My Agile Life: Breaking It Down So It Works Together

(This column is posted at, Steve’s LinkedIn, and Steve’s Tumblr)

(My continuing “Agile Life” column, where I use Scrum for a more life).

One of the challenges of doing any work is that things we want to get done can conflict with each other, are hard to schedule, can only be done at certain times, etc. That makes anything, from delivering software to my own attempts to organize my life a bit more challenging.

What I found is that when you figure out the things you want to do – the stories and tasks – don’t just design them or break them down in a vacuum. Design them so they’re as easy to do as possible, hard to block or disrupt, and of a size where you can have a good chance to complete them in a reasonable time. This way you can maximize value, deliver quicker, and be disrupted less – and even when you are disrupted, you can switch priorities easier.

Here’s a few examples:

  • You’ve got to buy gifts for Christmas. You could have a simple Story “buy gifts” and “order for everyone on the list” but there’s a lot that could go wrong – lack of gifts, delays, a need for research, and that’s one big block-of-work. If you make a task for each person you can do them in order in one go – but if there’s any delays or unavailable items, you can take care of some of the orders a different way. This lets you timeshift or adapt (and is good policy).
  • You’ve got a massive art project to do. You prefer to do it in one 8 hour go, and you really can’t subdivide it without losing your mojo. You make sure your other tasks are broken down so you can easily fit them around the needed 8 hour block, and get the important stuff done early. (By the way, in my experience the Big Block does not always work, so be careful)
  • You plan to deliver a book chapter for a technical manual to an editor. It’s going to be a hefty chapter and require some research. You decide to make each section its own story.  This allows you to adapt (by doing them out of order), get them to the editor quicker (thus avoiding lots of WIP), and gives you a good sense of organization.

A rule I found helps is this: break down stories so that they don’t just deliver value, but require as few tasks as possible, and those tasks are as small as you can reasonably make them.

This will mean more stories, but stick with me here.

Stories deliver value. If you can break down stories into the smallest chunk of actual value, then you can deliver (and evaluate) that value faster. In turn because you are working on smaller pieces, you can shift them around, scheduled them, deal with interruptions by working on something else, etc. This also lets you focus better – and change focus if needed.

So if you’ve got lots of small stories, it’s probably a good sign. Sure there may be some big ones, but if a lot are small then you can move them around while you deal with the big ones.
– Steve