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

My Agile Life: A Quick Review

(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).

I’ve been using Agile to have a more productive life, and it’s been pretty great. So to help you out (and help me organize my thoughts) here’s what I currently do. I think I’ll do these roundups every few months, so you can try the latest iteration of my system, and I get better at sharing.

First out, what I’m doing is the Agile method of Scrum in my own life. If you’re not familiar with Scrum it’s basically:

  1. Have a ranked backlog of stuff to do.
  2. Choose how much you can do in a given time frame from the top – this timeframe is called a Sprint.
  3. Do it.
  4. Review how you did, revise the backlog, and start a new sprint.

That’s Scrum. Here’s how I do it – first, the lists I keep.

  1. I have an Incubator. This is my list of Neat Stuff to do, summed up. I update it monthly or so and review it monthly as well.
  2. I have a Backlog/Roadmap. This is a list of things I want to do, in order, usually on the Project level, but sometimes broken down into stories (pieces of value). It’s ranked both by importance and “guessed” chronology – a few things are tagged with critical dates. I could probably split these up but I don’t think I need it.
  3. I have a Sprint Backlog.  This is what I decide to do every sprint – which for me is a month. This isn’t ranked, but is more sorted in a project order. This is broken down by Projects, with stories, with specific tasks. I estimate effort by hours. I review this every day.
  4. I have a cumulative flow chart, which is based on Tasks (not normal process, but most of my work breaks down pretty finely). This gives me a visual idea of how I’m doing, and is good practice on using these charts.

What I do is review things every day to see what’s up and decide what to do – but after regular review, I’m usually aware of my next few days of work automatically. I’ve kept a weekly schedule but fell off of it – I’m not sure I need to, as my daily reviews keep me aware of what’s going on.

A few things on how I operate:

  • Break down work into workable components – A real challenge at times as you can treat work as big lumps, or turn it into so many tiny tasks you can’t focus.  Find some way to break things down that you can get things done without overloading yourself, but not so much you can’t keep track of the little parts.
  • Limit Work In Progress, WIP, To 2 items.  WIP keeps you from juggling too many balls. I normally prefer a WIP of one, but when you’re doing Scrum for real life you’re going to have interruptions. Usually at most I have one “in progress” item with another “free item” for all sorts of tasks like cleaning, etc. However if I have one “ball” in the air I make sure any new one is finished right away.
  • Polish that backlog. Keep revising this as you go so when you get ready to plan, you pretty much know what you’re doing next.
  • Keep a regular task backlog. This is one way I save time planning, preparing a list of regular common tasks I have to do monthly so I already know most of my schedule. I copy that into:
  • My projected “next month” backlog. I keep a draft of what I’ll “probably” do next. This helps me plan fast as, about midway through a month, I’m like 75% certain of what’s next if not more.

All of this has made me much more productive – but it may not be for the reasons you think.

Yes, there’s the value of having a tool and a plan of some kind – but you can do that a lot of ways. I’m taking an Agile approach, and that requires me to take an Agile mindset – a focus on adaption, on communication, and on efficiency. The tool reinforces the mindset.  The mindset is what matters.

And the mindset? I’m a lot more relaxed, a lot more effective, and I waste less time.

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

– Steve

Make A Diference In A Life

After watching people slog through the Great Recession and the not-quite recovery, and being a bit concerned about 2017, I’d like to share some important advice about helping people survive and prosper. Or at least survive.

It’s something I can some up simply: Make A Difference In A Life

Right now you’ve got people you know that just need a bit of help. Right now you’ve got people who need a break just to make it. Some people you know just need one hand up to get their life not only in order, but to be a success. Others may just need help getting along in life until things settle down and stabilize.

Find these people and, when you can, be the one that Makes The Difference. One helping hand, one outreach, one loan is what they need – so go do it. Life is tough enough as it is, the world economy has problems, many governments don’t need the needs of the people, so make a difference.

Repeat – make a difference. Think about what you’re doing and how it will be making a serious difference in a life.

Not sure what to do? Well here’s a list to try:

GIVE A “LOAN”: A lot of your friends and family probably just need some money to make rent before a new job starts, get some training, etc. Send them the money – but make sure it’s money you can afford to loose. Removing that pressure is important – because money can ruin a friendship.

CRASH SPACE: If you’re in an area with great economic opportunities, let someone you know move in with you and look for work – and don’t charge them rent. A good job search can usually pay off in 1-3 months, and then they either move out, you get a bigger place, or they start paying rent. Everyone wins.

TOUR SPACE: Similar to Crash Space, if someone is thinking about moving to your area, let them stay with you for awhile to scope it out.

SEND A GIFT: There’s lots of ways to give people a boost in life with just the right book, piece of software, etc. So, send it to them – do it on Christmas or on a Birthday if you’re worried they’ll feel guilty.

USE THAT DISCOUNT: Related to sending a gift, chances are that your company, professional association, etc. gives you breaks on certain purchases. Use that to make a difference – some even encourage it.

MAKE INTRODUCTIONS: I harp on this constantly, and it’s not stopping – introduce people to each other to Make A Difference. That writer needs an editor – so introduce them to your friend the editor. Someone at your job needs a tech writer, so send them the resumes of a friend. Always look for this opportunity.

HANDOFF: You’ve probably got books, computers, training manuals, software that you don’t need – so give it to somehow who will get use out of it. Everyone wins.

SKILLS WITHOUT BILLS: You can probably help someone out by giving them some free time with whatever you’re good at. Maybe you do their accounting to help resolve a shortfall, help with their resume, etc. The right bit of help at the right time can make a huge difference.

GIVE THEM A BREAK: Everyone needs a little cheering up. A gift, dropping by, etc. could be what they need to snap out of a funk – THEN you can introduce one of the other ides above.

A suggestion – try and do at least one of these in the next year.  Find at least one life to change in whatever way you can.

Then try again.

I wish things were easier.  Yes, we should all be voting, calling our representatives, donating to the right causes, and more – we need more from our governments and our societies.  But while you do that – work on Making A Difference in one life as well.

  • Steve