My Agile Life: The Project Doesn’t Matter

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

More on my use of “Agile” and Scrum in my life!

So this is going to sound weird, but one thing I realized in Agile practice, and my own use of the Agile technique of Scrum (with a touch of Kanban), is that the Project isn’t the most important thing.

Yes, I know, heresy. Projects are books, right? Projects are art, true? Projects are games, correct? I talk Projects all the time.

No. A book, a piece of art, a game is a product. Products deliver value to the customer and that’s what matters.

Projects are ways to get things done, to produce products, a useful conceptual tool, but that’s it.  The idea of a Project helps you complete a Product that has value.

Yeah, let that sink in. All your planning, all your schemes, everything are secondary to the result. Think it’s hard for you? I’m a guy with a ton of certifications on the subject of Project Management. In short, I actually have certifications on the second most important thing.

Except this is liberating. I don’t have to take Projects seriously or any other organizational tool.  All that matters is if this concept, this idea, this tool, this idea helps deliver value.  That’s it.

This is where Agile as a mindset shines. It’s outright saying that your goal is a result.  That’s it.  Everything else is just a tool on the way to the result.  You only have to care so much.

This is where Agile techniques shine, they’re tools to help you find blockages and get to the results – but like any tool you don’t have to be attached to them. Scrum this year becomes Kanban. This level of Project Breakdown is replaced by another.

I still use the term Project.  It’s useful.  I just don’t have to get invested in it.  It’s all about results.

By the way if you’re focused on Projects and not results – why?  Are the results even worth seeking?

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

– Steve

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

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