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.

Pain Is Just Information

I took a systems physiology class in college one summer, and on the very first day, the professor said, “If there’s one thing you remember from this class, it’s that ‘Pain is just information’.” Pain let’s you know something is up. Or down. Or out of place. Or stuck in place. Or generally amister amiss.

(This blog post is about a conversation from work. I’ll try not to make these boring and solely technical, but if you decide to give up on reading this because you’re emotionally distraught over Scotland not being its own country, remember: Pain is just information.)

Now that I’m a ScrumMaster by day (your local superhero by night), I get to talk through sticking points that my team members have with parts of the process, and the point that was sticking this time involved the Sprint backlog.

(I can’t believe it… to be your own country… you get to stay up as late as you want, eat haggis whenever you want, drink scotch whenever you want…)

During the Sprint, something may come up that we as a team end up working on, with the Product Owner’s blessing, that wasn’t planned for in the Sprint Planning meeting. The question is: If we can add things to the Sprint mid-Sprint, why can’t we remove the things we now know we won’t get done mid-Sprint?

(…skinny dip with my sheep in whatever loch I want…)

Seems like a decent enough question: by accepting sudden stories, you’ve already blown out the original plan, so why not update the plan based on new information? Since the Spring backlog is what the team committed to doing at Sprint Planning, it’s easy to understand why the team doesn’t want to see this thing they know won’t get done: it’s embarrassing, or it induces anger, or it elicits some kind of negative emotion (or else the team wouldn’t be asking to get rid of it), some kind of pain.

(…wear kilts as short as I want…)

The way I sell this is via acknowledging this ‘pain’ as not necessarily bad, but useful: at the end of the Sprint, the stories that do not get done represent a quantifiable adjustment to consider during the next Sprint Planning session. If no ‘outside’ stories were brought in mid-Sprint, then the undone stories represent the team planning to do more than they could pull off. If the story points associated with the dragged-in ‘outside’ stories were the same number of story points associated with the undone stories, then the undone stories were neatly ‘displaced’ by the sudden stories and the team did a spot on job of estimating how much work it could pull off.

(Did you hear about the Scottish cross-dresser? He wore pants.)

Sure, it feels icky to leave things undone, especially when you said you’d do ’em, but if it’s because the Product Owner asked you to do something else, then heck, it’s totally not your ‘fault’ – the person in charge of prioritizing work… reprioritized work! And this was the particular scenario of the sticking point – there was pain, and it was reframed as information.

My systems physiology professor would be proud. If I only remembered his name… this sucks, I really liked that guy… man, this is embarrassing…

(Pain is just information.)

Oh shut up.

Organizing All This Goodness

Have you ever apologized to somebody, and then, years later, apologized to them for the exact same thing? It’s kind of embarrassing. Good thing there’s comedian Louie C.K. to step us through what that would look like, in all its glorious awkwardness, in the third season of his genius show, Louie.

I have not done this.

I have, however, realized that I blogged about something that I had blogged about before, and am thus relearning, albeit with less bumbling social buffoonery than our modern-day Charlie Brown, how planning for less to more easily ride the flow of life while making deliberate steps for personal development is a modus operandi that seems to work for me. It’s like I already have the answers!

So what else have I written about?

Good question – I’m about to find out. Part of that effort is categorizing all these posts with the handy tagging that WordPress lets me do.

Let’s see what I’m able to learn.

And relearn.

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…

What Are Days?

You ever notice that sudden plans are usually fun? For me, sure, what’s cool is the thing that is planned, but it’s equally neat how, like, 2 hours ago, this idea of a plan wasn’t out there, and then, all of the sudden, somebody came up with it and then it was acted upon.

Wham – you blink.

Bam – you enjoy.

If I could only remember that the days were not bricks to be laid row on row, to be build into a solid house, where one might dwell in safety and peace, but only food for the fires of the heart.
– Edmund Wilson, Critic and Writer (1895-1972)

This is my way of saying that this last Sprint, I’ve had an extraordinarily large number of emergent stories, and I’ve gone along with them. Dinner here. Movie there. Oscar-watching party somewhere around the corner. Sprint Goal nowhere close to being accomplished.

Yet – and I think that as you get older you become more OK with things like this – I’m more OK with things like this. I’m trying to remember that our days are indeed meant to be gut-level exciting.