Steve’s Agile Life: Work In Progress

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

Here’s the latest on my “Agile Life” experiment (where I use the Agile techniques in  Scrum).  Let’s talk Work In Progress or WIP, something my mentor wanted me to learn more about, and something that inspired my “Agile Life” experiment.

WIP is Work In Progress, a measure of how much is being worked on but is not done. It’s core to the Agile technique of Kanban and the measurement has been incorporated into other practices. WIP is “on it but not done with it” – from waiting on a test for finished software to just note done.

Why is it important? Because in general too much WIP (some would argue any more than one story) is a sign of bad things or can be bad things.  To much WIP might mean:

  • People are multitasking a lot.  Too much being done at once, nothing finished, lots of context shifting.
  • Too many blockers.  A lot is just holding people up.
  • Bad work.  Too much is held up in testing and fixing.
  • Testing problems. Maybe stuff is happening too fast and it cant be tested as fast as it’s getting done, or the testing team has problems.
  • Poor story and task design. The work as broken down is hard to finish or isn’t what people thought it was.

Note the first issue – Multitasking. Even if you’re not blocked by anything else, starting but not finishing things distracts you. You have to context shift. You have to keep track of many things. WIP’s problem can sometimes be its mere existence.

Very quickly as I worked to get more Scrum-like in life, I could see how easy it was to have too much WIP. This was especially bad with domestic chores, things I could “do any time” or “complete whenever.” For my first sprint, it certainly shaped up my housekeeping.

This also made me aware of the issue of tracking completion of Tasks versus Stories. Stories may deliver value so you want to get them out – but individual tasks can also get stuck in never-being done. Tracking those specific “in progress” tasks can be helpful. Makes me wonder if a cumulative flow of both Stories AND tasks would help me or other teams – after all if you’ve got 5 stories not complete due to 5 different tasks or one story not complete due to 5 different tasks, that tells you something.

Some Agile practitioners and practices limit Work In Progress (and people fight over this). The idea is that there’s a limit for a person, team, group, etc. on how much can be up in the air. Past a certain point, it’s either finish it, unblock it, or go do something else not in the Backlog until the stars align. This limits multitasking.

Frankly, I can see why people do it. One Agile Coach I know said in a class that a team at its WIP limit should do nothing until stuff gets done, even if other people spend time to go to training or something. Yes, I watched a highly experienced expert outright state – with conviction – that if a team has too much WIP and one guy has nothing to do, he ought to go read a book instead of start something else. His time would be better spent not complicating everyone’s lives by starting something else.

My guess is you can sympathize.

What do I consider ideal WIP? I’d say for an individual 2 stories and 2 tasks at most, and I’m starting to see why people often make it one story, at least in business.

A final note on WIP. Having lots of small stories you can bang out easy may sound great – but may also tempt you to do them when there’s a big pile of WIP. Even if you can finish something quickly, maybe you ought to finish something from that big pile first.

(By the way, there’s no guarantee reduced WIP is going to have benefits, there’s other variables. But it’s a worthy goal. And yes, people fight over this.)

– Steve

Steve’s Agile Life: Done

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

If you’re new to my whole “Agile Life” thing, this is me using Agile (specifically Scrum) to make my life more productive and less stressful.  Let’s talk about a big barrier to success – “Done.”

The latest lesson I want to share is the challenge of figuring out what “Done” is. Yes, trust me, people ask this.

When are you “done” with a task? With a story? With a book? “Done” is important to organizing since that’s when somehting is basically able to go out the door. “Done” is especially challenging if you have radically different work to do, and moreso when doing “personal” Scrum – because the definition of a done LinkedIn profile update and “done” for cleaning the refrigerator are kind of different.

“Done” plagues professional managers and Scrum Masters as well as people in less anal-retentive professions. I have sat in meetings, with grown adults, debating the meaning of “done” for a half hour.

I’ve also debated the exact meanings of the colors red, yellow, and green. I am not proud.

So you need to define “Done” for you and your work. Hopefully it lines up with some other people’s ideas of “Done,” but as this is your life you may have some unique challenges.

Here’s some I had – and how I resolved them:

  • Writing a book consisting of 50 questions. Well I know what the “done” is for the Book, but how do I organize doing these questions? So I decided to write questions in 5-question blocks. “Done” would be five questions ready for the editor. Incorporating edits would be a separate set of tasks.
  • Cleaning a closet meant ‘done’ wasn’t what I thought. Sure having things repacked is one thing, but disposing of the junk was another. As I had some ancient electronics I found disposal wasn’t so easy, so I got it organized in a box. I considered the closet “done” but created a new “story” to dispose of these things – if they were invasive, then it wouldn’t be done.  Plus a good lesson for next time.
  • Designing marketing flyers – This is a bit challenging. First I have to design the flyer, then print it. I made both of these separate tasks, but decided after some thought that “done” would be completion. The service was reliable enough and the design templated enough that if everything was a botch, I’d “re-open” the tasks and start over.

Done is not just important for completion, it’s when you get feedback. My cleaned closet was “Done” but the fact I had to create a separate disposal story was a reminder I hadn’t thought “Done” out too well.

Oh and remember if you have any kind of validation, like software testing or your Church approving your flyer, then you’re not necessarily “done” – it’s in testing. Surprise! You may be finished but not “Done.”

Or you may be arguing about what “done” is.

(Then there’s people asking if they need a definition of “Ready.  Let’s not get into that.)

– Steve

Steve’s Agile Life: Size Affects Pursuit Of Value

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

Let’s talk Sprints and organization. If you’re new to my whole “Agile Life” thing, this is me using Agile (specifically Scrum) to make my life more productive and less stressful. Sprints are periods in Scrum used to choose – and do – work. It’s not linear planning, more “I can get X done in Y period.”

So I’m doing Scrum for my life, and my sprint is a month, not the traditional two weeks. I do this because my life has a monthly cadence, with monthly meetings, events, and the like. This also means I focus on value differently than if, say, I used two week sprints or the even more (insanely) daring one week sprint.

I have a larger timeframe, so I focus on more kinds of work (stories that deliver value) because I both can do more and have more to do. Thus where a two-week sprint might have me focusing on a generator, a monthly sprint may bring in more projects and work.

Because of my sprint size, I focus on value differently. I deliver multiple, unrelated kinds of value – where a smaller sprint may mean I focus on fewer kinds of value, and those are probably related. I’ve wondered if this dilutes my ability to focus, but also see some advantages.

Here’s an example:

  • In the first two weeks of every month I have three professional meetups – maybe four. These meetups each take up an evening.
  • If I have a monthly cadence then these big blocks aren’t as big a deal as I can fit tasks around them or just do some later. I have adaptability, but work might be diluted.
  • If I have a two-week sprint, then I have to think more of what to accomplish in that time, working with those “block.” of time. I’ve got a bit of a tighter backlog, but the focus is on specific value. For instance maybe I’d make these two weeks even more “business” and do studying, etc.

So smaller sprints means a narrower focus on value – and an opportunity to focus. Why not, I wonder, go by two-week sprints, and these “business blocks” could be enhanced if I also used that time to do studying for certifications, etc. However . . .

. .. this is also my life. That has a few complications:

  • Some work is very hard to “block” like writing. That’s intellectually exhausting, and though I’d like to try, I’m not sure I’m going to, say, write an entire book in a two week block.
  • This big picture lets me adapt easier because there’s more room to shift around. Because of the monthly cadence, I tend to “step on my own toes” less.
  • My “life” commitments are a bit more variable than work. When’s the last time your boss suddenly visited and slept at your place?  OK, don’t answer that.

Your life may be different, so you’ll have to find the sprint cadence that works for you. However, you might be surprised.

If you’re a Scrum Master or Coach, these “life Scrum” and “life Agile” experiences are valuable to develop empathy. By using these techniques in your life, you literally live them and live the roles of all members – Scrum Master, Team Member, Product Owner. Because of that, these experiences are burned into your brain in a visceral manner – next time your team debates value and sprint size, you’ll remember what it was like.

– Steve