Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Whiteboard Fail


This is a story about how the overuse of whiteboards can be a sign of something worse and create a risk to project success...


I once worked with a project manager who was leading a particularly difficult data warehouse project.  The complexity came form both the number of different source systems that were sending information into all of the same data warehouse tables as well as the data marts that were used to answer specific questions based on some (but not all) of the source systems.  When I had my first meeting with this lead to talk about the state of affairs, he'd been on the project for nearly twelve months and explained that they were a couple of months behind schedule, but working lots of overtime to catch up.  I asked him to explain the nature of the data and the solution his team was building.  He spent ninety minutes diagramming on his white board.  Starting from a general overview of the solution and drilling down to various nuances and complexities of the data itself.  It was a superb series of diagrams.  He used color and gestures and inflection in his voice to emphasize various points.

When he was wrapping up and erasing the last diagram, I asked him if there where any electronic copies of these diagrams he'd been reproducing so deftly on the board.  "No.  We've never gotten around to actually drawing those," he responded.  "We've been too busy with the implementation."

Fourteen months later, when he burned out and left the company, there were still no electronic versions of those system diagrams and the project was more that six months behind schedule.  Within days of his appointment, the new project manager had electronic versions of those same images that had once only been in the former lead's head, and within two months the project was beginning to recover some lost ground.

While everyone on the project team had in their heads the same general concept for the project, the fact that he never put them down electronically was an implicit way of not sharing with the rest of the team.  The rest of the team didn't feel a comfortable connection or trust with the fundamental designs they were working with and spent more time than necessary questioning their design and implementation decisions.  As soon as the diagrams were on paper and published throughout the project team's workspace, decisions became more obvious, team members were more confident, and work began taking less time.

Obviously, I'm not saying that whiteboards aren't second only to whiteboard paint on the list of greatest inventions of all time.  Still, there are some ways to make whiteboarding more effective:
  • Purchase smart boards
  • Capture whiteboard contents with a digital cameras and an image clean-up tool like scanr
  • Use a tablet PC and overhead
  • Learn to diagram in Visio (or other tool), live during a meeting

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