The team wall – or agile knowledge management

Here’s the situation: A customer asked us to improve the quality of their core system so that they again can act on the demands of their users and customers in a timely manner. We had a team room at our disposal and we again made extensive use of the walls. It turned out that the team wall made the difference!

Using the team wall has high impact on team performance.,

This article relates to the first iterations of the project, where we analysed the existing system from different angles (technical, user and business persective) and proposed different ways forward to the management.

We made extensive use of the walls in the team room and basically used the wall as one of our key workspace. What we had on the wall changed constantly.

Here are a few things that made it onto the walls:

  • Things that makes our customer sucessful on the market, the services offered, the capabilities developed to achieve this and the contribution of the core system we were looking at.
  • Business vision, initiatives and the larger neighboring projects we could identify.
  • Atributes of the customer’s “DNA” and other drivers of how business is developed.
  • The interfaces of the system and the bounded contexts within the core system.
  • The results from a users survey showing us what the users think about the system.
  • Results from our different experiments to test hypothesis and possibilites of changing and improving the code and the database.
  • Target architecture.
  • Criteria to rate different options for the renovation.
  • Steering, planning and progress control.
  • Risks and impediments.
  • Our report to the management.

What we neglected on the wall:

  • pictures of users, their offices and their statements of what they value at their work from all over the country.
  • statements of our customer’s customers and what they expect from our customer. This was added later when we created customer journeys.

Workspace wall

The walls served as our work space. Topics moved around, increased and decreased in size, appeared and disappeared. Individual topics probably roughly evolved along the following pattern:

  1. Clearing some space on the walls to get a topic started and thus condensing or even removing other information.
  2. Initial collection of relevant information. This we did with interviews, looking at existing documentation and the code, as well as copying already collected information from the walls.
  3. Finding a first structure. This obviously happend while we were collecting information. Every piece of information we were able to catch was arranged on the wall (usually with sticky notes).
  4. Talking with more people. Rather than going to the stakeholders or to a meeting room we brought them in our team room and then directly updated the walls.
  5. Drawings to visualize conceptual insights. Such drawings tended to appear once we had worked on a lot of detailed information and clandestinely disappeared again. They showed a consolidated graphical picture of what we derived from the information.
  6. Walking the walls as a whole to gain insights and update the other topics on the walls to reflect those insights.
  7. Increasing communication quality. Once a structure of information proved to be valuable and quite stable, we started drawing on the computer and put the updated results on the walls again. The print-out served to put-up more sticky notes, of course.

There are quite a few interesting behaviors that we were able to observe in and around our team.

  • When entering the team room, we looked at the walls to see whether something changed and engaged a conversation with whoever knew about it.
  • When someone was working on a topic by sticking notes or creating drawings, others could see the changes and quite often a spontaneous discussion started.
  • Ever so often, someone went to one of the models on the wall and added to it.
  • Most discussions happened standing in front of the topic we were working on, everbody manipulating the information on the wall.
  • During a discussion, people were walking around the room, looking at the many pieces of information on the walls, getting inspiration and combining yet unrelated information to new insights.
  • During discussion, pointing to different pieces of information all along the room was standard behavior.
  • Once, I happened to remove the capability map from the wall, while two others where having a discussion about some technical concepts. When one of them referred to the currently missing capabiltiy map, he stopped, stared at the blank wall and lost his thought.
  • When one of the team members came back from a two weeks absence, he was at first baffled by the amount of change that took place in his absence. Then started to ask a lot of question and was soon back in the team.
  • Even during our absence other people entered the room to see what we were working at.

My conclusion: when you’re working colocated, wall space is an extermely valuable resource and it is worth getting creative to get it.

The team wall – agile knowledge management tool

What factors made wall space such a powerful tool in our situation? Here are my guesses about some really significant differences to the electronic tools teams usually use like office products, document repositories, wiki sites, and more:

  • Presence: information is immediately available and always present for the people in the room.
  • Public sphere: every one entering the room can add to the room. No special skills necessary.
  • Visibility of work in progress: Whatever team members are working on gets some presence on the wall.
  • Group-enabled: When working in a group everyone in the group can actively participate and change things on the wall.
  • Integration: Information otherwise separated (like capabilites and interfaces) naturally sits side by side and can be related.
  • Boundedness: just the most important information fits the wall. The team must constantly re-evaluate, which information is important enough to make it to the wall.
  • Hub: Many discussions are held directly at the wall. Others in the room can participate passively.

My insight: the team wall was THE tool to manage our team knowledge. It made a major impact on our common understanding and our transactive memory (i.e. the knowledge of what the others in the team know). It would have been almost impossible in this very dynamic situation to form and keep a common understanding of what the problem and the best solution was without such a tool.

Something to learn?

Here are my three maybe most important learnings from this reflection:

#1: The wall is here to do work. The draftier the work, the more important it is to put it on the wall. So rather than thinking by yourself in front of the computer, start thinking on the wall and others can gain understanding from this and even join.

#2: Everyone has a presence on the wall so everyone understands what others do.

#3: Do it with whatever space you have available and use any life hacks you can to add to the space.

Making good use of the team wall has a huge and positive impact on team dynamics and collaboration. The reason: the team wall fosters a better common understanding of what to do, why and how and makes the knowledge of others visible. So do it!