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Scrum for One

Scrum for One

Scrum for One

    That’s a funny word, isn’t it? “Scrum.” Scrum is a project management strategy for software development teams. The name comes from rugby (I guess) where it refers to the start of a new play. In the programming world, it’s a technique of coordinating a team’s work without a clear plan, working towards attainable short-term goals, and then repeating the process towards another set of goals – which I suppose is kind of like playing towards a goal in rugby. Except, you know – fewer broken bones. Hopefully.

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    I’m not part of a software development team. I’m not even a programmer. But when I came across an article on Scrum recently, it struck me that, while intended for big, collaborative projects, there were a lot of elements of Scrum that could be adapted pretty well to individual productivity. Although Scrum can be implemented at any stage of a project, it really excels as a way of dealing with projects that have stalled out for some reason – projects that have gotten stuck for lack of resources, lack of direction, even lack of teamwork – and that’s something that happens to all of us at one time or another. Maybe, just maybe, the principles that get teams of programmers back on track can apply to the projects every one of us has gotten stuck on.

    Scrum 101

    Although there are whole textbooks devoted to managing teams and their projects using Scrum, the basic principles are very simple:

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    • Do what you can with what you have. Projects stall because some resource – whether it’s material, knowledge, or manpower – is missing. Usually, though, there are plenty of things that can be done even without those resources – other parts of the system to build, creative workarounds, standards to devise, and so on. During the planning of each stage, and in daily “check-in” meetings along the way, these shortfalls are taken into account and work designed around them so that a lack of resources doesn’t have to create a lack of progress.
    • Constant feedback. As I just mentioned, Scrum encourages daily contact between its team-members, so that a) nobody stalls and holds up the whole project, and b) the collective knowledge of the whole team can be brought to bear on new problems in creative ways. Meetings are short, as short as 15 minutes, and center around three questions:
      1. What have you accomplished so far?
      2. What will you accomplish today?
      3. What’s preventing you from making progress right now?

      These simple questions are meant to identify any “logjams” and break them up before they hold up the entire project.

    • Work towards clearly-defined short-term goals. Scrum projects are, generally-speaking, point-releases of the software under development – that is, they are significant but relatively simple evolutionary improvements of the state of the project at the beginning of the project. For example, a set of new functions could be implemented, an interface designed, a database structure mapped out, and so on. “Write browser” is too big of a project, it’s realization too far off, to make for a meaningful Scrum project; “correct bug in line 1178” too small. Ideally, as each project is completed, the software under development should be in a usable state – Scrum was developed to deal with the contingencies of the software world, where projects often need to be rushed into market to combat a competing project, or just to bring in an income.
    • Sprint. The basic working unit of Scrum is the Sprint – a focused dash towards the completion of the immediate project goals. At the beginning of the Sprint, the team determines exactly what resources are available to them, what they intend to achieve given those resources, and how long they’ll work on it. Then, they work on those objectives, and those objectives only. The Sprint is sacrosanct – its members work on the project they’ve put together and nothing else until the Sprint is completed. It might be a week, it might be 30 days, or anywhere in between – whatever time they’ve agreed on is dedicated solely to the Sprint. When it’s done, team members might rotate out of or into the team, or be assigned to other projects, but until then – they Sprint.

    Scrumming Solo

    Seems to me that, with a little modification, those are pretty good principles for anyone with some big projects on their plate – especially if you, like me, have a tendency to get side-railed. Of course, most of our projects aren’t collaborative, and they’re rarely as compartmentalized as computer programs, either. The idea of developing a project by evolutionary steps, with each step creating a potentially usable end-product, simply doesn’t apply to the kind of long-term projects most of us have as individuals – things like writing a book, learning a foreign language, or earning a promotion.

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    But the idea of Scrum is, I think, very applicable to our personal lives. The whole point is, through a process of constant self-awareness, to identify what’s holding us back, how we can work around it, and where the next few days or weeks should take us. Consider, then, “Scrum for One”:

    • Do what you can with what you have. There are bound to be hang-ups in any project worth doing, and it’s all too easy to look at a project and despair because you don’t have whatever you need to finish it. Well, you may not have what you need to finish, but chances are you have what you need to start, to do at least some of the steps needed to get yourself somewhere close to the finish line. And you can take heart from this peculiarity of Scrum: often, when working under less than ideal circumstances without all the necessities to finish a project, Scrum teams find that either a new solution emerges that’s much more within their grasp or, just as often, that the missing element isn’t really needed in the first place. At the worst, you’ll give yourself the time you need to come up with the missing piece – and meanwhile you’ll be moving inexorably closer to your goal.
    • Constant self-reflection. If you’re a fan of Allen, Covey, or Drucker, you’ve probably already accepted the importance of a weekly review. Scrum for One suggests that more frequent reflection might be helpful – nothing at the scale of a full weekly review, but a few moments of honesty each morning to define the work in front of you and any problems that might be standing in the way. Brainstorm a few minutes to see if you can solve the issue, and if not, put it in your to-do list for later action. A lot of time, just asking “What’s standing in my way?”is enough to trigger a solution – more often than not, the problem lies more in ourselves than in our situation.
    • Work towards clearly-defined, short-term goals. Give yourself a time limit and set a reasonable goal – reasonable, but meaningful – to reach by the end of that period. Projects that stretch out in front of you for months or years are discouraging (which is why so few people write books) while projects that are too small often aren’t very satisfying to complete.
    • Sprint. Sprinting the way Scrum teams do it won’t really work for individuals – you probably have a lot of different roles to play on a day-to-day basis, which means focusing on a single project to the exclusion of everything else is going to be difficult, if its even possible. What you can do, though, is block out a number of hours every day and use them to focus strictly on one project – no distractions, no knocking off early, no nothing until you reach your goal.

    Obviously this isn’t anything like a complete productivity system, but it’s interesting nonetheless. Scrum is a very effective way of managing projects, and is used by software giants like Microsoft as well as tiny start-ups and everything in between. If nothing else, next time you’re stuck, ask yourself the simple question, “What’s standing in my way right now?” and see if that doesn’t lead to “OK, what am I going to do about it?”

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    Last Updated on July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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