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What is a Scrum board, and why do you need one?

PostsProject management
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

March 04, 2022

Everyone needs a little encouragement to get to the end of a project — and that’s exactly what a scrum board does. It’s like your coach, your cheerleader, and your teammate all wrapped up in one. And who doesn’t want this kind of support during a project? No one, that’s who.

First things first: Scrum — or the scrum framework of project management — is built on four types of meetings, which together, make up Agile. Here they are:

  1. Sprint planning
  2. Daily standups
  3. Sprint reviews
  4. Sprint retrospectives

Although most famously used in software development, Agile remains enduringly popular today. It’s increasingly being adopted across all kinds of other industries simply because it’s an incredibly efficient process that works.

What is Agile, and where does Scrum fit in?

Agile began in 2001 with the Agile Manifesto, a collection of principles for software development. And Scrum is the framework that helps teams put these principles into action.

Agile = a way of working

Scrum = the instructions for achieving this

While both take their bearings from software development, they can be applied to almost any work situation, so don’t let the techy beginnings put you off. From marketing to manufacturing, scrum can help you — so long as you have a concrete product as your output.

What is a scrum board?

Before we dive into what a scrum board is, we need to talk about scrum teams and how they work.

Scrum teams consist of the product owner, the scrum master, and other team members. Every one to four weeks, the scrum team tackles another part of their workflow (known as the backlog). These short bursts of concentrated work are known as sprints. Each day, the team does a daily standup, and after the project’s complete, the scrum master will hold a sprint retrospective.

Scrum boards are a visual representation of your sprints in action.

Scrum is an iterative way of working that focuses on breaking down big projects into small, manageable sprints, with an emphasis on communication and teamwork.  The scrum board embodies this concept. This board sits at the center of everything the team does. It shows how far along they are in the sprint and the project overall.

P.S. — take a look at our Scrum and Agile guide for the full walkthrough.

What does a scrum board look like?

A scrum board has three columns, marked “to do,” “in progress/doing,” and ‘done.’ Seeing your work in a visual format works wonders for planning. You can see how far you’ve come and how far you have to go. It also helps your team decide what to tackle next (a big help for those who struggle with analysis paralysis).

In terms of format, the scrum board can be a physical thing — like a whiteboard covered in pen or sticky notes — or it can be digital. Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of each.

Physical scrum boards vs. online scrum boards: which is better?

Everyone has preferences, and there’s no right or wrong answer. Let’s delve into the details to help you decide.

The advantages of a physical scrum board

  • You can give it a starring role in your daily standup and gather around it each morning.
  • It’s a constant visual reminder (for teams that all work in the same room). Putting it in a prominent place keeps it in everyone’s mind and helps the team focus.
  • You can customize it with different colors, images, icons — go wild! You can also rearrange the workboard after every sprint.

The disadvantages of a physical scrum board

  • It doesn’t work so well if the team is spread out across different rooms, floors, offices, or continents.
  • Lots of sticky notes and handwritten instructions can be messy and confusing.
  • It’s harder to update, and space is limited when it comes to adding extra detail.

The advantages of a digital scrum board

  • It works much more effectively for remote teams, who can log in from wherever they are and see the board in all its glory. And even if your team is all in the same building, it saves getting up and wandering over to another room or floor.
  • It can be customized as much as a physical scrum board, if not more. With your diagramming tool, you can change colors, shapes, or diagram formats and add filters to your view. This level of customization means everyone on the team can view the information in a way they find easy to process.
  • Real-time notifications are a time-saver, especially for managers: no more status updates and task progress emails. Automatic reports can also be a real help, especially since scrum teams need to evaluate their performance.
  • You’re not limited by physical space, which makes it easier to add burndown charts, as well as create boards for long-term projects. Scroll and hop between sprints with ease…
  • Digital scrum boards can be shared at the click of a button. And, if you’re using something cloud-based (highly recommended), team members, supervisors, and team leaders can log in and access information and reports from wherever they are in the world.

The disadvantages of a digital scrum board

  • You’ll need to invest time into getting the team used to the software (though picking something easy to use will minimize this).
  • Software has an initial upfront cost or monthly fee. Then again, the cost of sticky notes and whiteboard pens can add up, so you may find you break even or save after all.

What to include in a scrum board

As we mentioned earlier, basic scrum boards include three columns. However, you can customize them to fit your team goals and how you run Agile sprints. Here’s how to make a scrum board that works for your team.

  1. Start with the three core categories. Make three columns labeled “To Do,” “In progress,” and “Done.” These three sections define the bulk of your workflow, but they don’t provide the full context of what you’re working on.
  2. Summarize the backlog. One optional column we recommend is the backlog, which is a wishlist of product goals you want to accomplish long-term or in an individual sprint. Typically, you’ll choose a few items from the product backlog to focus on in each sprint. Having these goals laid out alongside your workflow provides a frame of reference for your progress and the decisions you’ll make as a team.
  3. Include user stories. In design sprints, it’s crucial to avoid going off on tangents that take away from the planned milestones. User stories provide a concise, well-defined end goal for each task workflow, so your team is more likely to stay on track. Although it isn’t necessary for every scrum board, a “Stories” column is ideal for product design and development teams.
  4. Identify tasks in review. Include an “In review” or “Testing” column if your sprints involve user testing or some other form of iterative assessment. Having a dedicated review column makes it easier to distinguish between tasks your team is actively working on and tasks that are awaiting feedback. Both types of tasks are “in progress,” but they consist of different activities.
  5. Assign the tasks. Make sure each task on the scrum board has at least one assignee. Charting everything your team needs to accomplish won’t matter if no one knows what they’re supposed to do!

Cacoo scrum board example

How to make your scrum board work harder

You’ve got your three columns, but why stop there? Whether you’re working digitally or plastering a whiteboard with sticky notes, there are more details you can add for extra understanding.

  • Add extra detail: for example, ‘done’ means different things to different teams. Define exactly what each thing means for greater clarity, and add extra sub-columns if necessary.
  • Add retrospective notes: Retrospectives are held after each sprint. The goal is to find ways to improve on the last one. Take notes and add them to the next sprint (either pinned to the board or added as comments on a digital board), so everyone can see them as a reminder.
  • Add a burndown chart: a burndown chart is a graph showing the work that’s left to do, as well as how long you have to do it. It can apply to the project as a whole, or you can have one per sprint. The chart also shows how fast the team is making progress on the work.

burndown chart for scrum board

Final thoughts

Scrum boards are so simple, yet so effective when it comes to organizing a project. After using one once, we promise you’ll be hooked.

If your team’s small and located in one room, then a whiteboard is fine. But for epic projects, bigger teams, organizations with remote workers, or project managers who prefer to keep things digital, an online scrum board is the only real choice.

Automatic updates, real-time dashboards, and anywhere-anytime accessibility removes boundaries and boosts team collaboration. And with Cacoo, our own diagramming tool, the Scrum Master can create the board, present ideas, and get live feedback during daily standups, making the whole process more immediate — not to mention, collaborative.

This post was originally published on September 4, 2020, and updated most recently on March 4, 2022.



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