From The Front Lines: Task Ownership

This is a success story since becoming a tactical ScrumMaster at work. It’s nothing that directly relates to personal growth, yet the following practice can aid in not taking on too much during your Sprint, just as it is helping my team members work at a sustainable pace.

In theory, Agile teams are made up of generalists: coders, testers, requirements folks, release engineers, all these people can do the jobs of the others; they are, well, agile. This way, anybody can do any task associated with any story in the Sprint backlog. In Scrum, this is encouraged; assign your name to a task that you are doing, or about to do. Nobody assigns your name to a task without your permission, since this violates the principle of Scrum teams being self-managed.

In practice, folks aren’t as agile. For example, I test medical devices. (To younger folks, I say something along the lines of, “I break expensive equipment, and they give me money to do it.” To complete strangers at my favorite cafe, I lie.) You want me coding? Fine, but I’m rusty; it’s inefficient and will drag down team velocity unnecessarily. Thus, per story, coding tasks will most likely be done by one of the coders, testing tasks will most likely be done by one of the testers, etc.

Introductory passages out of the way, here was the pain point. Our team is doing better than expected regarding velocity, in part due to the high level of commitment to the team each member has, as per a recent survey, and as per my own Spidey-senses. This commitment was so high, that sometimes, a team member would dive into implementing a story, realize it was hairier than the number of Story-points reflected, and (not-so-) quietly trudge uphill to get it done in time for testers to play with it before the Sprint end. This meant longer hours, which is not a sustainable pace – bucking against another Scrum principle.

Each morning, we do that 15-minute stand-up meeting, taking turns saying what we did yesterday, what we plan on doing today, and if there is anything stopping us or slowing us down. Ah, transparency, right? How much more see-through could we get? Well, this meeting did not cover a simple comparison: remaining hours of tasks assigned to me vs. remaining hours in the Sprint.

I recommended that we tweak a Scrum principle of self-managed teams: Assign your name to every task you think you will most likely do. The benefits:

  • The tool we use for Scrumming (tracking tasks, stories, backlogs, etc.) shows a simple graph of remaining hours per person, so we can all use that to ensure nobody is overloaded from a pure numbers perspective.
  • Assigning a task to yourself is not an etching in stone, so we can all see who might need help completing their tasks: you can hand off your tasks.
  • We can all see who is wrapping up their tasks and thus has bandwidth to help somebody out in completing a story.
  • With testing tasks usually done towards the end of the sprint, we can all see roughly by when the coding tasks for a story should be done, thus acknowledging inter-dependencies.

I asked that we all do this, not so that management could see what everybody was up to, but so that we had opportunities to help each other out as we got stuff done, at a sustainable pace. This added level of transparency was adopted by the team and I think it’s been helpful. We’ll see at the next Retrospective.

How does this help you with your ScrumOfOne? If you have hours associated with stories in your Sprint backlog, just total them and compare that with the number of hours left in your Sprint that you think you can dedicated to stories.

Be realistic: do at sustainable pace.

Sum Of Your Parts

You’ve heard how something is more than the sum of its parts? Well, so are you; however, it helps to think about you in parts. So let’s think about your parts.

No! Not like that!

Last week (I’m shifting to blogging just once a week for hopefully more quality per post), I mentioned the idea of partitioning out areas of your life, and then changing these one or two at a time. These are the ‘parts’ of your life. All the things (ah, those abstract things) you want to do in life will most likely be associated with one of these life areas.

Using Scrum terminology, and some fancy footwork, replace ‘things’ with ‘Backlog Items’ and ‘life areas’ with ‘Products’. Poof. Magic. Tell him what he’s won, Johnny!

You can now be thought of as a package of products, each with its own backlog.

Or not. You can think of yourself however you freakin’ want. I recommend you try it, though. There are awesome payoffs, especially if you’re curious about the Scrum way of thinking of things. Let’s use an example. Take a guy. Random guy. Let’s call him… Merrill. He’s quite a number of wonderful things:

  • Merrill, the physical homo sapiens.
  • Merrill, the financially responsible.
  • Merrill, the musician.
  • Merrill, the ScrumOfOne thought leader. (Whoa! Were those angels singing…?)
  • Merrill, the home dweller.
  • Merrill, the guy who gets paid to break expensive things at work.

He’s oh so much more than the above, of course, but let’s treat each of these ‘life areas’ as a product. Thus, there is a Product Owner for each product, prioritizing stories based on a vision. Sure, Merrill could set a vision for himself as a whole person, but just as you might do that for yourself, I’ll bet this vision would end up being phrased in terms of some area(s) of your life. Thus,

Awesome Payoff #1: One awesome vision per product… many products per you… many ways you can be awesome!

Does this connote a lack of direction and focus? Nay, fair citizen. Dreaming out a better you is now not just dreaming big, but dreaming multiple dreams, and only the dreams you care about. Merrill, the watch-maker, isn’t exactly a Merrill that Merrill particularly cares about, especially not relative to the other Merrills listed above, so the direction is now better defined. We can now better address each life area, I mean, product, via some familiar Scrum-a-licious ideas.

Awesome Payoff #2: Grouping stories into releases per product leads to paths of punctuated evolution in each area of your life!

In evolutionary biology, as most memorable childhood stories begin, this is the idea that covers how phenotypic changes might be observed with relatively low frequency, even though genotypic changes are constantly occurring. In words a little less Grimm, you can continue putting in work, under the hood, although you won’t really see results until enough of these new pieces come together to ‘release’ a new piece of functionality. You keep evolving, with something novel punctuating the journey every once in a while: punctuated evolution.

Back to the example of the purely hypothetical Merrill, in this case, the martial artist, a release might be to achieve a yellow belt in the martial art of karate. This involves a number of steps (find a dojo, set aside funds and time, enroll, stretch regularly, practise that first kata without stopping, then with good form) that eventually, once all these stories are complete, unlock an achievement. Each ‘release’ for this product represents a punctuation in the evolution to becoming a fifth-degree-black-belt-super-dude, in line with the vision of being able to fend off enemies from attacking my Merrill’s village using a fifth-degree-super-stare. Now to find matching shoes…

I, I mean, Merrill can work on this while working on another product, say, Merrill, the home dweller. If that vision includes waking up to a cove in Maine, perusing Craig’s List’s Down East section may be a story. See how this works? All the things you want to do in life turn into stories onto backlogs of your ‘productized’ life areas. Have one area in life you feel needs some work more than others? You can manage this in the context of seeing the opportunity costs in front of you: the other stories in the other backlogs.

Awesome Payoff #3: Reduced overwhelm!

Or not. Maybe seeing all the things you want to do in life freaks you out, or as you’re working living through sprints, you feel you’re not moving fast enough. Well, you can only move as fast as you can (Merrill’s not cutting any corners by buying a yellow belt, especially without matching shoes…), plus, you’re the ScrumMaster role, too, in this ScrumOfOne model of personal development, so you can work on being more efficient (mastering the ‘how’) now that you’re more effective (mastering the ‘what’).

This is why I say there will be fewer feelings of being overwhelmed: your backlogs are prioritized so you know you’re working on the most important thing now or next, and that’s the best any one of us can do: knowing that all parts of you are taking up space on this floating blue marble in a way that is most aligned with how you want to deep inside.

Awesome Payoff #4: A more wholly enjoyable now!

Admittedly gratifying payoff: This post closes a loop opened about five months ago.

Blogging Break

Hello, Internet. Are you celebrating the Extended Winter Solstice season? You bet your sweet tushie I am, too. So are the Mayans. So are the zombies. So are any number of over-sized monstrosities waiting to wreak havoc on your favorite over-sized metropolis. Enjoy the show. It’s a celebration. (And if you’re waiting for Jesus, don’t hold your breath – that’s happening in 2443, as per Futurama.)

I’m going on a sprint-long (or so) hiatus to finish up deciding on Christmas presents, purchase Christmas presents, wrap Christmas presents, give Christmas presents, receive Christmas presents, unwrap Christmas presents, whinny like a pretty pony with glee grunt like a caveman with cool indifference. This will take a little over a fortnight (or so).

As I look back on this sweet ScrumOfOne blog o’ mine, I grunt with glee (like a cavepony?) at how this writing endeavour has fulfilled one of its requirements, which was to document the evolution of my approach to and focus of ScrumOfOne. Starting over half a year ago, I pushed to publish a post twice a week (or so), where I over time shifted away from the ScrumMaster side of software personal development, to spending time talking about what is the Product Owner arena: setting the vision, prioritizing stories, and balancing a ‘forward’ motion with the flow of life, taking on more Taoist concepts as of late, and most recently reflecting on lectures by life coach Martha Beck.

From here, I have a couple of concepts I can’t quite comfortably reconcile, although MB’s work seems to have given me… an answer? The two thoughts:

  • There is an approach that feels very Western. Scrum talks about taking a vision for your product, or in my spin, your self, and implementing pieces of ‘potentially shipable’ functionality (new things that you are / have / can do) in a prioritized fashion. All this while embracing change (you don’t exist in a vacuum, life happens around you can’t help but interact with it) as well as practices that promote transparency, inspection, and adaptation. I am a Certified ScrumMaster and thus have a decent understanding of this philosophy.
  • There is an approach that feels very Eastern. Taoism talks about the essence of things, how we’re all one, and a bunch of concepts that sound quite deep. Applying some of these to personal development translate to getting out of your own way to discover your essence, and then do that, which will end up being without effort. This is doing without doing, action without action, or wei wu wei.

I am convinced that all the advice we hear about how to live a better, more fulfilling, more ‘successful’, higher functioning life are all facets of the same gem. This is what I’m trying to understand. And then apply. And then share.

I want to live it, to then give it.

There are 20 draft blog posts waiting to be fleshed out, and I can’t wait to dive in. After, of course, a break that will surely be relaxing (or so).

Day In Your Ideal Life

Ah, your ideal life. I hear this and what comes to mind is being white in suburbia in the 1950’s. Skinny black tie and possibly a pocket protector. Everybody is blond and blue-eyed, part of a four-person nuclear family with a dog, has barbecues with the neighbours, waves to the paperboy, and lives in a grainy black and white world. There’s a little Timmy thrown in there somewhere, too.

Ah, your ideal life. Your ideal life. The above was when things were run by rodents, and if that IS your ideal life then… mazel tov. Go get ’em, chinchilla tiger. Since it most likely isn’t, then I’d like to ask you to think about this concept. I’d like to ask you, but I won’t.

Now I will.

Think about your ideal life. From the time you wake up (what do you hear? who is next to you? what do you smell? what is outside your window? how large is the jail cell?), to the time you go to bed, step yourself through an ideal day. What are you wearing? What are you NOT wearing? What animals do you talk to? What people do you pet? Which cut of rare meat do you shove down your pie hole? How early in the morning do you get drunk? How many Twilight fan fiction stories are you co-authoring.

What are we after? Details! (When do we want them? Now!) If there is an event or period of day that you can identify in this day in your ideal life, describe every sense – you’ll be surprised what you can perceive; when I played chess as a youth, there was always this distinct smell.

From here, well, now you have a vision of yourself. Not just a painted picture you can frame, but an awesome and exciting virtual reality of your own creation. And now, well, go get ’em, gopher tiger. Sounds easy, yes no?

I’m getting this from watching more material by life coach Martha Beck. I’ve noticed she likes scarves and marmosets. More interestingly, I’ve noticed how well her models and specific actions for taking someone from good to great (this is the job of a life coach, versus the job of a therapist, who takes someone from broken to good) addresses well-researched western and eastern philosophies, including newer-fangled things like ‘The Secret‘ with a proviso. She is refreshing to watch, partially because she doesn’t take herself too seriously.

Where it takes me is to reassuring myself in the direction I’ve taken ScrumOfOne, at least for myself, where the focus is on determining the WHAT, the Product Owner stuff, before working on the HOW, the ScrumMaster stuff. This echoes how Scrum is done (by Sprint 1, anyhow). More on this shift in focus in a later post.

That First Tiny Step

You have a dream. OK! Fine! You have a few dreams, but let’s pick just one. What’s it like? What are… the symptoms?

Hello, America. Do you suffer from something that is any or all of the following?

Well then, America, you have a dream!

Scrum is great for breaking down an epic-sized, daunting thing into a story-sized, conquerable thing, and then openly managing that. The ScrumMaster in me would sit you down, and after 5 seconds stand back up and walk with you to a whiteboard, since those are fun, then help you construct a Product Backlog based on your vision, prioritize that list, then draw a line in the sand on the whiteboard and bellow, “Behold, O America, for the next fortnight, sallyeth thee forth and kick ass,” while pointing to the stuff above that line.

Now, America, I do look forward to our date over Spanish lattes to bust through this in a fun-filled manner, sallyething thee forth ‘n’ all, but until then, ask yourself: What is that first tiny step towards my condition dream? What’ll get me that tiniest bit closer? What takes almost no time and no effort, yet dips my toe in the water?

This’ll of course depend on the disease dream. For me, that first tiny step was purchasing the following KORG Kaoss Pad 3.

Schuper Schweet, I know. How does this affect my dream?

  • It is still large – that’s how they tend to be.
  • It is not as far away, I just brought it closer.
  • It is clearer, since I have a tool with which to work.
  • It is still exciting – that’s how they tend to be.
  • It is less out of my league and more in my gym bag next to my desk in my apartment.
  • It is still possibly too awesome, and I’m getting a better handle of it, since this one piece fits in my hands.

Sallyeth thee forth and kick ass – take that first tiny step.