your process on the corporate network in some tool.


Get a board. I prefer physical, but if that’s a blocker for your team, then by all means get a virtual one. Visualizing the work any way you can is better than not. And then, engage the team around whatever you’ve chosen. Don’t fight with your board; focus on the work it represents and the problems you can solve now that you’ve exposed them.

What did you choose, and how did it go?

Accidental credibility

It isn’t accidental at all. I just accidentally forget I have it. Sometimes I get reminded.

I don’t read work books. Never have. (I read a lot; not for work.)

It took Steve, my semi-boss, voracious consumer of all information media (he still listens to podcasts!), whose photo should be in StrengthsFinder 2.0 under “Learner”, nearly two years to persuade me to read Getting Naked, our company’s raison d’incorporation. I finished it in about two hours, and it changed my life. I still don’t read work books.

Especially lately, this has caused me some consternation and discomfort when I show up at a client site (or Microsoft TechEd) to train and consult on enterprise agility. There’s always some smarty-pants in the group who reads work books. I don’t mean they heckle; they’re perfectly kind. But those innocent questions that expose that I have heard of such-and-such seminal work and I obviously don’t know what’s in it? Awkward.

And so, for example, I showed up at my latest client site to help tackle their problems with ineffective agile retrospectives. I brought a ziploc bag of Sharpies (hard to find in Europe for some reason), a stack of sticky notes, and a naïvely cheerful attitude. Imagine my dismay to find that several of the thought leaders in the organization were carrying around a book called Agile Retrospectives and wanted to know my thoughts on it. Oops. I’m pretty sure Steve has been trying to get me to look at that one.

In the true spirit of Getting Naked, I swallowed my pride and asked to borrow my client’s copy of Agile Retrospectives, and I read it poolside at my hotel overnight. Quick read, incredibly valuable insights, did I mention I don’t read work books?

Interestingly, when I skimmed some of the exercises in the book, I noticed that I’ve done and used several of them without knowing their names. Simple stuff that I hadn’t thought of as “exercises”, like having everyone write down their thoughts first in order to make sure the quiet ones get heard. It’s likely I picked them up from managers and colleagues—many of whom were surely Learners—and added them to my toolbox over the years.

This afternoon, as I departed my client’s office, the owner of Agile Retrospectives stopped by to thank us for our time with them, and because he’s awesome, to share some feedback. I didn’t expect what he said.

“The developers on our team, when they heard a consultant was coming to train them on agile, they were expecting—well, it seems like anybody can read four books and say they’re a consultant. But the books don’t take real life into account, and the books make everything sound so easy.

“You’re different. You have fifteen years’ experience as a programmer, and it shows. They were really surprised. You created a lot of trust, because they know that you know what you’re talking about.”

Praise doesn’t get any higher than that. Here I was preoccupied with embarrassment that my clients—many of whom are in fact Learners—might be judging me because they’re so much better-read than I. In reality, what I have to offer is so second-nature to me that I sometimes forget everybody else doesn’t have it or know it already.

I’m not saying I don’t need to read a bit more. I clearly do. But I’m never going to be voracious with the work books, and I’m always going to encounter clients who naturally read work-circles around me. What I realize now is, neither one of those is a bad thing. I have skills and knowledge that clients need me for, and I need their skills and knowledge, too. Those motivated Learners will be the ones to help keep enterprise agility going long after their consultant has moved on!

Our complementary strengths are what makes us a great team. It’s what I teach to them. Let’s see if I can teach it to myself. :)

I spoke at TechEd!

I'm speaking at TechEd Europe!

Pre-conference seminar #12, “Enterprise Agility Is Not an Oxymoron”, all day on the Monday, in Madrid, BY MYSELF. That’s right, no Steve-shaped security blanket.

The worst part about giving the same pre-con twice with different speakers is having to compare the (insanely competitive) speaker and session rankings afterward. The good news is, I did OK! by myself. Not amazingly great like we did together at North America, but genuinely OK!

If you’re interested in learning more about how I teach Enterprise Agility, check out my Events page for upcoming webcasts and live workshops, or contact Northwest Cadence to request one. Cheers!