How to Boost Agile Team Performance with the Power of Touch

Most of us are lucky to have five senses, yet we only use sight and hearing for work. What about the others, namely smell, taste and touch?

First, smell. Research tells us that it produces the strongest reaction… we all remember the girlfriend from 20 years ago, when we smell that perfume again, don’t we boys? What about taste? Well, taste is one hell of a reason why eating-out is such a pleasurable experience! Neither though are really applicable to our daily work.

But what about touch?

Indeed, what about touch? It turns out in fact, that it is a very powerful sense that is also very applicable to our daily work as Agilists, especially those that use a physical board.

But the power of a physical board is still vastly under-appreciated so teams often resort to hiding behind electronic tools, even teams that are co-located.

Yet as we will find out, when the full power of touch is utilised together with physical boards, we get a huge boost in the sense of ownership and accountability and thus performance.

To understand this, we need a few short stories, one involving the power of the pen, followed by subtle Apple and finally advice on how to touch your customer.

What About Writing – We Live in a Modern World Afterall?

Last year I was lucky enough to attend the Global Peter Drucker Forum in Vienna. I highly recommend it, the presenters are world class, and include the likes of Clayton Christensen, Roger Martin and Stephen Denning.

Anyway, one of the presenters pointed out that those typing notes were wasting their time. She went on to explain that when we type, we very quickly start to copy, and do so verbatim. Meaning we capture what the person is saying, word-for-word without thinking. Not only that, our brain is also having to think by processing internal thoughts such as “where do I save this, where is the @ symbol, how shall I call the file, I cannot type fast enough” etc etc etc

Yet when we write, our brain is free to think. We can doodle too which is also proven to be a mode in which our thoughts are synthesised.

All of this results in far stronger thought and digestion and thus far greater potential for recall, when we want the information at a later date.

What though, if you are one of those digitally minded people in today’s modern World? Well, you can easily scan your notes after the event and store the images in something like Evernote and guess what? Evernote can perform pattern matching to find words in images. So, no excuses, use your brain for thought, not copying.

If you would like to explore these claims in more detail, here are three articles:

  1. Life-Hacker: “The Benefits of Writing by Hand Versus Typing”
  2. Scientific American: “A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop”
  3. The Wall Street Journal: “Can Handwriting Make You Smarter?”

But, what has this got to do with an Agile team’s physical board?

Well, it is simple. Make sure the team members write their own tickets. In doing so they will think more deeply about their ticket and as a consequence, they will have a greater sense of ownership and responsibility, and thus an increased desire to get the task done.

Subtle Apple

A few years ago, when the iPad 2 came out, I ventured into our local Apple store to purchase one. But the blue-polo-shirted “Genius’s” always told me that they’d sold out and did not know when they would be in stock. “Some genius” I sarcastically thought.

After the third time, I got slightly annoyed and walked over to the MacBook Pro laptop section of the store. Put myself in front of the last remaining available alien-looking thing, after all I’d been using PCs since 1986, adjusted the screen so I could at least try it, clicked around a bit and before I knew it, bought the alien beast.

Not only that, I walked out feeling great. No “buyer’s remorse” what-so-ever.

How did this happen? For goodness sake, I originally wanted an iPad!  Was it stupid male-shopping-impulse-buying?

No, I just felt I had to have it.

Something however, was playing with my mind. Something very subtle, but actually done on purpose by those clever people at Apple.

Have you ever noticed that all the screens are set to an angle that makes you adjust the screen?

This is on purpose. Apple want you to adjust it and when you do… guess what… you are touching it and Bingo! That is the moment they have you.

You immediately get to feel the quality and want one. So you ask for one. But it does not stop there. When you get it, they ask if you want help. You say “yes” because you are now flush with adrenaline, success and excitement.

Next, something else rather unexpectedly happens: They ask you to unpack it and open it. They do not touch it. You earned it. You own it. You value it. You possess it. No one else. It is Y-O-U-R-S.

Now this is genius psychology at play and in fact, Apple’s subtle approach to raise the sense of ownership through touch is well documented in the first of these two articles, the second then supports the claim:

So what has this got to do with an Agile team’s physical board?

Well, if the team is writing their own tickets and they themselves place their card / post-it onto the board at the end of Sprint Planning, and they maintain the remaining effort and they move the tickets during the Sprint through to “Done”, then they will have a greater sense of ownership. Because just like that MacBook Pro, that card or post-it belongs to them.

Touching your Customer

Ok, no, we should not necessarily touch our customer. But we should use the power of touch to get our customers engaged!

And customer engagement is one of the most common issues I hear. This is especially true at banks, insurance or pharmaceutical companies or other such large corporate institutions.

In such places, a project will be set up and there will be representatives of “the business” involved in the project.  After a while though, even after highly successful, motivating kick-offs, “the business” stops attending the Sprint Reviews.

This is despite the fact that, at the end of the day, it is their project. They are paying for it!

Amazingly, even when this rational, very logical argument is played back to them, in a last-ditch appeal for engagement, it often “falls on deaf ears”. Why? Because the people that should be engaged on an almost day-to-day basis are not only too busy but also, when we think about it,  it is not really, directly, their money.

I first faced this problem in an Agile team way back in 2010. Back then, we were developing a product for multiple remote customers. During the first sprint reviews, done over telco and screen sharing, we could sense the clients falling asleep. Then, suddenly after the 3rd Sprint, one customer requested:

“Can I try”

We immediately panicked. Every single one of us, deep inside, literally died. We froze with anxiety, pure fear.

But sure, he could try.

It turned out to be a truly amazing turning point for the whole organisation and for all of our customers:  Our developers starting asking questions. He debated with them on details. The other clients got involved and in the end, our clients started to demand the software earlier, compared to the previous two years, where the very same clients never ever wanted our software.

Today, we can express it differently: They started to pull the software through our team. We no longer had to push it onto them.

So what happened?

Yes, you’ve guessed it – the client “touched” the software and in doing so raised his own sense of ownership.

Now this is genius.

In Summary

Use the power of touch whenever you can to raise the sense of ownership and accountability across all members of the team, including customers. Do this by getting:

  • People to write their own Stories and Tasks on Post-It Notes or task cards
  • The team to put their own cards on the physical board
  • The team to update and move their own cards during the Sprint
  • Clients to actual demonstrate the software during a Sprint Review

About the Author

Matthew Caine is a method-independent Agile coach, consultant and trainer. He is also a co-founder of the startup accelerator NineAligned through which the startup “” was founded.

If you love your physical board and you liked this article, you can get a 20% discount on 3M Super-Sticky purpose Swiss-designed Agile Sticky Notes by clicking on this link.

Matthew lives in Zurich, Switzerland yet loves to go fishing in the remote Northwest coast of Scotland.

Picture credits: nick_thomps / 123RF Stock Photo

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