Leave Cats Alone

There’s more than one way to skin a cat.
– someone who walks around in a hand-made, cat-skin coat

Does that phrase give you paws pause? It should. It should get you to imagine a world where skinning cats was a common enough activity such that the variety of methods was contemplated often enough to drive to a conclusion that was shared widely enough to stake its claim in our indeed vulgar vernacular as an axiom. WTF.

Yet, I care about that world.

I want to live in that world.

I want to live in that world… with the small detail of switching out the skinning of cats with the living of life in an Agile manner.

There’s more than one way to live life in an Agile manner.
– someone who walks around in a hipster, vintage, upcycled, locally harvested, hand-made, cat-skin coat

Step into this world with me.

Step into a world where I pined to be a Scrum Master (I practiced with the team of me while documenting the journey on this blog), where upon becoming a full-time Scrum Master, I have written just 8 blog posts. I became a father. I landed my third full-time Agile Practitioner gig, now as a start-up’s sole Agile Coach. And looking back on my own ScrumOfOne, I wonder how Agile I really am.

Those close have heard me complain about how caring for a new life has reduced my capacity to engage in personal development. This is measured by, um, how many things I can cross off a “stuff to evolve Merrill” list, and how often I check in with myself regarding my ability to, um, check things off said list, and knowing that I am working on the highest-value activities.

Step into a world where I’ve been too sleep-deprived and/or on duty to do any of the above personal development. I used to have a detailed backlog, and now I don’t. I used to have regular planning sessions and retrospectives, and now I don’t. I used to walk around feeling in control of my purposeful path on this pale blue dot, and now I don’t. (I used to not complain, and now I do.)

All the markers of DOING Agile have disappeared… replaced by the markers of BEING Agile.

(This epiphany didn’t hit me until getting to this very part of the blog post, so please stick with me.)

Though not along a path set via purposeful planning, I know my hours are spent on the highest-value activities: what is needed now and next for my family.

Though not formal, I’ve learned to use the small gaps in daily activity to reflect and prepare, reducing feedback loops and extracting Kaizen where appropriate.

Though not detailed, I now frequently use Siri & dictation & the iCloud-backed-up Reminders app on my iPhone as just enough process to make me effective. The different lists in the app serve as different ‘product’ backlogs. Weekly to daily ‘Sprint’ backlogs are established via setting a date per reminder, so the highest priority items are visible on my lock screen. My working backlog is in my hand at the single push of a button. With ‘the next’ literally at hand, my focus is freed to embrace ‘the now’.

Those close will now hear me contemplate how caring for a new life has increased my capacity to engage in the present moment.

And, uh, I guess that still counts as personal development after all. Hm. Well then. Just goes to show there is more than one way to skin a cat live life in an Agile manner write about the latest stage of my ScrumOfOne journey skin a cat.

Plan For Less

Lately, I’ve pulled off this seemingly impossible goal: complete all the things I planned to do per Sprint! My secret? Plan for less.

By planning for less per Sprint, yes, I leave myself open to do more and to go with the flow …of the day. This means a couple of things, and I think of it like an equation:

My Sprint Backlog = low number of planned stories + high number of unplanned stories

To get the most out of the planned stories, I have them associated with my Sprint Goal, which used to answer the question, “What is the exciting new thing I will share proudly with the world at the end of my Sprint?” and nowadays answers the question, “What do I want to make sure I get done by the end of my Sprint?” This sentiment is more practical, more self-serving, and way less stressful, ’cause all I have to do to accomplish this declarative Sprint Goal is one or two small and specific things. A few hours of focus effort, et voilà, I can proudly wave the flag of the Republic of Productivity (I hear David Allen is the Prime Minister).

To get the most out of the unplanned stories, I look in two places.

First, I’ll look at my Product Backlogs. I just look at the top, ’cause that’s where the high-priority items are. If there’s something there that is convenient to do, or that I’m particularly inspired to do, voilà, I cherry pick. These Product Backlogs then serve as reminders of all the cool and/or important things I want to do.

Second, I’ll look… around. I’ll look at anything that is not a list. Whether it is doing something spontaneous or living like a millionaire, most of my Sprint Backlog stories end up being emergent stories as of late. As long as I check in with myself often enough, I can maintain a level of strategic personal growth while embracing… life.

Folks, this is the most empowering version of my ScrumOfOne experiment I’ve found for healthily balancing the Agile constraints of personal development through Scrum, with the dynamicity of daily life.

I’m hesitating to press the ‘Publish’ button. This post just ain’t that funny… it’s not inspiring… it’s not captivating. While it’s unsettlingly dry, I write this because it is settlingly culminating.

Since I cut my Sprintly time-box in half, I’ve had more practice with performing the Retrospective and Sprint Planning per Sprint ‘turn-over’: it takes an hour and change. From the more opportunities to adapt, I’ve removed how I used to feel like a bum for not getting done the things I’d ‘commit to myself’ to doing, and actually get more stuff done. And I’ve been punting on this particular post for a while because this is effectively a report on research.

I used to do shit like this, and it’s been kinda sucky. Now I do shit this other way, and things’ve been way more rockin’.

Oh, that’s right. That’s what this blog is about. Where’s that ‘Publish’ button…

Halve It Your Way or A Shovelful of Sugar

Eating your own dog food, or dogfooding, is like the practice of practicing what you preach, which can feel like having to taste your own medicine when the medicine ain’t so tasty, or if it isn’t Gmail.

Want to piss off a software developer? Tell her she’s got less time to code something. This isn’t specific to coders, of course, but this is more the realm I work in, so I can speak to it. She’ll thrash. “Leave me be,” she’ll say. “You foul beast,” she’ll add. (“And stop speaking for me,” I’ll type on her behalf, parenthetically.)

Being told there’s less time to do stuff sucks. The Scrum response to this is to, well, do less stuff.

Folks, I am opening up a can of whoop-ass my own Scrumalicious dog food and halving my Sprints from a time box of two weeks to one week, which means I will proportionately plan to do fewer points worth of things per now-shorter Sprint. “You damn dirty ape,” I say through clenched teeth, “Why?”

I’ll tell me why.

Last Sprint felt a little too eventful, and I was able to track this using my latest Kaizen Story, which was

…to monitor which stories get implemented that are emergent and not related to my Sprint Goal.

In doing so, I monitored myself diving deep into emergent stories related to Bitcoin (invested in 1 BTC), Litecoin (invested in 10 LTC), and AirBnB (opened up our home to strangers). Were they things that ultimately help me out? The Product Owner in me thinks so, but they didn’t further me along the journey of accomplishing my Sprint Goal or getting done my reduced number of Sprint stories. To top it all off, I have yet to do the Retrospective, but I attribute that to getting food poisoning right at the very end of the Sprint.

I feel like I’ve fallen off the bandwagon.

Or have I?

Having relatively short time boxes neatly punctuates what can otherwise be an endless slog of personal development, in the ScrumOfOne realm, or software development, in the just-about-everywhere-else realm. It provides a point of transparency that you can then inspect, from which a specific practice of adaptation hopefully emerges. What I could clearly see was that the points associated with the emergent stories were greater than my predetermined buffer. This triggered a rather Scrumalicious adaptation which, aaugh, increases my chances of getting my Sprint Backlog (predetermined list of things to do) completed if I shorten that list and then shorten the time I next check in… with… myself.

It feels like punishment, which I’m imposing on myself, which is twisted; however, it is a practice designed to get the team to win. For good measure, I’m throwing in a period of grooming my own fur Product Backlog.

Suddenly Deserve A Cupcake

My roommate, sophomore year in college, had a few phrases. My favourites were the euphemism of “intellectual clutter”, and the toothily grinned “treat yourself“.

(He also had a classy way of explaining vectors that involved demonstrating the resultant vector with a directional bobbing of his head between outstretched arms, his longer hair waving behind him like the circular ripples spawned when skipping stones at a steamy summer soiree. (My explanation of vectors is less classy and more… phallic. (That’s because vectors have both magnitude and direction. (Now you can’t unlearn that. (You’re welcome.)))))

This blog post is a continuation of the last, where I talked about leaving room in your Sprint for both the planned and unplanned, allowing yourself to be both proactive and reactive, where stories are thus either strategic or tactical. I can’t help but picture a yin-yang symbol at this point, so the Taoist in me is high-fiving me (from within) (odd… deep… deeply odd?) over my incorporation of balance into Sprint Planning. So let’s address value and effort, specifically for these ‘tactical’ stories that suddenly arise from time to time, by stepping through the Product Owner’s point of view.

The Product Owner is in charge of the vision of the product. For my ScrumOfOne, I view myself as a package of products (Merrill the musician, Merrill the financial responsible, Merrill the home dweller, etc.), each with its own vision. From any particular vision, there are epics, which are just large stories, which are broken down so that they are small enough to be taken into a Sprint, but within the context of its product backlog, a story has both value and effort. Value is indicated by its priority in the backlog. Effort is indicated by an assigned number of points.

All those items in those lists (stories in Product Backlogs) stem from a vision by the Product Owner.

So whether the Product Owner is telling the team to keep implementing stories from the Sprint Backlog (the planned), or to address issues that have suddenly arisen that can’t wait for the next Sprint (the unplanned), the direction is given based on what will get us closer to the Product Owner’s vision. Using this motivation, we will generally work on the thing with the next highest priority (subject to other Scrum principles like reducing work in progress to reduce waste and completing the Sprint Backlog to increase morale and allowing team self-management). Thus, if an unplanned task is suddenly a story with value, then like any other story towards a product vision, it should get points assigned for effort.

Is this cheating?

All I have to do is say that what I’m doing is good for me (something towards a product vision), and I suddenly deserve a cupcake (give myself points for the ScrumOfOne Sprint Backlog).

It sure feels like cheating, especially since it seems almost too easy! If I take my lady out on a date, I get points for a story completed that would have been from the ‘Be a good partner’ product backlog. If I have a friend visit, I get points for a story completed that would have been from the ‘Be a good friend’ and ‘Have a welcoming home’ product backlogs. If I get inspired to work on a project, I get points for a story completed that would have been from the… product backlog associated with that project.

In the corporate realm, sudden stories are taken in and worked on by the team, so you can bet your socks there are points associated with that effort!

Taking this to the extreme, you could be in extreme-reactionary mode, only doing things that come up. In the software realm, this is like only making bug fix releases and never building new features. In the ScrumOfOne realm, this is like only reacting to life and never taking initiative.

The second half of the Interrupt Pattern addresses this by programming an automatic abort of the Sprint if the buffer for unplanned activities overflows. So if the buffer for tactical stories is 15 points per Sprint, and the green light is given for a story that would mean we would complete 16 points or more of stories that were not from the Sprint Backlog, the Sprint pre-maturely ends and there is another re-planning. This drastic measure sheds light on the evident misalignment between planned priorities (Sprint Backlog) and actual priorities (embracing all interruptions).

So (…I tell myself…), if something comes up that is technically a distraction from the Sprint Backlog yet not a total mess (intellectual clutter), then feel OK taking it. Just remember to give yourself points afterwards (treat yourself).

Hello – Is It Me I’m Looking For?

I can see it in my eyes.
I can see it in my smile.
I’m all I’ve ever wanted.
And –

…if we check out the System page of this blog, we see how this whole ScrumOfOne set of practices I’ve forged actually increases my Inner Peace.

Man does that sound awesome – I want me some of that existential goodness.

Sometime before the home settling, the wedding, the move, the move prep, and the wedding prep, I stopped being fully engaged in applying Scrum principles to my personal development. I had been working off of a Scrum-Lite process where, yes, I had a backlog, but it was to keep track of the things to which I was largely reacting. While the days were focused on mostly logistical issues, and rightfully so, what was missing was personal growth, and the accompanying Inner Peace.

Now that things have calmed down, with the state of the home being that folks have been able to stay over without being warned to mind the bear traps duffle bags and to watch out for that tree box, I’ve returned to putting things in a number of personal backlogs, prioritizing them, and siphoning off a few into the current sprint. And just the process of doing all that has felt grrrrreat! The relief has come less from knowing where I am going and more that I am not missing anything. I can’t get all the things done now, but they’re not forgotten, and the most important stuff is getting addressed. Very Scrum. What’s that tingling in my toes? Oh yeah. Inner Peace.

So I’m back on the bandwagon, and man do I not want to fall off and lose my growing Inner Peace… or… get dysentery.

Want more transparency? Fine. I thought it would be enough to tell y’all that I’m wicked pumped to be back in the game, but you’re egging me one… I’ll publish my velocity and the Kaizen story so y’all can learn along with me. There. You’re welcome.

The more important bits of Kaizen will fall into an improved System page – I’ll update that section to reflect what has been practical and repeatable.

First piece of Kaizen (for Sprint 141, which is the number of paychecks I’ve received, with a biweekly schedule that conveniently aligns with the sprintly schedule): Actually read the Sprint Backlog each morning. It’s simple, but this is the piece of adaptation that is independent, negotiable, valuable, ‘estimatable’ (such a clumsy word), specific, and testable that gets Scrummin’ back into my daily routine. And Inner Peace. Let’s not forget that.