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Making Work Visible

Making Work Visible

We learned early on in our transition to scrum that an important component of capturing the benefits of agile/scrum is making the team’s work visible. There are many benefits to putting everyone’s work out there and talking about it on, in our case, a daily basis.

Here’s some insight into how and why we visualize our work, and how you can start making your team’s work visible. These ideas are valuable for teams of all sizes, whether they’re in-person, remote, or a combination of the two. The technology may change, but the concepts and benefits stand no matter where your team is based.

How We Visualize Our Work

We use a tool called TargetProcess to visualize all of the work across Far Reach. It’s an enterprise tool specifically for agile/scrum software development teams. Every piece of work a Far Reacher works on is documented as a story in TargetProcess with the following information:

  • Project
  • Team Sprint
  • Point Estimate
  • Acceptance Criteria
  • Links to other stories
  • Business Value (High, Medium, Low)
  • And more

Every project we do has a backlog in TargetProcess made up of epics, features, and stories. Stories flow into and through sprints every two weeks based on timelines, priority, and capacity (and a whole bunch of other factors we consider when planning our work).

There are dozens of views in TargetProcess that product owners use to manage the backlog and planning for sprints. But for many team members, the main board used is the current sprint view, which shows all of the work planned for the two-week sprint.

Beyond just seeing the work, an important factor in making work visible is actually talking about it. If the work is all documented to a T, but no one ever looks at it, then the work isn’t really that visible at all.

Talking About the Work

Even though our work is all documented in TargetProcess, we still talk about it daily in our scrum ceremonies, mostly our morning standup calls. Many of the benefits we experience from work visibility are because of this commitment to discuss progress, plans, and impediments daily.

Every person on the team answers the following questions each standup:

  • What did you finish yesterday that helped the team meet the sprint goal(s)?
  • What are you working on today that will help the team meet the sprint goal(s)?
  • What impediments or blockers are keeping you from helping the team meet the sprint goal(s)?

Standup isn’t just a status update. If we were just looking for an update on where work is, we could each look at the board ourselves. It’s really about having conversations about the work and how we can (or should) collaborate, adjust, and keep each other accountable to keep pushing the work forward.

The Benefits of Making Work Visible

Making work visible—and being purposeful about talking about it—has brought to light many benefits for our team.

Accountability

It’s a pretty powerful motivator when you talk each day about how your work is impacting the team’s goal(s). The whole team sees—and hears—what work is moving, and, therefore, what work isn’t moving. This helps stories or other blockers that could be impediments rise to the surface where they can be seen and addressed.

The team can hold each other accountable—not in a tattle-tale way, but in a how-can-we-help way. For example, when a team member has had the same story on their plate for three days, anyone on the team can ask what’s going on and offer to help.

Visibility also helps make sure work doesn’t fall through the cracks. You’re no longer reliant on your own brain to remember what to do and in what order. The whole team helps keep everyone accountable.

Always Evaluating Priority

When you talk about your work each day, you can see the big picture of what’s important. If you’re working on something that’s not a priority, in lieu of high-priority items on your plate, talking about the work can bring that to light when you may not have noticed otherwise.

It’s tough to ask a teammate why they’re working on X instead of Y since Y is higher priority. But as you build trust as a team, you can see that it’s all coming from a place of curiosity and collaboration, not of blame.

The Bus (or Lottery) Factor

The bus factor (what happens if the only person who knows something gets hit by a bus) is a little morbid. So, we prefer to use the lottery factor—what happens if the only person who knows something wins the lottery and doesn’t come back to work.

When there’s only one person who knows a particular client, system, or task, it’s risky. If that person wins the lottery or even just takes a vacation, the team could be left scrambling to meet the client’s needs and expectations. Having many people who understand the work reduces risk and allows for more flexibility. Making work visible and talking about it each day means the whole team is hearing about all the work consistently, making the lottery factor less of a, well, factor.

Talking about your work each day naturally leads to more collaboration. When any story can be completed by multiple team members, the client’s risk is reduced, team members feel less stressed (and can actually unplug on vacation), and workloads can be balanced across the team.

Identify and Reduce Waste

When you talk about your work each day, and you can see what everyone is working on, the risk of two people accidentally doing the same task (unless they’re pairing) is basically eliminated.

You can also find efficiencies when two team members plan to work on similar tasks. They can pair that work to share knowledge and move faster together.

Sometimes things come up that change the priority of the work in a sprint. That can mean that some of the work we had planned to do might be pushed back to a later sprint to accommodate something new that’s more urgent. If we talk about our work every day, we can make sure no one accidentally picks up work that is no longer needed or relevant to the current sprint. This, in turn, allows us to be better stewards of our clients’ budgets because we’re always working on what they consider to be most valuable and not wasting our time (and their money) on work that’s less valuable.

Opportunities for Collaboration

One of the biggest benefits of visible work we’ve experienced is finding opportunities for collaboration. Talking about your work provides an opportunity to ask for (and offer) help and bring up when you have too much or too little work and adjust accordingly.

Sharing who’s doing what work helps the team identify and share strengths. It’s easy to identify who to ask for help if any team member gets stuck. If you grab a story that sounds familiar (because you’ve heard about similar work in a past standup), you have insight into who might be a good resource if you get stuck.

Scrum is built around collaboration, and making work visible (and then talking about it at standups) is a big factor in making that collaboration happen.

Start Making Your Team’s Work Visible

Now that you know the benefits of making your team’s work visible, I’m sure you’re itching to get started.

There are many tools you could use to visualize your team’s work. You could start with a simple spreadsheet or with one of the many project management tools available: Trello, Asana, Monday, etc.

Read about how we helped the Iowa Heartland Habitat for Humanity choose and implement a project management tool.

It can be overwhelming to choose a tool to use. Our recommendation is to avoid analysis paralysis, pick a tool, and get started.

A part of getting started is setting up processes to review your work visualization efforts, update them, and iterate to keep getting better and better.

A few tips for when you’re starting out:

  • Don’t get too granular: You don’t need tasks like “check email” or for meetings
  • Establish processes: Make sure your team is using the tool in the same way
  • Find balance: Work to find the line between too much and too little documentation
  • Talk about the work: Set up team meetings to review everyone’s work

Going Beyond Visibility

Once your work is visible and you’re talking about it as a team, a lot of opportunities for improvement open up. By tracking your work, you’ll be able to see how much work is being done each period and can start to plan based on capacity. We use points for planning capacity and measuring progress, but you could use hours, number of tasks/stories, or another measure.


Have you noticed benefits from making your team’s work visible? Or are you just thinking about starting the process? Either way, we want to hear your experience, so reach out!

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