WHEN WORK PROCESS AND HOME LIFE COLLIDE
I try to avoid talking about my "real life" on this blog. I like to stick to parties and Disney and craft projects instead. However, you should know that these are all things I do in my spare time. By day, I work as a User Experience Designer for Fortune 20 companies helping to make software that you've probably encountered at some point in your life. The work I do to bring those apps and software products to life is engaging and interesting to me, but probably not so much to people outside of the field.
I've worked in this capacity for over 10 years and most of that time has been in Agile environments. Agile is a philosophy used to organize team work, primarily in Software Development groups. The concept of Agile can be traced back as early as the 1970’s, but formally crystalized with The Agile Manifesto for Software Development in 2001 and went on to transform team dynamics at large and small companies.
I’m a big believer in Agile because I’ve seen it work wonders, and because I am a ‘type A’ person who loves lists and making plans. Agile provides a system to get things done, and there’s so much I want to get done in a week!
I tend to take on “too much”, or so I’m told. Big birthday parties, trips jam-packed with activities, an endless list of ideas for craft projects that I want to do…. My wedding was no exception to this. In fact, it was the culmination of all my grandiose party planning, hyper scheduled vacation, and craft goals. Eventually (inevitably) I became overwhelmed and things started falling through the cracks. Given the cost of the wedding and the fact that we’d waited 10 years to do it, failing was not an option. And so I turned to the Agile process to help me accomplish everything I dreamed of accomplishing in the time I had left.
This was not our first foray into Agile at home. We'd begun incorporating Agile into our parenting process the previous summer, to help our girls begin learning how to budget their time and reach their goals, as well as negotiating and pitching in as part of a family with shared objectives. I’d been inspired by a TedTalk about Agile Programming your family. Those experiments really helped open up communication with our kids by making them 'stakeholders' in the work that had to be done at home, while also celebrating their incremental accomplishments.
The wedding, though, took this to a whole new level.
In addition to all the wedding tasks that keep ‘normal’ brides busy, we were having a destination wedding (at Walt Disney World, no less), and I’d decided I needed to: design & sew the flower girl dresses, invent a new style of bouquet that I made myself, design and fabricate overly complex invitation booklets, plan everybody’s Disney trips for maximum overlap, learn to waltz, put together thoughtful welcome gift bags for each family attending, and thoughtful gifts for my bridal party that included custom Mickey ears, and a million other things that I don’t even remember anymore!
As we got closer and closer to the event, I found myself snapping at my fiancé and our kids. My house was falling apart, cluttered with a zillion half-completed projects, and I was losing my mind. It wasn’t fun anymore. I’d taken on these projects because I wanted to do them --- I enjoy crafting, I enjoying being able to respond to a compliment with “thanks! I made that!!” but I wasn’t enjoying these projects anymore. So, we started our Agile Wedding Process and it saved the day (literally!).
In the hope that it might help others out there feeling overwhelmed by their own "too much", I've decided to share the basics here if you want to try these techniques yourself.
WHAT IS AGILE?
Agile is a philosophy of project management that empowers employees to make decisions and shift focus in order to react to market forces that move fast. It focuses on iterations and incremental completion. What I'm really talking about when I use the term here, though, is a frame work of Agile called "Scrum" which is a system for organizing work within the project. Check out this helpful summary on the scrum alliance website:
- A product owner creates a prioritized wish list called a product backlog.
- During sprint planning, the team pulls a small chunk from the top of that wish list, a sprint backlog, and decides how to implement those pieces.
- The team has a certain amount of time — a sprint (usually two to four weeks) — to complete its work, but it meets each day to assess its progress (daily Scrum).
- Along the way, the ScrumMaster keeps the team focused on its goal.
- At the end of the sprint, the work should be potentially shippable: ready to hand to a customer, put on a store shelf, or show to a stakeholder.
- The sprint ends with a sprint review and retrospective.
- As the next sprint begins, the team chooses another chunk of the product backlog and begins working again.
Now, I realize that's written in hyper software speak. But this process works at home too and I'm going to break down how we used Agile in the context of completing all the tasks required for our wedding and how you might be able to use it, too.
STEP 1: ESTABLISH A BACKLOG
We sat down one night with a fresh pack of sticky notes and wrote out everything that needed to be done for the wedding. In Agile these are called “User Stories”. A key part of writing stories is that you break down big to-do's into their component tasks. For example, making bouquets was not 1 sticky note, it was 10. There was one task for buying the materials. Another for finalizing the design. Arranging the bouquets. Wiring in the lights. Wrapping the handles. And, finally, packaging them up in their shipping boxes to send to our Disney resort.
I have a good friend who is an Agile Coach by day and a Life Coach by night. She always talks about establishing “SMART goals”, and I try to keep those in mind when I’m making my “stories”.
· Specific – What are you setting out to do/make?
· Measurable – How will you know you are “done”?
· Achievable – Is it realistic? Do you have the skills?* Is the time period reasonable?
· Responsible – who will do it?
· Time – how long will it take?
*Note, if you want to accomplish something but don't have the skills for it do not despair, you just need to make a story for learning those skills as a step before taking on the task!
Back in my college days I took a class in productivity skills for artists and one of the tricks I learned was that before you sit down to work on something, you should take 5 minutes and write out everything that’s on your mind. Literally everything from call mom to start eating better to write great american novel goes down on the paper. Holding these in your head steals mental processing energy away from the task you want to complete and writing them down lets your mind relax and focus on what you’re sitting down to do. I still do this exercise many times per day – especially before meetings where I need to be mentally present. If I find myself feeling distracted I flip to a clean page in my notebook and jot down what’s distracting me. Once it’s safetly down on paper my mind has permission to “let it go” for the time being. You'll find that just the process of writing out what needs to be done will help you feel so much more focused!
Step 2: SET UP A PROJECT BOARD
The next step is to put all of these stories onto a “scrum board”. Some people use their refrigerators, a whiteboard in their living room, bathroom mirror, etc. Basically any open wall will do. For our wedding, because we had SO MANY sticky notes, we used our corner window in our breakfast nook.
You’ll have to develop a system that works for you. The goal of the Scrum board is to make the work & progress visible to everyone on the team. The most common approach I’ve seen is a board with three columns and a row for each teammate (in this case, family members). The first column has all the sticky notes that are in the backlog. The second column are just the stickies you’ve identified to work on in this period. The third column is completed stickies.
Personally, I find a great deal of satisfaction is tearing the stickies down when a task is complete, so my board only has 2 columns: backlog and in process. Don't be afraid to experiment! Find what works best for you.
Step 3: PRIORITIZE THE BACKLOG
Grab two-weeks worth of tasks from the ‘backlog’ you made in step 1 and put them in a new area of your board. If you're having trouble estimating what two-weeks' worth of tasks is, it sometimes helps to look at each sticky and give it it's own time estimate (i.e., one hour to address the invitations) and then grab the sticky notes that equal the amount of time you have available to devote to your project.
In Agile, we organize our work into what’s called a “sprint”. A 2-week sprint is most common. You gather up the sticky note stories that you think your team will be able to accomplish within 10 days and identify who is responsible for completing each one. The goal is to get everything (or as much as possible) done by the 2-week deadline. Note that no story should be bigger than two weeks, if it is then it needs to be broken down into smaller stories. I'm a believer that you should “load” your sprint with extra stories (called “stretch goals”) that you can accomplish if you finish your other tasks early. Competition with yourself and other teammates helps you push to accomplish more: in Agile the number of stories you are able to complete is called your “velocity”. I'm always trying to increase my velocity: ie finish more in this sprint than I did in the last sprint. (yes, you can cheat by giving yourself easier stories, but that defeats the purpose and you're only cheating yourself!).
The stories you’ve decided to tackle in this “sprint” are moved from the backlog to the “current” section of the board. Remember that this is a discussion with your teammates (family). They are indicating what they are willing and able to do by the deadline. I want to be clear: you are not “ASSIGNING” work to them. You can certainly negotiate with them, but they HAVE to “opt-in” that they are going to complete the work or I guarantee that those sticky notes will not get cleared. Trust me. Without genuine buy-in from your family, the system doesn’t work so don't bother. They have to WANT to finish the tasks too. Your job is to find out what tasks they can and will do in the time period and move those to the active section of your board.
It's all about pushing yourself psychologically to accomplish more by having laser focus and a desire to move the sticky notes across the board. Hack your dog brain, as they say.
3.1 WEDDING PLANNING AND SUB-DEADLINES
Wedding planning was unique in that we were managing a lot of deadlines that didn’t fit neatly into 2-week “sprints”. There were appointments and dance classes and due dates and shipping dates and all kinds of dates to keep track of OR ELSE. To accommodate this, we modified our board to have a calendar. Each day was represented by a half-sheet of typing paper with the date on top. Onto that we put any important deadlines that we needed to track. Then we started divvying up the sticky notes making sure that all the tasks associated to a deadline were arranged BEFORE the deadline. This really helped us organize what needed to be done when, so that we focused on the tasks that were due first vs. those we were more excited to get started on but weren't due until closer to the wedding. If a task didn’t get completed by the end of the day it moved over to the next day and so on.
I’m happy to say that we didn’t miss any of the important deadlines with this approach. (For those familiar with Software Development, this is more of the “KanBan” style).
Step 4 COMMUNICATION CADENCE
Agile is, at it’s core, more of a communication methodology than anything else. There are two key communication touch points you will want to start incorporating into your daily/weekly schedule:
- Daily Standup
- Sprint Planning (Sprint Demo / Sprint Retrospective / Backlog Grooming)
4.1 Daily Standup:
Once per day the team (family) gathers together in front of the Project board to discuss their progress. They move sticky notes around to indicate what they are actively working on and what has been completed. If they have a sticky note that is assigned to them that they are not able to complete for whatever reason (this is called a “blocker”) they discuss with the group what is blocking them and the group’s job is to help eliminate the blocker. Perhaps Sue’s task is dependent on Joe finishing up something else. The daily standup is the opportunity for Sue to communicate with Joe and let him know how his incomplete task is affecting her. This should help motivate Joe to complete his task.
I find it helps to do this in the morning so that what needs to get done is fresh in everyone's mind as they start the day. This is also why we chose to keep our board in the breakfast nook: a very central, visible place that we almost always spend time in first thing in the morning.
Standup should only take a few minutes. If folks aren't sure what to say, you can use this template: "What did you do yesterday? What are you going to do today? Do you have any blockers?"
4.2 Sprint Planning:
At the end of your sprint / beginning of your next sprint the team comes together to discuss what they’re going to tackle. (Once per week or every two-weeks, or whatever time increment you’re using for your family sprints).
For teams that don’t throw away sticky notes as they’re done, you’ll start sprint planning by reviewing and removing the completed stories from the last sprint. With kids this is a great way to acknowledge and celebrate their accomplishments, which helps keep them motivated.
You might also do a quick “sprint retrospective” which is a chance to talk about what in the process went well, what didn’t go so well, and what could be improved in terms of the process. This is definitely important in the beginning when you're working out how the process will go for your family (an example, if the board isn’t working you could discuss an alternate way of setting it up or location in the house for it to be).
Then, it’s time to start planning for the next sprint. Just like in Step 3, you are going to go through all the stories in your backlog and decide which ones you're going to tackle before the next deadline, and move those to the active part of your board.
Then, take a look at ALL the stickies in your backlog: are they all still relevant? Are there things you thought you were going to do that now you don't think you need to or you could drop? Are there new things that have come up that you want to make space for? This process is called “backlog grooming” and it’s what allows agile teams to adjust so that they’re always working on the most relevant tasks. You'll need to order the stickies by priority. Look extra carefully at the sticky notes that you've ranked as lowest priority: are you really going to do them? If not, let those tasks go. My Agile Coach friend often says that this is the hardest, but also the most important, part: letting go of the things that you don't really need to do.
Step 5: REPEAT
Agile helps reduce conflict/stress and increase productivity because it makes work visible and organizes communication, focusing the team on immediate goals and that all lead to long-term, steady progress. These same principles work at home too. A family is a team and your family can benefit by learning new ways to work together, communicate effectively, and achieve shared goals.
I hear friends and coworkers complaining all the time about a spouse who isn’t pulling their weight at home and leaves everything on mom to do even though mom works. This leads to simmering resentment. While of course there are husbands who are lazy, I believe most people want a healthy marriage and a functioning home and are willing to pitch in to get it, they just don’t know what to do. Women are notoriously bad at the whole “I’ll just do it myself!” thing, when what they really want is their whole family pitching in to help them.
By making the work visible I found that my family was not only helping me more, but helping each other more. Before we started our family project board no one knew what my priorities even were, and so they were bewildered when I would snap at them for not doing the things that they didn’t realize I was expecting them to do. We tend to ASSUME the other people in our family just know what needs to be done, what tasks are stressing us out and keeping us up at night. Well, you know what they say about making assumption...
There is greater accountability with an Agile process, and less frustration AT each other (as opposed to WITH each other). When we decide together what our goals are, everyone is more willing to pitch in.
We’ve used the Agile process at home for both ongoing organization of everyday tasks and big event goals like a wedding, party, home improvement projects, and moving. I’ve heard of folks using it to set more emotional family goals like “yelling less” or “being kinder to each other”. Though Agile is designed to help groups work together, I also use many of the same tools myself when I’m starting a big project on my own as a way to organize myself, even though it's just me. Like I said above: just the act of writing down and breaking out tasks helps to focus your mind and effort.
Whatever you’re trying to tackle, I’d encourage you to give Agile a try. It doesn’t cost anything aside from a package of sticky notes, and could make all the difference in reaching your goals!
As for us, our wedding was a success! I completed all the projects I set out to do with the help of my family (and some friends!) And, I even found the time to learn to waltz!
I pulled together some articles by others who’ve used Agile to hack their families. Enjoy!