How to use a digital whiteboard to improve team agility

Agility is the name of the game in today’s business landscape. From the youngest start-up to some of the most established and long-standing companies, agility has become a priority not only to better adapt to rapid market trend shifts but to remain competitive against key rivals in the same space.

With agility being such a priority for the majority of companies that want to stay in business, the search for any and all possible tools to help facilitate this shift to faster adaptation has become a key point of a differentiator for those companies that do well and those that don’t.

While there are definitely strategic frameworks and operational methodologies that can help you achieve a truly agile set-up, you might not be looking for something so expansive just yet. But there is a way to reach agility with your team using a relatively simple but modern tool: the digital whiteboard.

Digital Whiteboards and Modern Workspaces

The whiteboard has been around for quite some time now, starting out as a slightly more developed alternative to the even more traditional chalkboard. The concept was simple: erasable markers and a white blank slate allowed workplaces, classrooms, and even restaurants to be flexible in how they wanted to portray information.

Technology didn’t take too long to start attempting to evolve the whiteboard past its standard smooth surface and dry-erase marker setup. Xerox and Smart technologies began developing some of the earliest versions of a digitally amplified version of a whiteboard back in the 1980s. These were relatively rudimentary in what they tried to do, but essentially these “smart boards” aimed to bring a deeper level of interactivity to whiteboard usage. This included animated graphics, dynamic actions, and even multimedia playback.

It was only natural then that this enhanced version of the whiteboard would receive a virtual upgrade as internet connections began speeding up and software became much more easily accessible. The digital whiteboard was then developed, partly in part of a natural evolution of how we used to utilize this collaboration tool, but also due to the slow (and all of a sudden) rise of remote work in our professional environment. Today, some versions of the digital whiteboard stand as part of a larger suite of collaborative tools, that offer the same flexibility that those used to the dry-erase marker would be familiar with.

Best Practices for Agile Whiteboard Use

It’s easy to dismiss the whiteboard as a largely intuitive tool regardless of whether it is digital or not. You simply have an empty white space that you can use to take down notes of a discussion, illustrate a point, or even hold an activity. But starting off with such a wide canvas and no exact frame of reference on how to begin can be daunting for some first-time meeting facilitators.

With agility at the forefront of the strategy for almost every industry today, effective managers shouldn’t go in unprepared to meetings and expect things to go smoothly and, if at all, efficiently. The whiteboard is a definitely useful tool, but its ability to boost your team’s efficiency can be much more improved using these practices illustrated below.

Keep a Consistent Reference Whiteboard

One of the main tenets of a good and agile team is often one that is also skipped: transparency. To be truly agile in a working environment means being open and clear with project progress, task responsibilities, hurdles, and even shortcomings that can affect the project at large. If you or any of your team keeps things too close to their chest, then the rest of the team can miss out on key information that can help their tasks move along that much faster, or worse, overlook pertinent facts that can hinder the progress entirely.

One way to help ensure transparency across your team (and other related stakeholders as well) is to develop a good reference whiteboard that stays consistent throughout and is regularly updated in collaboration with and individually by each member of the team. This not only ensures that each member knows what is going on in terms of project updates, but also helps in deriving engagement and participation from each member as they are accountable for each task they are assigned.

There are two main frameworks that can help get you started using a reference whiteboard. The first one is the popular Kanban method, which utilizes a more visual method of indicating what projects are to be done, currently in progress, in review, and finished. You can expand additional status steps depending on the project, but you essentially tag tasks under each separate segment to indicate how far along the process the current task is.

Another popular framework would be the Kaizen method, which focuses on itemizing and describing each task in a step-by-step manner, to reach continuous improvement. This is particularly useful for tasks that have a set process towards completion as you essentially need to list out each step in an itemized and hierarchized fashion. Managers and team members can then ask themselves the right questions in order to identify what brings value at each step of the process.. 

There will definitely be other frameworks that are available depending on your context and current needs. Just like the whiteboard itself, you can be as flexible with how you want to approach certain things and implement specific frameworks.

Leverage Multimedia Functionalities

Whiteboards used to be limited with whoever the scribe’s ability to illustrate and note down important discussion points. Fast writers and good drawers were often the first picks as the meeting notes taker, but that limits your ability to share that task with the rest of the team. With just one person doing all the scribbling on the whiteboard, the rest of the team is relegated to just verbally sharing their thoughts while they wait for the scribe to catch up to where they are in the discussion.

It is definitely useful, then, that digital whiteboards today can take advantage not just of the speed of typing, but the editing capabilities and other media capabilities that a fully virtual environment can provide. It’s commonly understood that pictures paint a thousand words but imagine harnessing the narrative capabilities of audio, video, and even all of these media formats combined.

Digital whiteboards, depending on the platform you’re using it on, can leverage different embedded media materials to better enhance the experience of the whiteboard for all. This goes beyond just adding an additional image to help brighten up the whiteboard visually as additional media can help deliver points with supporting information, provide reference links, segue into workshops, and even provide alignment from non-present members to deliver key points asynchronously. Don’t discount the visual aspect of multimedia use though, as a well-designed whiteboard can make the difference in how your team approaches and utilizes it.

Schedule and Define Regular Updates

Consistency is key with any agile strategy you’re planning to implement in your team. When using consistent reference whiteboards, you’ll want to ensure that everyone is using them according to a pre-decided cadence. The last thing you want is to run into a syncing error where someone’s progress is affected by another person’s editing of the same whiteboard.

This can be avoided by ensuring you have a properly defined method of when and how team members should interact with and edit the board. Task hygiene, as we like to call it, ensures that members don’t mistakenly edit how the board looks or disrupts how information is presented to the rest of the team. Schedule ritual check-ins on a periodic basis so that everyone knows when large changes to the whiteboard should be done.

Smaller changes or changes on individual projects will likely fall out of this schedule, so this is where you’ll need to define how best to properly update specific pieces on the whiteboard. Similar to developing nomenclature for file-naming, keeping organized by having a defined method of updating can help lessen confusion amongst your team. The Kanban and Kaizen methods previously discussed do a good job of roughly illustrating how updates and entries should look. And ideally, you can also have features allowing the team to see when an element was shared on the whiteboard by somebody else.

Properly Backup and Archive

It’s likely happened to those who’ve worked in offices where whiteboards were regularly used; often, status boards that contain important key information get accidentally or erroneously erased by someone. This leaves all relevant teams using that whiteboard essentially wading around in the dark until someone remembers what was written on the board. In those days these situations were avoided by copying down the board after a specific period (similar to our previous entry on scheduling) or even taking (albeit blurry) of the board at the end of each day.

As you can imagine, this wasn’t the most streamlined of ways on using a whiteboard for wider collaborative use. When tackling the goal of being more agile in your team, you’re likely going to be depending on the whiteboard to keep up with fast-moving tasks and key milestones to hit. Losing all of this suddenly because of human mistake can be devastating to your project’s progress.

Digital whiteboards have the advantage of this by usually incorporating some sort of auto-save feature as part of their data integrity/security functionalities. With the tech world keenly aware of the frequency of internet dropouts, live-saving has become almost a standard across digital whiteboards to ensure that you keep your data just in case something happens.

Even then, it’s good practice to have archive versions of your whiteboards for easy reference, whether it’s a current board or one that is regarding an older project. Digital whiteboards can be easily exported into different file extensions, making these also easy to share with team members who may need a quick read-out of the current board.

Develop Around Your Team

One of the last but likely most important pieces of advice that we can give in the utilization of whiteboards as part of your effort to be more agile is to always take into account the context and situation of your team.

While agility is definitely a key pillar in most strategic planning across industries, the exact specifics and tactics to get there likely differ greatly, especially across different projects and initiatives. As such, your use of the digital whiteboard should attempt to mimic that same dynamism and change accordingly to the most appropriate version when possible.

While the Kanban board might be useful for visual-first teams, Kaizen might work better for teams that need additional details on their tasks as well as an easy tracker for work completion. You’ll likely need to check in on how you use these boards in terms of multimedia and sharing as well. We live in a very heterogeneous tech landscape, so not every gadget has the same functionality that others have, so some richer media functions might not work as well. In these cases, simpler and more universal design/framework choices can better suit what your team needs.

Final Thoughts

While the whiteboard is indeed a powerful tool, it’s important to understand how to use it well in order to enable real agility with your team. Being agile is as much a mindset as it is a certain set of practices. Ensure you have both on your plate and you should find yourself slowly inching towards a faster and more agile system of work.

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