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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 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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