Category Archives: sprint planning

To-Do Lists are Bad for My Health

Ever walk into a dive bar of just construction workers, meanwhile you’re dressed like a city slicker in a sport coat? It’s like the record player scratches to a halt. (Yeah, that totally didn’t happen to me when we got to the little town where we were getting married. Nope. Definitely didn’t happen.)

(Man, that’s gotta be one of my weaker blog post introductions, but it’s been a while, and I’m using my bus commute to be productive via my iPhone and foldable Bluetooth keyboard. So… hi y’all. Good to be back!)

Well, I recently read something that brought my literacy to a grinding halt. It was from a longer post by ‘The Agile Marketer’: Continue reading

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.

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).