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