Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Secret of the Whiteboard

I was sitting in on a team retrospective today and I suddenly realised one of those totally obvious things that I occasionally figure out. Usually a few decades after everyone else has.

But it's one of the reasons why whiteboards are such an effective way for teams to collaborate, and it explains why "virtual" replacements never really work.

Picture a meeting area with a whiteboard. Most everybody sits at the table, right? One person gets up and does the writing/whatnot at the whiteboard, right? There isn't really room at the whiteboard for more than one or at most two people, and it's not very much fun standing around while somebody else writes away. You might as well sit down, and so the tendency is always for one person to be the "whiteboard" person and everyone else to be "everyone else."

And it's that simple mechanical situation that makes whiteboards effective. Because you have one whiteboard person facing everyone else, you have a natural flow of information -- everyone else generates ideas and commentary, and the whiteboard person filters all that out and creates a living document of the group's efforts. The technology creates the social environment most conducive to creative collaboration.

If EVERYONE has access to the whiteboard, there's no filtering process. The group's creative energy isn't directed anywhere and so generating forward momentum is harder. But if access to the whiteboard is harder than just standing up and taking up the pen, then the filtering feels forced and overbearing. Likewise, if people can't easily, say, write sticky notes and see those notes get put up on the board, they will feel less inclined to contribute.

Now technologies like SMART boards offer some solid enhancements to this basic technology, but really, I don't know if there's a big leap to be made here. The killer app for whiteboards is just straight-up creative collaboration. They rock at it.

It's interesting to note how some technologies are so fundamental that they're almost impervious to design improvement. Take the book. The book is a marvellous piece of technology, and computers don't seem able to do much to improve them, even though their fundamental task (information delivery) would seem to be exactly the sort of thing computers excel at. Whiteboards aren't quite so extreme that way but still, even the most wildly-advanced whiteboard replacement seems to be getting at most 10% of its value from the additions made AFTER the basic whiteboard value is considered.

Huh.

Photo Credit Michelle Ho