Lean Thinking

21 March 2017

Everyday agility

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I was having a discussion the other day about the difference between "doing" agile and "being" Agile. My standard question when asked this is - "how agile is your life outside of work?" Usually people look at me like I have grown a second head at this point, visions running through their head of family sprint planning events ("No dad, I can't accept the washing up card, I already have the homework card and that is much higher priority. You said so yourself.") and having to get out of bed late at night to move the "special cuddling" card from backlog to in progress. That's not what I mean. I don't expect people to live their life according to 2 weeks sprints. That would be "doing" agile at home. Which would be a bad idea.

What I mean is - when you have a problem to solve outside of work, do you naturally use agile principles to do it? This also tends to produce confused looks so I usually explain by running people through the way I write this blog (yes, this is going to be a blog post about writing blog posts. It will get a bit meta). When I first started this blog a good few years ago now, it was a bit...erratic. Essentially I never found the time to do the writing so posts just didn't happen. So I was faced with a problem - how do I make sure that work gets delivered? My answer to that was to establish a cadence.

This blog publishes on a strict two week cadence. I found that by setting myself the expectation of producing a post every two weeks it forced me to set aside the time to write and get the job done. Before establishing the cadence, I would tend to put off writing because I had other things to do that were "more important" (actually, more enjoyable) then realise that I hadn't published anything for a few months then do a big burst of writing then another pause and so on.

The cadence did two things for me - it gave me a deadline to work towards which is very motivating, but it also helped break the problem down into manageable chunks. I no longer had to think about writing a whole bunch of articles, just one. One article in a two week period is a very manageable amount. That's why I set the two week cadence. It isn't because it is a standard sprint length, it's because it is the best balance I could find between giving myself a realistic chance of meeting my goal and giving my readers enough new content to keep them reading (that trade off is the the reason two weeks is the standard sprint length in most organisations...but don't assume 2 weeks is the best compromise everywhere).

So a cadence helped a lot but there were still problems. Sometimes I would find myself writing five or six articles at once, because I had had a bunch of good ideas and wanted to get them all started. The result, of course, was that at the end of the two weeks with the deadline fast approaching I had five or six articles half finished and nothing ready to publish. Sound familiar? The solution? Establish a Kanban board for my writing and limit my WIP.

Now new ideas go into the backlog, with enough notes so that I don't look at a card months later and wonder what exactly I meant when I jotted down "Simple structures". The cards get prioritised based on, well, whatever I feel like writing about mostly, though I will pull a topic forward if it is particularly relevant at the moment or flows well from a previous article. I strictly limit my WIP to two articles. I also established a review process before publication because of my appalling typing skills.

That really made the articles start to flow. I haven't missed a single post I since I established the Kanban. My problem now was that my articles were too inconsistent. Some were really short, others went on and on. So I decided to establish some size rules, essentially a timebox but for number of words rather than number of hours. A sizebox if you will.  My soft limit for size is 1000 words but I allow myself 100 words leeway in case I am being particularly profound, so the absolute hard limit is 1100. I do try to keep most of my articles to around the thousand word mark though. On the other side of the scale my lower hard limit is 800 (but honestly, I very seldom find myself struggling for extra words to hit that limit, most of my issues are at the other end of the scale).

The technique of size boxing is really useful in a bunch of places and really should be used more. Particularly when developing PowerPoint presentations. Setting a limit on the number of slides would prevent so many "Death by PowerPoint" situations.

It's not just this blog either. I have already described here the Kanban system I use to do work around the house. I had problems with delivery, working on too much, starting but not finishing. WIP limiting through Kanban was the technique I used to fix them.

When my son came to me saying that he was having trouble getting his homework done because he kept getting distracted, did we sit down and come up with an elaborate, up-front homework schedule? No, I taught him cadence (through the Pomodoro technique) and WIP limiting through a Kanban.

When faced with a problem at home, my instinctive position now is to turn to agile techniques to solve them. Sadly though, no agile technique yet invented can make a 14 year old girl clean up her bedroom. Agile is good, but it can't work miracles.

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