An Experiment In Perspective And Productivity

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

By now if you read my blog or my posts anywhere you know I’m kind of obsessed with Agile philosophy, Agile methods (Scrum with a heavy helping of Kanban), and I use them in my regular life. I’ve started experimenting with some of my practices and wanted to share my findings.

So first up, my basic way of being productive is a month-long sprint (a period of time where I decide what I’ll do and focus on that). With that focus I’m able to avoid distractions, measure success, and know what’s coming.

Secondly, I estimate the work I’m doing in hours, trying to break things down to manageable chunks of a few hours. My exception is writing, where I set aside an “hour budget.”

OK with that said, I began noticing a few problems I experienced. Tell me if these sound familiar.

First, as life has been complex, I felt overwhelmed. There was a lot on my plate for each month. I’d often try to “front-load” work.

Secondly, because a lot’s been going on, I was often having to shift around work and priorities. That was annoying because, yes, Agile says to embrace change for productivity, but I wasn’t feeling any gain, I was just changing. Was I wasting my time?

Third I got into a good rythm, but found myself over-focused on measuring hours and time. I was investing a lot of time in trying to measure time. This was also weird as I had things so well broken down I wondered why I fiddled with hours.

I have no doubt some of this sounds familiar.

So I sat down with myself, dived into the classic “Five Whys” method I’ve reccomended, and asked what happened. The answers became immediately apparent:

  • A month-long sprint had so much and was so broad it was unweildly and didn’t acknowledge how each week was different, and it was hard to change.
  • My estimates in hours were “too real.” Thinking of things as hours led me to spend too much time trying to map “real time” as opposed to getting stuff done. So I was actually less efficient because of asking “is this an hour or not.” Another reason the whole Scrum “points thing” makes sense.

So now I’m experimenting with a few changes to help me be productive and also lighten me up a bit.

First, I’m now doing classic two week sprints (Monday to Monday). This takes me out of monthly thinking, focuses on a smaller time frame so I can better evaluate what I should do, and makes it easier to adapt. This has already been a godsend in focus.

Secondly, I’ve – yes – ditched time estimates and Fibonacci points. Because I’ve gotten really good at breaking work down, I’m now just treating everything as “things to do” and breaking them down to the smallest components. For things like writing, I’m giving myself “X writing sessions” each sprint to sit down and write. Then I just check off “done.”

I’ll let you know more about my findings (and I may need to update my Personal Agile book).

However, I do want to answer an unspoken question: do I regret my earlier productivity techniques, with month-long sprints and so on? No.

What I did worked for the time. It got things done. It also let me learn so I could keep improving what I did. It may even be that worked then but I had to find a different way to do things now.

It’s OK to change how you operate and get things done. Doing things is how you learn to do them better.

Steven Savage

Better Or Blockers

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

At a recent Agile Leadership Conference I encountered the work of Ken Rubin, an Agile coach and business expert. I can pretty much say if you’re a Project Manager or Scrum Master, read his stuff.

However, out of the many things he talked about – many things – was about how people can get improvement wrong. See, sometimes trying to improve is the wrong thing.

Which of course, sounds weird for a guy who talks about improvement, but hang in there.

See he brought up an example that if you’ve got a plan but 90% if blocked, hung up, waiting for information, then you don’t want to improve. No amount of better processes or practices will make a big difference because your problem is not how you’re doing it, it’s how you’ve got things messing you up.

Think of it this way, if there’s all sorts of things screwing up your plans, why try to be better at how you do things? Instead, start tackling the things screwing you up – the blockers.

Maybe you are doing things right. Maybe all your processes and plans really are good. It’s just you have to find what’s blocking you from being your best.

So next time you’re trying to get your book, or home, or life, or job in order, take inventory of what’s hanging you up. It might be you’re fine, just a little unaware.

Steven Savage

Agile Creativity – Principle #10: Simplicity

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

Now gear up for one of my top Agile Manifesto Principles, the 10th Agile Principle.  Let’s get to it.

Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.

It’s another one of those principles that I can’t really modify or need to tweak to apply to creatives. It’s simple – maximizing work not done is essential to Agile practices. Agile practices are a great way to get work done effectively and sanely. So to deliver things effectively and sanely – maximize work not done.

Of course simple, compact statments like this are the ones where we also need to delve a bit, so let’s just take a look at what the value of simplicity and maximizing work not done means to a creative.

Simplicity Is About Right Value

Simplicity sounds easy to describe – until you actually try to do it. Then I find its a bit hard to phrase it, but you can think about simplicity as not just delivering Value, but the right Value. You focus on what people need delivered – and as little else extraneous as possible. Remember, Agile is a way to deliver Value.

When you focus on delivering the right Value to people, then you avoid distractions, unnecessary work, and the like. You don’t just deliver value – you avoid delivering less valuable and non-valuable work.

Up front this means focusing on simplicity from the start. I find this helps with creative works because, with many options, and at times unclear goals, you have to choose options and clarify them. You may well have to help your client or end user find what they really want – because they may not be too clear.

This also means simplicity is about an investment of time – doing the simple thing might just seem to take more effort up front. As you’ll see, the benefit of this investment pays off.

Simplicity Is About Clear Communication

Focusing on simplicity also means clearer communications for three reasons:

  1. First, you work early to clarify what’s needed (and as noted, you often have to talk this out).  This means that you have to work on and develop clear communications.
  2. Because you’ve worked on simplifying work, you’ve also got less things to discuss to distract you.  Communications are clearer because there’s less to talk about.
  3. You also have less to distract you period.  Simplicity means less chance of error, less rabbit holes to go down.

In creative endeavors, that can mean subtle works, assumptions, and hard-to-communicate idea, this clear communication is valuable indeed.  The efforts that you make earlier (and the work you don’t do) make your life easier.

I find this is a great thing to communicate better with this simple rule; if it’s hard for people to communicate about a project or creative work, if you’re going in circles, it’s time to focus on simplicity.

Simplicity Reduces Waste

Because you’re not doing extra work due to a focus on Simplicity, you’re spending your time better. The work you actually do meets a need – a need you clarified by a focus on simplicity and not complicating things. Everything you do is almost certainly valuable, or at least more likely to be so. Remember the agile emphasis on reducing unnecessary processes and documents?

The focus on simplicity also reduces wasted time.  Simply, you’re doing less and so there’s less chance to do it wrong.

Simplicity Is A Goal

So the benefits of simplicity are clear, but Simplicity doesn’t just happen – it has to be a goal. Your creative works need to focus on the simple, the precise, the effective from the start.

It’s probably easy to get everyone on board with this once they realize the value of simplicity (which is often found by discussing value).  We all want less complexity anyway.

But remember, ultimately simplicity is . .

Maximizing The Amount Of Work Not Done

Yes, your goal is to do less work overall as an Agile Creative.  Lazy?  No.

There’s plenty of work you can be doing, so you focus on doing the right work.  You work on what really matters, in a way you can keep delivering effectively.  There’s all sorts of things you can be doing, focusing on simple, valuable work means you don’t get distracted or do unneded things.

I believe you should celebrate finding something is no longer needed.  When you find something isn’t necessary, when you can ditch parts of a project, when you find something you can cut, good.  I’ve actually complimented people on the job for finding something isn’t needed.

And when it comes to creative projects, remember that creative people love figuring things out.  Turn some of that loose on simplicity . . .

But this all ties to one more thing.

Don’t Just Find Simplicity – Make It

You shouldn’t just seek simplicity – though you should – you should also find ways to make things simpler over time.  Simplicity is something to build in:

  1. Streamline the processes and documents that you use to make them simpler, focusing on value.
  2. Find ways to streamline code that you reuse or templates that you use for art (shades of the 9th Agile Principle)
  3. Improve communications with simplicity, such as combining several meetings into one or having a check-in as opposed to elaborate email conversations.
  4. Drop overcomplicated methods.

Just as you work to deliver value, always be on the lookout to deliver simplicity in how you do things.

This allows you to not just help your client, but to constantly uncomplicate your life and your efforts.  Each time you make things simpler, it pays off now and down the road.

Remember This Is Essential

That “Essential” part of the 10th is a final thing to remember.  Simplicity?  Doing less?  That’s essential to agile and agile practices.  All that clarity, all that focus, all those benefits?  The’re indispensable.

So next time you find things getting complicated, remember simplicity.

Rounding Up

So let’s get simple with simplicity.  Working for simplicity and looking for work not done is essential to agile practice.

To do this:

  • Keep simplicity as a goal and develop it.
  • Focus on value to keep things simple.
  • Focus on clear communication
  • Focus on reducing waste.
  • Maximize work not done.

– Steve