Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Year of Being Agile -- To Light the Way

This is part of a series of posts on being more agile in 2017. For the full list of related posts, see the Index.

The trouble with defining an agile end game is that it can be hard to keep it in mind over the months. It's hard enough to keep very concrete goals in front of you over time, let alone a squishy agile goal. Here's how to get around that.

First, you immediately create a few backlog items that are concrete. After all, just because you don't know exactly where you're headed doesn't mean you won't have a first step in mind. So think of of a couple of ideas that you can do RIGHT NOW. This is your first step and the sooner you take it the better.

For example, if your agile goal is financial optionality, you probably have a couple of ideas of things to try right off (spend less, alternate income streams, etc.). Your immediate tasks can be as simple as checking out the library for new books and movies (instead of buying them) or shopping with a list and sticking to it. Really basic stuff that gets you moving. Keep your end game in mind when you create the tasks and review them (more process stuff soon) and you won't have to do it while you're doing them.

Second, you should articulate some guiding principles. This is something I've been experimenting with as part of my Project Ivy. If you can turn your goal into one or more principles, it becomes easier to keep it in mind and stick with it. For example:

"I always try to keep my options open."
"People regret more the things they didn't do."
"Beware long-term commitments."
"Try it and see if you like it."
"Chance favors the prepared."

These are more general agile principles, but you can get more specific to your goals:

"Cash = options."
"Health is the smartest investment."
"I do what I want."
"I'm as strong as my network."

I know these sound like affirmations, and they can be used that way (I'm good enough, I'm smart enough...). But the point here is to use them more practically in your agile sprint planning to define your next steps. Like a light you carry... it may not illuminate the entire path, but it will help you with your next steps so you can see where you are headed.

When there's no map, you aren't typically going to find a big glowing sign over your destination. You have to carry your light with you.

 ...we have but one punishment for 
setting alight the grail-shaped beacon...

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Friday, January 20, 2017

Sustain-ability: Neutral Territory

Could not have picked a better week to leave the US in favor of Switzerland. I haven't seen any TV or news since leaving home and am better for it. And during the most emotional, the most fraught day in recent US history, I will be flying (staying coherent is easy when the drinks are free).

Almost impossible to get a bad picture
I want to be very careful here not to engage in bragblogging (is that a thing? It should be a thing -- lifestyle bloggers, I'm looking at you). I'm aware that I'm extremely fortunate to be able to travel and doubly blessed that someone else is paying for it. It's the culmination of a lot of years of both mundane and magic work that finds me here (currently Old Town Zurich, but for the past week a 100-year-old hotel in the alps).

Everything here is high end IKEA, but it was all Old Europe in the mountains -- snow and horse carriage rides and cheese. My room barely had Internet and, in addition to a brisk walk in -18F temperatures (windchill -22) I spent a silent afternoon actually reading a novel in the hotel library. Also, there was work (which is completely fine by me -- this is what gets me through difficult days in the office) and spa.

So in the way that working magic makes things come together naturally, this week has given me a great clarity of mind and heart, which I will certainly need as I come back to:

  • A country positively heaving with stress, pain, discord, and anger
  • A whole shitload of work (the kind that happens in a cube, not on a mountain)
  • And an ambitious plan to start the next phase of my magical journey

Pro tip: If you feel blah or stuck or you don't know what to enchant for... enchant for travel. 

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Friday, January 6, 2017

The Year of Being Agile -- Agile Method and Magic

For those who aren't familiar, the agile process is a very simple and streamlined method for having a regular cycle of planning and review and supporting rapid iteration, fast failures, quick recoveries, and course corrections. It was created for software development, but works well for all kinds of other projects where you may not know everything in advance (no map).

The core unit of time is the sprint. Typically, this is from 2 - 6 weeks. For a magician, what could be better than a monthly timetable (either solar or lunar)? In between the sprints, there's a single process that involves:

  1. Reviewing what you accomplished (and what you didn't)
  2. Retrospecting how things went and adjusting course as necessary
  3. Identifying new tasks to do with your end game in mind (this is called the backlog)
  4. Planning the next sprint by forecasting and choosing the tasks you want to do
The only other required activity is a quick daily check-in against your planned activities (it's called a stand-up because you shorten the meeting by stealing the chairs). And that's it. For a team of one -- which you may likely be for your magical working -- this daily check in can literally take just a minute or two (and you can probably sit if you want). What did I do yesterday? what will I do today? is there anything blocking me?

I like the zen quality of this particular piece of corporate clipart

So that's the agile process. But being agile is a lot more than just following some process.

Your goal should be agile and the steps you identify to reach that goal should also be. That means, small, flexible, low-commitment, easy to review against the end game. And your magic should also be agile. Sigils and kitchen witchery and ongoing spirit connection are preferred over elaborate long-range enchantments because you can start to see results (or the lack of results) quickly. 

Think of planning in terms of the month. So you do the appropriate divination, check in with whatever forecasters you follow (magical/astrological/mundane), and so forth... but you focus only on the coming month. And your tasks should fit into a month as well. If they are bigger than that you have to break them down.

Tasks also have to be concrete and actionable. You have to be able to judge, at the end of the month, whether you did the task and whether the task got you closer to your goal. So if the goal is "improve my health" the task isn't "eat better" it's:
  • Identify healthy breakfast smoothie recipes and pick three
  • Write recipes on cards and make a grocery list
  • Buy ingredients for two weeks of healthy smoothies from your list
  • Set alarm for 15 minutes earlier in the morning
  • Set reminder for before bedtime to pre-prep ingredients
  • Make a healthy smoothie and drink it every morning for two weeks
Even the last item alone (which most people think of as a good task) is way too broad. You need small steps that you can actually do and check off. It sounds anal, but it's NOT. It's smart. Because there's always way more to each baby step than you think. If you expect to wake up on Monday morning and somehow manage to create a smoothie, without ingredients or recipes and before you've had coffee? Yeah, good luck.

Small steps are good for another reason. If at the end of your sprint you discover that healthy breakfast smoothies actually make you feel bloated and sluggish, well, you haven't spend a fortune on a new weight loss plan or made a major commitment. You're agile! So just create a new set of tiny tasks (Identify healthy lunch salad recipes...) for the next month and off you go.

Sometimes small tasks can be really impactful. You really want to eat healthier? Try the following small tasks:
  • Store your dinner plates in the garage (eat off your salad plates instead).
  • Store all junk food in the trash (cleaning the newly empty pantry shelves is a bonus).
  • Eat before you go to the grocery store (this one "weird trick" will save both your health and your wallet).

And while you can do tasks for several different items, swap goals depending on what makes sense, or add new items to your list each month, you shouldn't signup for more than you can do (you would think this would be obvious, but we all do it).

So the cycles are daily (daily check in, daily offering, daily meditation) or monthly (divination, planning, etc.). And over time it starts to make a natural rhythm. It works. It works for software teams to get product done right and it world for getting your own shit done.

Because lets be honest, coming up with stuff to do isn't the hard part. Doing the stuff is the hard part. Changing habits, putting more tasks into your day, realigning your priorities. I'm never that impressed with large exciting goals. No, what impresses me is making changes in your life that are helpful and that stick.

To be clear, you can have much longer and more detailed / elaborate / defined projects. I have, both professionally and personally. But it's just not a good time to kick off that kind of project right now.

Next up we'll be talking about LIVING agile and digging deeper into my Agile Magic Manifesto.

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Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Year of Being Agile -- End Game

Happy New Year. This was a challenging one for me, feeling ill and somewhat emotional. But we're warm and safe and fed and that's going to have to be good enough for right now... in fact, it IS good enough. My goal for today is hot tea and buffalo chili... and a little looking ahead.

Yes, we are starting the beginning by thinking about the end. But this isn't the typical resolution post (though if you are considering resolutions, go check out this post from last year). This is about the types of goals that will allow you to be as agile as possible.

One of the misunderstandings that people have about Agile Project Management is that there are no goals. That you just try stuff out and see what your audience likes and the product owner (that's Agile-speak for project manager) can change his or her mind at the end of each sprint (a defined duration of team work, usually between 2 and 6 weeks). Well, it's true that agile makes it easy to change direction, but that doesn't mean there isn't a goal.

Being agile doesn't mean chasing the latest trends or flip-flopping on what you want to accomplish. Being agile means you have an end game, but you also proceed in a way that maximizes your options and allows you to take advantage of feedback as well as happy accidents. It allows you to rapidly experiment in areas of high unknowns and recover quickly from failures or mistakes. And it keep you from over-committing to something that isn't working.

"You first." "No, you." "Please, be my guest."

In fact, without a well-articulated goal, the agile methodology risks drowning in it's own flexibility. I've seen this happen with product owners who lack vision (or who are working for executives who lack vision, a much more common scenario). If you are going to get through this coming year, you're going to need to do better. In the last post I talked about the difference between being an explorer and a navigator. There's no map where we're headed and some of the terrain is treacherous. Exploration can be but, but without an end game, you risk getting very, very lost.

The navigator lays out a path in a known space. The goal is to get to a known location (Grandmother's House) and the sub-goals are the directions that tell you how to get there (over the river, through the woods). If you make a wrong turn, you may have to reroute, but you are still on the same known map (the horse knows the way). The explorer, on the other hand, moves forward into an unknown space. The goal is to get to non-specific, but generally defined location (headwaters of the Nile, those hills over there, West). Sub-goals aren't defined in advance, but evolve based on the trip (follow the river upstream, keep the sun to your left, sight against that tall tree and when you get there sight again).

Should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque...

Agile goals exist, they're just explorers' goals rather than navigators' goals. Here are some common types of agile goals:
  • Finding the place you've never been or the thing you've never had. Troy, Shangri La, Cibola, financial stability, the Holy Grail, peace of mind, happily married. You don't know where this is, but you've heard of it, maybe know people who've seen it or even been there. You don't know how to find it and you're not sure you could recognize it if you did. The business version of this is something like "successful creation of Angry Birds successor" or "profitable launch of social media platform." Detail are hazy and will certainly change along the way.

    Despite the unknowns, these are the most well-defined agile goals. The territory gets even murkier from here...
  • Leaving where you're at. In the past, I've talked about a book called I Don't Know What I Want, but I Know It's Not This (an OK book with a great title) and if that resonates, then this is the goal for you. Sometimes you don't know where you want to go at all, but you know you want to go somewhere new, different, better. This is the same impulse that took Colonists to the New World and Settlers to the West and the earliest humans all around the earth. The corporate version would be "turn around a failing business unit" or "pivot away from a dying industry." If you are stuck in a terrible -- or maybe just tedious -- marriage / town / job / school / friendship (or a combination!) you know what you don't want, but you may not yet really know what you do want. It's leaving the flooding valley for the distant mountains -- you can see them in the mist, but the details won't become clear for some time.

    You have a starting direction and a first step (away from here), so that's something. Because there's even more uncharted territory ahead...
  • Learning something important. Sometimes you just want to explore to figure something out. You want to learn about the world and about yourself (and you really can't do one without the other). You want to find buried treasure, seek the hidden keys, understand more. Even businesses create these kinds of goals, such as "explore a new market" or "leverage expertise in blah blah." You want to do it for a reason (to assuage your curiosity, scratch an itch, know yourself better, and possibly to help you set one of the other types of goals above) but you aren't exactly sure what the result should be.  If your world isn't so much bad as too small these are the goals for you. And you don't have to justify your reasons to me or anyone. "You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go..."
While taking a drive our family has often joked that you can't get lost unless you have somewhere to be. As long is you don't, you're just exploring. But eventually, we all have somewhere we either need or want to be. So as you think about starting the year, take the explorer's view. Keep your goal in sight, but keep your plans flexible. 

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