Hunt for the Red September

I reached enlightenment. More on that, in a bit.

For about two weeks, I’ve been hanging out with this guy named Craig. My fiance is OK with this, though, ’cause she knows I’m only after him for his List, and oh what a list. We are out-growing our awesomely located one-bedroom in Boston’s Back Bay, and were looking for a two-bedroom in Cambridge, just across the river.

So, I start casually perusing this list for possibilities, making a collection of potential abodes. I email and/or call the associated realtors, asking to see what I think will be my next home. “Yeah, so, um, it’s taken, sorry,” I hear.

So, then I set aside some time to seriously eye-ball this list for my next home, keeping in mind we have already shared with our current landlord that we will not renew our lease at $150 more per month. We’re hearing horror stories from folks looking to make our current mini-palace their next home, those lucky bastards ducks, stories of how rent is going up 20% in Boston & Cambridge, and how good housing options are quickly disappearing. I set up appointments with realtors. “Yeah, so, um, the internet is out-of-date, I should’ve removed that post, it’s taken, sorry,” I hear.

So, now I’m not just eye-balling Craig’s List, I’m getting physical. I’m upping my game. I’m getting emails. I’m getting numbers. I’m looking over pictures. Like it’s my job. I am training myself to become a full-fledged artist and picking up my next place of shelter. Failure is not an option, I am not going home to a cold bed (…I need a roof over it).

This fire under my butt led me to thinking sleep was a waste of time. So was eating. So was work. I’m serious. As animals, we supposedly need food, clothing, and shelter, and to this end, my hunt for the September rental was all-encompassing.

(Stick with me, the enlightenment part is coming up!)

On Tuesday, I was lined up to see three places, blank check in pocket and prepared to sign a rental application. I saw the first place, and while the realtor essentially lied about what came with the apartment (c’mon, there either is or is not a dishwasher, big difference, don’t tease me like that) (…as you can see, I haven’t been able to let that one go), I liked everything else about it and took it off the market.

Put me on an aircraft carrier in a jumpsuit behind a podium: Mission Accomplished.

Bonus: on my way to fill out the rental application, I see that our favorite cafe/bakery is relocating to down the street from where we’ll live. ZOMGWTFBBQ. Too cool. Zeus is indeed smiling down on us from Mt. Olympus.

As I sit at a counter, waiting for my celebratory beer, I realize I have no thoughts. None. This scares me. I think hard. I’m looking for thoughts. Maybe if I start writing, thoughts will fumble out. This is what I am able to produce:

This is what.
This is what?
What is this?
No, this is… what?
I think I have nothing in my mind… have I reached enlightenment? I’m… flowing.
I’ve been wanting something fervently for so long, and now that I have it… I’m done… wanting?
What’s next in the flow?
So… just do that, without stress.
Just do ‘now’s.

This scares me a little more. Am I allowed to feel this free? Let’s get real, here: I searched for and found a rental apartment. Big whoop. Yet these past few days have been more… flowy, and less… stressed. That’s undeniable. I just identify what’s next on my daily backlog, and then… make that my ‘now’, do that ‘now’, be totally in that ‘now’.

And now, for the rest of my double cappuccino. It’s never tasted so damn good.

Kaizen Story

As I’ve worked with Scrum in a context that is not software development, I’ve come to define Scrum thus:

Scrum is a framework for getting stuff done that embraces change, while promoting transparency, inspection, and adaptation.

You get transparency from the Daily Stand-Up meeting (this is called the Scrum, too), and both the Sprint Burndown Chart and the Release Burndown Chart. Everybody starts the day on the same page, blockers are identified, and outside parties are privy to the progress during the Sprint and towards a release-worthy product; these are formats for easy sharing and digesting of Sprint-related information.

From all the data being laid out from the Burndown Charts, we can get inspection. The Sprint-end demonstration (part of the Review) also allows for a frequent check on the state of the software and acceptance of the stories done during the Sprint: inspection of the work. Inspection of the process is done during the Retrospective.

And the Retrospective is THE place where adaptation is determined. After inspecting the process, using methods I’ve mentioned in the previous two posts, we ideally get a somewhat prioritized list of stuff we either want to keep, stop, or start doing: a backlog of adaptation options.

Now, we pat ourselves on the back, go straight into Sprint Planning, and restart the Sprintly cycle.

And fail.

I mean, if we just come up with a list of ways we can get better, but don’t really do anything about it, then the Retrospective was a jolly ol’ waste of time. Does this sound like post-mortem meetings you’ve been a part of? Were they called ‘Lessons Learned’ meetings? See, I passionately dislike that term, ‘Lessons Learned’. You cannot say you’ve properly learned your lesson unless you repeat a situation and then exhibit ‘better’ behaviour, thus proving that you have indeed learned your lesson. Until then, you’re just talking about ‘how it all went’, an ‘Issues Encountered’ meeting, sharing what you’d do better next time.

The Retrospective is different.

At the top of the backlog of adaptation options, there must be an immediately actionable process improvement that can be implemented. How to ensure you do this? Make it a story for the upcoming Sprint: the Kaizen Story. Kaizen? Yeah, it’s Japanese:

Kaizen is a Japanese business philosophy of continuous improvement of working practices, personal efficiency, etc. Kaizen literally means ‘improvement’.

So, via Kaizen, we adapt. Via the Kaizen Story, a properly formed Sprint backlog item with points and acceptance criteria… and is independent, negotiable, valuable, ‘estimatable’, sized to fit, and testable… and is otherwise meeting a Definition of Ready for stories, the team is constantly working on improving the Scrum process, specifically using a measure uncovered and set by the team itself. (What’s that? At the back of the room… is that… is that the ‘self-management’ flag being waved? Why yes. Yes it is.)

I don’t have a clever way to end this post besides expressing how I think this idea is just so damn cool: Scrum becomes a framework for both getting stuff done and for improving how stuff gets done.


On Point…s

You have something you want to do. You’re doing it for a reason (it has value, or benefit) and it doesn’t come free (it has cost, like time or money or focus). Generic enough of a start for a blog post? Good. Let’s talk Scrum.

You have a story. It has a benefit (business value) and a cost (effort). The backlog is a list of things to be done (stories), where this list is ordered (prioritized) by business value (fine, personal value since we’re in ScrumOfOne-land, or just value), with the highest / most important at the top. Each story has points associated with it, representing effort.

Business value is represented by backlog priority. Effort is represented by story points.

This is simple. This is Scrum101. And this is something I didn’t fully get until the Product Owner training last week. From this simple and clear concept, I am amending how I’ve been doing my ScrumOfOne.

More important stories are not ‘worth’ more points. How much a story is ‘worth’ is represented by its position in the backlog (be it the Sprint backlog or the Product backlog) and by this qualifier ONLY. Yes, the more valuable a story is, the more effort it might be, but not necessarily. For a recent example, I look at how I handled stories related to getting the Product Owner training.

I started with an ‘epic’ (just a large story): Become a Certified Scrum Product Owner. Then I broke it down to investigating the training options & timing, signing up & paying for it, getting reimbursement paperwork underway at work, and attending the classes. The epic, though important and thus close to the top of the backlog, is too large to fit into a Sprint, so it was broken down. Of those stories, ‘attending the classes’ was relatively the easiest (least effort): just show up! Of those stories, ‘investigating the training options & timing’ was relatively the hardest (most effort): spend time.

These stories, in retrospect, in and of themselves do not require a lot of effort, so they should not get a lot of points. Yes, working towards another Scrum-related certification helps me in better crafting this ScrumOfOne idea and improves my marketability, but this does not mean it gets lots of points. Instead, it gets a better/higher position in the backlog.

In the business world, coming up with a value per story means find the dollar value. In the world of personal development, coming up with a value per story is… harder. In both cases, this is one of the jobs of the Product Owner: prioritize the backlog, i.e., identify the value (thus, relative value) of each story.

With my example above, I would say this set of stories had high value and low effort. One would think these types of stories would be ones to do first – prefer to implement stories with the highest benefit to cost ratio. Or I could just look at the title of slide #52 of the slide deck from last week’s training:

Prioritization of Business Value / Effort Can Cut Cost and Time to Market by 50%

Filtering out the MBA-speak, this might look like:

Prefer to do the coolest stuff that’s not that hard to pull off.

And this starts with getting the idea behind ‘points’ straight.


Last week, I was disengaged from life.

In Boston, it started with the Marathon, the bombings, showers of sadness, and blooming examples of human goodness.

It ended with a man hunt, more bravery, more death, cities on lockdown on both sides of the Charles River, and the capture of a suspect, alive, ending one set of questions and spurring even more.

Folks around here dealt with all this differently; for me, the days in between were ones of angst and… blah. A party that caused mass injuries 3 and 4 blocks from where I live and STILL on the loose had me hooked on unraveling details and perfunctorily doing everything else.

I can give blood! Oh, they have enough. What else do folks need? Oh, so displaced marathoners & visitors need beds? OK, my name is on that list. What else can I do???

(Crowd-sourcing the analysis of submitted pictures and video was a great idea, I thought. It didn’t really output pictures of the current suspects, but I read it was a motivator for the FBI to release pictures of THEIR suspects.)

That week, I was disengaged from life.

Lost in events I could do very little about, I did a whole lot of nothing; my ScrumOfOne Sprint backlog was put on hold (including writing a post for this blog). Now, maybe not everybody is like this, but I have this itch to be productive. If I’m not moving forward with something, however tangentially, I feel like a slob, and that gets me down. For this completely different, yet derivative reason, last week bummed me out. Especially after blogging about how taking action means you are alive, doing something (anything) makes you a better person, last week I just floated, thus feeling less alive. (…yes, I am thankful I have all my limbs and that none of my friends or loved ones were directly affected…)

Once we got the (suspected) bad guy, I felt more at ease to catch up with daily chores and otherwise get back into being proactive, maybe even do something brave, requiring confidence, which would beget more confidence.

…something that would re-engage me with life…

I got engaged.

Do Courage to Gain Confidence

What is life? (Baby, don’t hurt me…)

On David DeAngelo’s ‘On Being A Man’ program, he has a guest, Dr. Paul Dobransky, M.D., where he asks this very question. His very answer is:

Life is irritable.

This response is biological (bad pun alert) in nature (sorry), in that lifeforms will purposefully interact with the environment. The environment does something to the life form, and the life form makes a decision to do something else, versus a rock, in his example, which does anything a rock does, passively. Come to think of it, rocks don’t really do; things are done unto rocks. (How embarrassing: rocks can’t even decide to rock out!) Thus, this answer evolves to:

Life makes decisions.

From here, one could say if one stops making decisions, one is dead. One could also say if one makes lots of decisions, one is more alive. And oh man, are some of those decisions not easy to make, usually because of fear. In these cases, to do what is right, even if you are afraid, requires courage. Leaning into this a little more, if you muster courage to do that thing of which you are afraid, you will gain confidence, regardless of the result. For example, if you hate public speaking, yet you speak publicly and flub epically, you just publicly spoke, and your next public speech will be much easier than the first, as would any other kind of speech, especially private speeches.

Onto the blog post title. First of all, you can’t do courage – that makes no sense. You can do courageous acts, but that just doesn’t sound as cool. So, as per Dr. Paul, to gain confidence, y’gotta do courage, which means you’re making decisions, and truly living, by definition. Let’s massage these ideas a little more.

(Explanatory side note: Once upon a time, there was a final exam for Thermodynamics, the class that gives you practical knowledge like the ability to figure out how much energy is necessary to cook a Thanksgiving turkey. I stayed up all night, studying, which was the wrong thing to do. I should’ve checked my email at 8:30 the night before, like the other kids, to read an email from the TA who felt sorry for us, which shared the focus of the test, which were the areas I studied the least, which I found out 30 minutes before the test. Wonderful. I sat with the exam and went to war, the sheet of equations given to us as weapons, and in my tired stupor, I stared at both sets of dead tree. I proclaimed that there was no choice but for everything to make sense, since it’s just cherry picking the appropriate formulas and mathematically mushing ’em together. That was my most memorable private speech and is my default blogging manner, weaving concepts into evolving themes as I validate ScrumOfOne.)

If you are proactive, then you are making decisions, truly living.
If you are courageous, then you are making hard decisions, truly living and gaining confidence.

In my last post, I commented on how doing something, anything, makes you a better person. I like the much simpler thought track in today’s post: doing something, anything, means you are alive, where the more you do, the more alive you are.

A few months back, I commented on a New York Times interview piece, where “the very act of deciding takes courage, since every action has an opportunity cost“. This expands the association of courage to not just decisions that are difficult due to fear, but to decisions in light of context: you are simultaneously deciding what NOT to do. Now, I don’t think you’d really grow your trove of confidence via decisions that are courageous in this broader sense, but the point of that post was the value of prioritization.

Back-tracking to the better accepted connotation of courage, let’s wrap this puppy up with the following:

Do you want to gain confidence?
Make those hard decisions.
Do courage.

That is life.