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

My Agile Life: Agile Is A Dialogue

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

This is my continuing column on my “Agile Life” experiment where I use the Agile techniques in Scrum for a more productive, less-stressful life.   My latest insight to shareis how Agile and agile techniques like Scrum are about diaogue.

These dialogues may be with yourself, with one person, or with many people. But there’s always a dialogue to be had. Not surprising, it’s part of the Agile Manifesto.

Three of the four parts of the agile manifesto are about communication – among the team, with customers, and with the reality of change. You talk to each other, to your customer, and respond to reality.

I’ve had plenty of dialogues in my Agile Life practices;   I’m the Product Owner, the Scrum Master, and a Team Member – sometimes it helps to have a little sit-down with myself.  Here’s a few:

  • In my planning I’d look at my Backlog and my Projects and have to ask what delivers value.
  • I’d ask how to break down stories into deliverable value.
  • In breaking down my Stories into tasks I’d have to ask what the tasks were and how they’d complete a story.
  • In my daily reviews, I’d ask what’s next and think over what I had to do – and maybe coordinate with people on things like when I’d run an errand or who could help me with something.
  • My Cumulative Flow would help me realize how much work was in the air – and how much I was delivering, in case I was overworking myself.
  • As I took care of things, I’d get ideas for the next Sprint or ways to improve, and make sure I had revised my plans and improved my methods.

Scrum, the Agile method I’m most experienced in, actually sets up tons of “dialogue moments in the form of ceremonies:

  • A planning session.
  • Daily standups.
  • Retrospectives.

So when you’re trying to be more Agile, to use Scrum or whatever, remember the need for dialogue – even with yourself. Asking good questions means getting good answers and doing good works. Even if it’s just you sitting there asking what’s the best way to cook for a party.
– Steve

My Agile Life: Failure

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

I’m talking my “Agile Life” experiment where I use the Agile techniques in Scrum in my everyday life.  Well, it doesn’t always work, so let’s talk failure – specifically something that went bad this Sprint of May.

As you know one of my goals for the May Sprint was to plot a new novel and write chapter 1. That has partially failed – which is a great time to examine what I did wrong and talk failure.

Agile methods are all about learning as opposed to shame.  We all make mistakes, we all have discoveries of what we didn’t know, so the goal is to learn and adapt.

So first, let’s see what happened:

  • I was going to start a new novel, “A Bridge To The Quiet Planet,” an SF/Fantasy mix.
  • I was going to use a lot of the techniques I’d used before to write it – heavy setting detail, iterative plotting. Just on a larger scale.
  • I found things not feeling “right.” The plot was stale, parts came and went, I didn’t feel I had a grasp on the story – I had about 60% of it but something felt off.
  • After analysis I realized I didn’t have a good a grasp as I thought, it wasn’t quite “alive.” There were good parts – there were *great* parts. But it felt half-made.

So now the questions come in – “Why.”

There’s a great technique called “The Five Whys” that I learned – basically to solve a problem, ask why – and when you get an answer, ask why again. Soon you’ll get to the cause, part of the cause, or one of the causes.

  • WHY did it feel wrong? Because it was. It was patchwork.
  • WHY did it feel patchwork? Because some parts were far more fleshed-out than others and they conflicted due to that.
  • WHY are they half fleshed-out? Because my designing was erratic.
  • WHY was my designing erratic? Because I dived in and didn’t think of what I needed to do as a specific set of tasks.
  • WHY did I do that? Because I didn’t think I’d need it, I’d just dive in as I’ve done this before.

I came to realize I got a bit arrogant. I’ve written and built worlds for 40 years. I’ve published books. I should be able to dive into this right because I’ve done so many similar things?

Yep, I should – if I had thought ahead. But I didn’t think about what was needed, didn’t look at my techniques, didn’t break down the work. If this had been a programming project, it’d be the Product Owner and an Engineer saying “hey, we know how to do this easy, so let’s just block out some time” without the Scrum Master saying “why do you think this doesn’t need the usual level of analysis?”

What I should have done is use all my techniques and experience to design a better plan – how long it’d take for this tasks, what tasks were needed, and so on.  It would have made me think, made me more aware of the work needed, and how that work tied together.

Lesson learned – in writing, like anything else, a good work breakdown is needed.  Just because you might be able to do it “from the gut” is no reason not to think it over – especially when you’re getting back in the swing of things.  Had this not been a novel but a shorter work I might not have caught this mistake.

Now of course after finding this the goal is to get back on track. How am I doing that?

  1. I will focus this month on plotting – any time meant for Chapter 1 now moves to plotting.  That helps me get a timeframe.  It’s still adding work to my sprint, so I may move out other plans – since getting this done is important, and spreading it out too much may mean it loses coherence.
  2. Writing is moving out by one month at least – maybe two.  But I’ll try to do Chapter One next month and then slowly ramp up.
  3. To plot the book I am breaking it down into tasks required to get a full plot outline that I can write from.  It’s really more of a product design process or a research task.  I may write up more on that depending how it goes.

The story quality is already looking much better, and I learned something about my own creativity. Also the story may have a slightly off kilter Technomancer riding a motorcycle on top of a moving train, so there’s that.

A good lesson on many grounds.

– Steve