Managing Life Using “Personal Scrum”

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Last night, Excella Consulting held its monthly Agile Center of Excellence meeting, where someone joked about using Scrum to manage life outside the office. At first glance, it might seem silly to plan a wedding or coordinate the kids’ after-school chores/soccer/science/music activities with daily stand-up meetings and a velocity chart. I mean, why go through all that overhead when you have real work to do?

Well, don’t laugh, but I’ve actually tried it. Indeed, it turns out I’m not the first. A quick google of “Personal Scrum” yields some curious notes from Pete Deemer, Khaled Hussein , and Vasco Duarte. My results, though, are rather mixed, and I offer them here for your review.

The Personal Scrum Process:
First, some technical details. I started by creating a Personal Backlog of tasks in Microsoft Outlook 2007. Everything I could think of that I wanted to get done, I recorded as a Task in Outlook. For each item, I entered an estimate for how many hours it should take me to complete a task. Every Friday at lunch, I would review how much work got done, and prioritize my tasks for next week.

Entering estimates on my Personal Backlog in Outlook

Entering estimates on my Personal Backlog in Outlook

Sounds like a breeze, right?

Personal Dysfunctions Exposed by Personal Scrum
Management guru Ken Schwaber says that using the Scrum method is akin to inviting your mother-in-law to the office: she’ll expose everything you’re doing wrong, and then leave it up to you to fix the problems. As it turns out, this is exactly what happened, and the pattern is the same as they are at the office:“Going Solo Means Going Nowhere”. Here is what I mean:

  1. The Big Things Are Still Overwhelming – For a while, I’ve wanted to redesign my website. But when I think about the right layout, the right photo, the right skin, how to install logos for my social networking profiles, how to pull in my twitter feed – each of which takes time – it gets really overwhelming. So during each Friday review, I put it off. Or I do only one task and take for ever to get to the next task. When I’m the one prioritizing what work I do in a given week, I tend to go for the easier things, so that I can predict at least something will get done. What I really need is a team or a coach to talk me through step-by-step the steps involved in, say, learning a new language…and then to follow up with me later to see if I tackled that one small next step.
  2. Self-Discipline is Still Hard – Each Friday, I would paste my list of completed task list from Outlook into Excel and add up my overall output to create a velocity chart. Here is what that looks like:
    Personal Task Hours Completed Each Week

    Personal Task Hours Completed Each Week

    . As you can see, I’m not very consistent. In the end, sticking to a declared set of priorities *is a hard thing to do*. You can see the deeper truth of this by reading these posts about thedifficulty of single-tasking. Without a team or coach around me, I’m left to follow my own distractions. My daily huddle consists of 2 team members: me and my computer…and the two of us easily go WAY off track.
  3. Finding Time Is Still Hard – If you look closely at the chart above, you’ll see that it’s been over a month since I last did my weekly review. It turns out that Friday meeting-with-myself either gets co-opted by an urgent task, or I get distracted by less tedious task of online gadget shopping. However, I’ve never missed a daily huddle with my project team at the office (unless I was out sick). Why? Because it’s much easier to blow off a commitment to myself than to blow off a commitment to my team. If I start missing the monthly demos of the system we’re building, people will wonder whether I care about my job and that will lead to some unpleasant conversations and consequences. But not when I’m flying solo. These “common time commitments” are manifested as good old fashioned appointments. If we make an appointment to talk about something at a specific time and place, we’ve made a commitment to follow through. This is why I exercise much more often when I take a class from a gym or a martial arts studio…not showing up carries a financial and social penalty than just deciding on my own not to go jogging.

To combat these deficiencies, you need a team. That team could be a spouse, a buddy, a counselor, or whatever. Whenever you slip up, your wingman will be there to nudge you back on track. Because, in the end, Scum is very much is like a mother-in-law: I’ve done everything she asked me to do, and I still feel inadequate…

Leadership is…NOT Buying a Mac

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…at least not right now.

I want a Mac. Badly. I’ve had a laptop for a few years now, and it’s grown to be a little rather rough around the edges. Namely, the CPU can barely handle running the latest versions of Office and iTunes together; my music has almost filled up the scant 60GB hard drive, and the video port doesn’t work when I need to do presentations.

When I started shopping for a replacement I thought it might finally be time to get a Macbook. An Engineer by background, I’ve always had a heathly dose of tech envy towards Mac owners. What’s not to like? The UNIX-based operating system, built-in webcam, slick casing, and even the simple things like 1-click uploads to Facebook and YouTube. I even switched over to an iPhone recently, believing that it would be my gateway drug to a Mac.

But then, right when I’m about to make the pitch to my wife, my employer assigns me a new Dell laptop. You should see this thing:

My new beast of a computer

The Latitude E5500. My new beast of a computer

It weighs nearly 8lbs, and the 15″ screen is more like 16.5″ with the border frames. Lugging this beast back and forth to work has my chiropractor laughing all the way to the bank.

But the real kicker is that this laptop has shot my whole business case for a Mac. When I received the laptop, I marched right home and declared to my wife that it was unacceptable. I “needed” to get a Mac, and the bulk of this new laptop was my proof. But she responded with simple questions like “can’t you replace that large bag with a sleeve? Doesn’t Windows Vista have speech recognition for dictating articles and such? And how much will this new computer cost versus a Mac?” Ug…by loaning me a functional company laptop, there’s no longer a “need” to do the mega-upgrade.

Why all this fuss over a just a couple thousand dollars? Because the small stuff matters. It’s been said “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” How does it look if I buy a brand new computer, and then tell my son that he can’t have any more Pokemon packs or ask my wife not to buy any more dress shoes? I really can’t be a leader in my family during lean times, encouraging everyone to save here and there, and then go blow a mortgage payment on what amounts to a luxury item.

Apparently I’m not alone. Fellow Excella consultant Scott Lock talks about a similar debate over a new car. Scott invites us to “Be a Hero” by holding off.

I may not need to be a hero, but I do need to set the right example.

A Pattern in Martial Arts…and Leadership

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I’ve recently been drawn more and more to a leadership pattern that I first encounted in martial arts: Form and Meaning. Although most explicitly described in the art of Xing-I, all the martial arts describe the contrast between the form of action, and its true meaning or essence. What I’ve noticed in great project leaders is that the contrast is similar. Namely there are those who go through the motions, and those who simply get it. Let’s go through the progression of this pattern and see if you recognize anything similar in your own experiences.

  • No Form, No Meaning – This is the untrained pupil, the flailing fighter, the aimless leader. Effort is wasted and results are rare.
  • Form, No Meaning – This is where training begins. Whether kicking drills or learning to listen to others attentively, all skills has to start with the fundamentals.
  • Form, Meaning – Eventually, all that practice pays off. An athelete can generate results within the set drills and set plays. A leader is able to effect some kind of direction with the right procedures and processes.
  • No Form, Meaning – Finally, we see the expert achieving true skill. Sure the set plays work, but when the athlete improvises, a genius play can be made. Likewise, a leader is now able to influence others with an instict born of experience. Sensing the needs of others and reacting accordingly.
  • No Form, No Meaning – However, the final stage is to blend oneself with the whole situation. This is what is called the “state of no mind”. Not only are the old rigid formalities missing, but so is the intentional directed effort. Instead, a fighter simply prevents the conflict. A running back “feels” the tackler behind him, changes direction, but doesn’t quite know why. A leader embeds himself with his neighbors, avoids a gaudy vision statement, and still they collectively move in a direction that makes sense .
  • What’s even more interesting is that you can apply this pattern to almost any kind of growth. Whether through spirituality (going from Sunday School rituals to a less formalized journey) or elsewhere, there seems to be a similar progression.

    Examine the things in life you consider to be your best skills, and see if you too went on a similar journey.

Dora The Explorer Is My Project Coach

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In you’ve never heard of Dora, then you don’t have kids.

“Dora the Explorer” is a Nickelodeon charactar who travels her magical world with her pet monkey boots. At the beginning of each adventure, she asks the children, “who knows which way to go?….The Map!”. When asked which way to go, the map declares: “through the Grassy Field, over the Windy Hill, and that’s how we’ll get to Play Park.”

Then he repeats it: “Grassy Field => Windy Hill => Play Park”.

After many episodes, each enjoyed by my three sucessive children, I’ve had my share of Dora. However, the real surprise came when I noticed myself mimicing Dora and her map.

One day, my wife and I were arguing over the logistical details of a busy weekend. After several minutes of back and forth, I had had enough and said:

“Soccer, groceries, restaurant.”

“Yes dear”, my wife says, “but there are more details that you need to understand”.

“I know that, but I can’t organize those details until I know the big picture”

“But if you neglect the details, you’ll lose time. If you forget to bring the shopping list to to soccer, you’ll have to drive back to the house.”

“I’m not neglecting the details, I just can’t handle it all right now. I’ll cover each task’s details when I get to it”

Soccer => Groceries => Restaurant.

3 Milestones. How many times are we tempted to plan down to the minutest detail, just so that we don’t forget something? That temptation is born out of experience: I forget stuff all the time….yet, somehow I still survive. It’s a tricky task to balance the fear of previous failures with my mental limits. I can only remember of document so much, before it just gets overwhelming.

That conversation with my wife was a turning point. From then on, I’ve made a habit of decomposing the complexity of the day into 3 or 4 major milestones, and then implement them with Just-in-time detail. In PMBOK terms, these could be the phases of a single-day project. In Agile terms, these could be the day’s prioritized backlog.

So, if you want to live out PM best practices in your daily domestic life, then break it down…Dora style.