Writer’s Lean Coffee

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

At one of my writer’s groups I tried something out you may want to try – a Lean Coffee. Here’s a quick rundown and what happens. You can read up on it above, but I’ll sum up my experiences here.

At its heart, Lean Coffees are self-organizing ways for teams of people to pool knowledge, get advice, and discuss important subjects. It comes from lean business practices, but you can re-purpose it for just about anything.

First, how you run a Lean Coffee (for writers, but you can do it for all sorts of things)

  1. Get a group of people interested in the same subject.
  2. Give them notecards or some other equivalent (or even an online spreadsheet). Have them write down 1-3 things they want to discuss.
  3. Once the questions to discuss are done, everyone gets three votes and votes on what they want to discuss. In my experience, people don’t vote for just their questions, because people bring up topics they hadn’t thought of.
  4. Rank the subjects in order of votes and pick the top one. If there’s more than one top subject by votes, pick one randomly.
  5. Discuss the subject as a group for five minutes. At the end, vote if people want to go on another five minutes. I usually go by majority vote unless it’s close.
  6. Take the next subject by vote count and continue.

Encourage people to take notes or have a designated note-taker if the group is part of a larger team.

I’ve run this a number of times for Agile groups, and it’s always been successful – though sometimes you have to do it two or three times in a row for a team to gel. So how did it go for a random group of writers?

Really good.

First, we had a number of good subjects of discussion. I think that’s because the group had a history of good discussions, often focused on specific subjects-of-the-month. We were primed for this.

Secondly, because we had a diverse group of people, the discussions covered a lot of ground. Different viewpoints created more valuable results – and more valuable questions.

Third, it really got people talking. The Lean Coffee encourages people to talk, and the “bite-sized” discussions made it easy to prompt people who might go silent, and if someone had nothing to say one subject they may the next.

Fourth, the Lean Coffee method encourages solid discussions. People bring up things that matter to them, then vote as a team on what’s important to everyone, and discussion follows. Real quickly you focus on high-value issues, while having a bit of surprise to shake you up and keep you from getting into a rut.

Fifth, it created real team bonding. We shared our concerns and our insights, we got to know each other, we figured solutions to shared problems. I felt like we all left as more of a team.

I am going to repeat this with my writers group, probably every few moths, and may try it in other groups. I also wonder if it’ll work at conventions . . .

So give it a try, and let me know what you find!

Steven Savage

An Experiment In Perspective And Productivity

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com 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 www.StevenSavage.com 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