My Agile Life: The Line Isn’t So Dead

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

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

Right now I’m doing Agile methods in my own life, specifically Scrum.  This has been very successful, both in terms of becoming productive, but also in truly understanding good process and productivity.  However, I often felt (and feel) odd bits of discomfort, concerns over things being late, and so on even though I had a great grasp of how things were going.

Why am I worrying despite having such visibility into my own work?  I literally know my plans for a month, I can adjust on the fly, I have a backlog/roadmap fusion?  Why am I worrying?

This article on Kanban made it clear –  I was still focused on deadlines.  Wait, deadlines as bad?  Sometimes.

Think of it this way.  Agile methods are about adaptability and doing things right – a lot of good productivity methods are the same way.  The thing is if you focus on the deadline, you often forget about doing things right – and you stress yourself out.

For example, my fiction book.  I have a “deadline” for this that’s set purely in my head for very little good reason.  This deadline has smaller deadlines.  When I stepped back I realized that these deadlines were arbitrary and affected my productivity and work breakdown.  Getting back into the swing of fiction was a bit of a challenge, and arbitrary constraints kept me from focusing on my craftsmanship.

Instead I had to ask not just when things had to be done, but what’s the most productive way to approach my work – all work.  Not just a book, or cleaning the bathroom, or anything else.  What’s the most important things to do and how do I do them effectively was more important than a given deadline in most cases.

Sure the deadline mattered, but unless the deadline was truly more important than doing it right, it wasn’t a worry.  By the way, the book may also be about a month later than I predicted.  You can guess why.

This is a subtle part of Agile methods, and one I missed.  Scrum may have it’s timeboxed sprints, but is always re-prioritizing.  Kanban focuses on Work In progress with priority in the background. Most agile methods are not compatible with our old ways of thinking where the deadline has to rule everything.

Sounds weird.  Ask yourself this – what if you had a choice to do a good job but it’d be late or done in parts, or delivering something bad on time?

As an example, let’s say something has to get done at the end of the month.  You of course rush this and do it early – but is it the best thing to do earlier that month?  Could it delay other work that backs up on you?  Could it be you need to do it in stages to get feedback to get it right?  What if making it a week late made it far better?  What if you did part of it and got feedback and did the second half the first week of the next month?

Also the focus on the deadline may make you miss doing things right.  Consider this – if you focus on doing something well, won’t you get it done quicker, especially over time?  Won’t it last longer?  Won’t focusing on quality and work first, ironically, mean you’ve got a better chance of hitting the deadline (or at least being more on time later)?

Now back to my writing.  I had gotten so focused on my deadline I hadn’t thought about the best way to do things – and as I improve/polish my fiction writing, I need a bit of “space.”  So I set aside a block of time a month to work on the novel, each task takes some of that allocated time.  I can adapt to tasks and needs of this highly chaotic effort. Now when I decide what task to do then I focus on quality and careful sizing, but I’m not overplanning around a deadline.

(Eventually, as I improve/polish/shake the rust off I probably can be more scheduled).

In all Agile methods, to one extent or another (less in Scrum, more in Kanban), you focus on the best ways to be productive first.  Letting old ways of thinking about when things are due or deadlines can, ironically, interfere with results.

I’m not going to knock deadlines.  They have their place.  But when they interfere with doing good work, you have to ask just how much value they have . . .

(By the way I do plenty of books for coaching people to improve in various areas, which may also help you out!)

– Steve