Bringing Agile Home

August 26, 2020
Bringing Agile Home

Setting Goals & Uncovering Lost Family Time

My life often resembles a game of Whack-A-Mole. The moment I complete one task two more pop up. To avoid getting behind, I jump on new tasks almost immediately. Then at some point along the way my wife will innocently ask if I’ve scheduled my appointment with the Secretary of State. Realizing that an up-to-date driver’s license takes priority over a squeaky hinge, I put down my tools and book my online appointment.

Two hours and a dozen distractions later, the kids have been put to bed and I’m getting ready to hit the hay myself. While fetching a glass of water I stumble across my tools, right where I left them. I sigh to myself and decide that the squeaky hinge can wait. Then, as I lie in bed, it begins to happen…my mind begins racing through all the other tasks on my list:

1. Power-wash the siding

2. Fix the brakes

3. Remove the carpet stain

4. Organize the garage

5. …Wait, what was #5 again?

Overwhelmed, I think to myself, “Ugh, how am I ever going to get ahead?”

This is a peek into how I used to operate. After a day of skipping from one task to another, I would end the day drained. I also tended to push off higher priority tasks. A series of minor distractions is all it would take to derail planning for my wife’s 30th birthday party.

Thankfully, my wife is still 29. So there’s hope. But in the busyness of the day-to-day, I would lose sight of what my family actually needed. Some call this tyranny of the urgent. In moving from task to task, I could no longer see the big picture.

Then it finally dawned on me: with only so many hours in the day, I needed to be more intentional with my time.

The Agile Answer

Introduced over a decade ago, Agile continues to transform the world of business through significant improvements in efficiency and productivity. Its iterative cycle introduces quick feedback loops that ensure the most important tasks are addressed first, and in the right way.

I’ve been adhering to the Agile process ever since starting at MichiganLabs five years ago and seen the benefits. About a half year ago I began to wonder if the same process could be beneficial on the home front.

A New Process Begins

Taking ideas from Getting Things Done and the Agile Development Process, I implemented a process that would make our family more intentional about our time and what we wanted to accomplish.

We began by jotting down our list of to-dos. Things like: “Caulk tub,” “Organize the garage,” and “Get the piano tuned” all made the list along with “Plan trip to Minnesota” and “Date night.” We then placed the important ones toward the top of the list.

Agile defines this sort of list as the “backlog,” so that’s how I’ll refer to it here.

Next, we set a timeframe of two weeks to work on a handful of tasks from the backlog. Because they’re sorted from highest to lowest priority, we had no problem deciding what tasks to take on first. We then identified more tasks until we no longer had confidence we could complete them within the allotted two weeks.

In agile terms, this process is known as “sprint planning” and the two-week timeframe is referred to as a “sprint.”

Sprinting Forward

With a ceremonial high-five, we launched into our week. Throughout the sprint we routinely referenced our list of tasks and, slowly but surely, made our way through them. As new tasks came up (and believe me they will), we put them into the backlog for the next sprint.

After two weeks the sprint was over. This doesn’t mean we completed all of our tasks, but rather that our time was up. For us, sprints end every other Saturday evening (after the kids are in bed). We spend around a half-hour discussing how it went.

To shine a light on the successes, we go over our victories first. Next, we cover what didn’t go so well. This gives us a chance to make corrections for future sprints while offering a better sense of what we value most. This dedicated time of reflection really drives home the kinds of tasks that take priority.

In agile terms, this time of reflection is known as a “retrospective.”

After our retrospective, we start the process over again and dive back into sprint planning.

Initial Takeaways

After following this process for the past six months, I have a few thoughts on how to make the experience more enjoyable and hopefully beneficial.

First off, having a one- to two-hour meeting every two weeks for a retrospective and sprint planning can be a daunting task, especially if you treat it as that—a task. To remedy this, try to make it fun. Break out a bottle of wine or arrange a picnic. Whatever you decide, make it enjoyable. I can say from experience, my wife and I now look forward to these meetings.

Sprint Planning

Just because our sprints are two weeks doesn’t mean yours need to be. Choose a duration that works best for you. We arrived at two weeks because our weekly schedules tend to be inconsistent; the added week gives us wiggle room to check off tasks and flatten those inconsistencies.

To keep our backlog and sprint organized, we use a program called Trello. Here’s an example of what it might look like:

The first column (backlog) contains all of the tasks we want to accomplish at some point in our lives, sorted with the highest priority task at the top. The next few columns show the status. At the beginning of a sprint, we typically have every task we think we can complete in the sprint column. Throughout the process, those tasks will move from the sprint column to the “In Progress” column then finally into the “Done” column once completed. Basically, it’s a way to see our progress at a glance.

There are other programs beyond Trello out there, but I like the fact that it’s free. But do what works best for you! Sticky notes on the wall may be just fine.

When evaluating your backlog to determine which tasks to pull into your sprint, try not to overload yourself. Think about how much time you’ll have in the coming sprint to work on tasks and keep that number in mind as you pull tasks in. Once you feel that the tasks in your sprint will consume more time than you have to work on them, stop! Your sprint is full. The goal is to be realistic. No need to overload and end up with a bunch of incomplete tasks. As you practice the sprint planning process you’ll get a better sense of what you and your family are capable of accomplishing.

With that said, don’t beat yourself up if some tasks go unfinished. Instead, use this time to “reset” and decide if they’re still a priority. If so, determine how much work they will require and keep this in mind as you plan your next sprint. If certain tasks are no longer a priority, move them out of your sprint and into the backlog (or delete them altogether).

A Word Of Advice

A retrospective is a great way to complete a sprint. Use this time to celebrate your accomplishments and see what can be improved moving forward. Remember, this process involves family. Your job is to help each other grow in a loving and supportive way. Try not to take offense, but instead be reflective and look inward to find the truth in their feedback. Speaking of, be direct but also kind with your words. Not all feedback will be at the individual level but, when it is, keeping these things in mind will keep the process positive and productive.

Final Thoughts

Employing Agile at home has helped to orient our family to the things that matter most in our lives. Being intentional with our tasks has ended the sinking feeling that there’s no end to our work. It also gives us the freedom to know our limits and what we’re truly capable of accomplishing.

Finally, having allotted time to work on tasks removes the guilt of not initiating new ones. Why? Because we’ve already made the conscious decision that our current tasks take precedence over the ones still in the backlog.

In the end, the Agile process makes it crystal clear whether I should be fixing that squeaky hinge, or planning our next family vacation. Hopefully, you’ll find this useful and will consider bringing Agile to your family. For ours, it’s made a world of difference.

Task complete.

John DeLong
John DeLong
Development Practice Co-Lead

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