Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Year of Being Agile -- Active Management

Like any self-contained and self-referential system, agile has its own rather odd sounding terminology. For example, each team has a ScrumMaster and a Product Owner. The ScrumMaster is the person who keeps the team on track... not by telling them what to do, but by encouraging them to follow the process of agile. The ScrumMaster schedules the daily scrum meeting and keeps people on task. He or she touches base with the product owner to make sure the backlog is updated and prioritized for planning. And also runs the planning meeting, including making sure that team tasks (which are called stories -- again with the special names) are correctly framed and defined so the team understands what to do. The ScrumMaster tracks the team's velocity and uses prior information to help the team make better estimates for the current sprint. He or she is the team's main interface with the product owner.

The product owner, on the other hand, is the team's face to the customers. The product owner is responsible for going getting feedback from customers in order to get requirements, for writing stories that are needed for the backlog, and for keeping the backlog organized by adding new things and setting correct priorities.

I've been both a professional ScrumMaster (filling the role for up to five different teams) and a Product Owner for one or more teams (which is the role I play with my teams now). This is in addition to my more formal program management duties.

The point is that being a ScrumMaster or Product Owner is a real job that takes time and effort. And that's because agile projects require active management. You can't just decide what the team should do and then go off for three months and wait for them to do it. No, you have to be involved -- every day if you are the ScrumMaster and close to that for the Product Owner.

Now I've been making the argument that we are in a highly changeable world with unknown parameters and unknown success criteria -- a world where agile works really well. But that means you need to be an active manager. You need to keep your own personal and magical projects just as hands-on. You are the ScrumMaster, making sure the every day stuff keeps rolling forward. And you are the Product Owner, constantly generating requirements and re-prioritizing as things change.

Maybe you noticed that I've been a bit absent this past month? Well, it's because some personal projects of mine were in the midst of delivery and required very attentive and active management to make sure they came out OK. And it all started, as it often does, with a giant dose of magic. I'd been working a couple of vexing problems in my life -- the kind where there isn't any immediate mundane solution. So I magicked the fuck out of it.

It's a good story, with a happy ending. Solutions presented themselves to the problems -- and that's when the work began. See, these solutions weren't miracles. They were culminations of their own little projects, identified and worked through a bit of magic. Finding the solution was only the first step. So I've been extremely busy practicing active management. Babysitting these magical results through their working phases and to culmination (or in some cases close to culmination, the work isn't finished).

Add in all the things I'm already doing, including another amazing work trip (to France this time -- oh, the food!) and you can see that some items on my own life's backlog fell further down the priority list.

I'm glad to say that things are shaping up, but there's always more work to do. And that's the irony. The more magic you do, the better things go... but the more magic you do the more active management there is too. So I've been coming up with some ideas to help with this problem. For example:
  • Meta magic. I love doing magic for magic's sake. That is, spells for more effective spells, more accurate divination, or more spiritual help. Now I'm adding magic an easy time managing the magic I already have going. My spells manifest smoothly and without effort on my part -- that kind of thing.
  • System automation. When you automate a process it requires less active management (not none though, don't fall into that trap). So I've been working on ways of making some of my magic more automatic and automated. This includes process efficiency stuff (like streamlining ritual elements) as well as the crafting of semi-autonomous spirits to help with research and data collection.
  • Efficiency goals. These include enchantments for more energy and honing my sense of timing and personal priorities. I don't like to spell directly for more time. There are repercussions for messing with the flow of time with magic and while that kind of temporal magic can be useful, you don't end up with more time. No, better to enchant for better use of time or fewer things that waste time.
In any case my close management of a couple magical project is wrapping up (interesting that for one successful enchantment, success caused as much work as the enchantment itself). And while I'm trying to keep my pipeline full of new enchantments, I think that things will be a bit calmer in coming months. 

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Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Sustain-ability: Household Magic -- Running a Kitchen

Note: The Index page has been updated for the month

Hearth is such a nice word. Such a cozy and comforting term. And many of us long for a lovely open fireplace in our house so that we can do magic at the hearth. But before you get all maudlin in your urban apartment or condo, you have to remember that originally the hearth primarily for heating and cooking (as well as magic). In the modern home the closest thing to a hearth isn't your fireplace, it's your stove.

Our kitchen is the heart of our home and it's no coincidence that our house has the kitchen roughly in the middle: open to the dining room, partially open to the living room, and with a door to the patio where we grill and eat in the summer.

When the kitchen runs smoothly the house runs smoothly (regardless of what the bathrooms looks like or whether the laundry is, once again, out of control). Here's what a smooth running kitchen looks like:

A well-stocked pantry. This is the bank in the heart of the house. When you have supplies on hand, you know that whatever else happens you can feed your household. That's power. For us this includes spices, dry goods, canned goods, home-canned goods, and refrigerator/freezer items. During most times of the year, it would not be an exaggeration to say that we could feed ourselves for a month or more just out of our pantry (it wouldn't be the most fun menu plan, but it would be nutritionally complete). Our pantry includes frozen meat and broth, home-canned preserves and broth, dried and canned beans and canned seafood, fermented items, vinegars and oils, condiments, and grains and flours of many types.

Pantry skills include rotating goods and enchanting against insects and rot. It also includes the shopping and canning and other activities (tea making) that keep things stocked. I've spoken before about how putting food up is a form of deferred magic so you need to make time for it. This work is also incredibly grounding and real, which is something that's important for my well-being.

Fresh and local foods. This are the dividends on that bank account. Farmers market produce, fruits, greens, fresh herbs, local seafood, etc. The healthiest food is the freshest food, so having a routine for procuring this stuff is really important.

This means not only getting it, but using it. We waste a shocking 40% of all food and while a lot of that is on industry and shipping, some of it's on us. Right now, in my fridge, I have half a bunch of greens that are getting sad. That's not OK. The skills needed here include growing the things you can, shopping regularly (we get fresh items twice a week), planning meals that use the things you have, having a stable of recipes that use stuff up when it starts to go (stir fry, soup), and techniques for final rescue (the veggie broth bin in the freezer and our food drier are usually the last stops before compost). Acquiring fresh foods is your opportunity to make a magical connection to the land where you live.

In our house the key to eating produce is to wash, dry, prep, and correctly store all veggies as soon as they come into the house. My local farmer's market is Sunday and I can guarantee that if I don't bother processing the veggies when I get home, they will not all get eaten. But if we spend half an hour or so washing and spinning lettuce, turning a head of broccoli into florets, and scrubbing root veggies, we'll eat them throughout the busy week without a second thought. The trick is to process just enough so that you don't have to do much when you need them, but they still last (copping up veggies too far in advance makes them degrade faster). A large salad spinner is really helpful here. Oh, and the key to eating fruit is to have it right out on the table where everyone can see it.

Food rotation and organization. We clean out the fridge weekly. That means eating the leftovers (no better way to save time and money that the regular creation and consumption of leftovers). It also means that anything icky gets out of there. We think of the fridge as a magical cabinet that stops all rot, but that's not really the case. Produce over-ripening in your veggie bins or containers getting funky on your shelves can impact that quality and safety of other foods. The husband is a trained chef, so he's all about the food safety. There's a certain amount of wiping, but about once a month we'll clear each shelf and wipe them down with a hydrogen peroxide solution. If you add a drop of essential oil, it can be cleaning and cleansing at the same time.

The pantry gets cleaned out usually quarterly. That means everything pulled out, shelves wiped, items examined, etc. Regular cleanups and checks (checking home canned items regularly is really important and I do it monthly) keeps things from getting funky in the deep recesses of your cupboards. It's also great for planning uses for the things you bought on a lark like unusual grains or specialty items. The dry-goods pantry is the first line of defense against household pests and should be enchanted accordingly.

The big freezer gets defrosted annually. For long-term food storage you don't want a self-defrosting freezer (the temperature fluctuates too much). And you want to keep this freezer cold, much colder than the one on your fridge. However low you can get the temp, that's what you want. In the summer, when our favorite coconut ice cream is half off, I will literally buy 40 pints and put them in the big freezer. They don't go off because it's too cold in there (they are also inedibly hard until they thaw in the regular freezer for an hour (or on the counter for 10 minutes). We're approaching the time of the big cleanup now and have been working on eating as much of the remaining food out as possible. After the cleanup is when we usually arrange to bulk purchase meat (quarter beef, side of hog, or a dozen whole chickens).

The right amount of meal planning. We're not major meal planners. Since the husband is a chef and does nearly all the cooking, he has the ability to turn whatever's in the house into something awesome without a recipe and is best to just let him do his thing. That said, we do meal plan to the extent that we want to use up the fresh things we've bought and any meat we pull out to defrost. I typically do the weekend grocery run (local store and farmer's market) and will buy things that look good or are on-sale (optimally both). Then it's up to him to turn them into awesome things to eat all week.

We also like to plan connected meals. So a roast chicken on Sunday becomes mole on Tuesday and Chicken salad for sandwiches on Wednesday. That's just smart budgeting. We also pre-make "fast food" and our own freezer meals

When you put it all together like that, maybe it seems overwhelming. But it's really just a process that involves continuous small effort over time. It's the running of a kitchen in the original sense. Food comes in, people get fed, waste goes out. The better you run it, the healthier and happier everyone will be. This sense of home management has been completely lost, but as I said in my household post, there are powerful reasons to put aside the gender politics and Victorian-era ideals and re-embrace the idea of the running of a home. The kitchen is a perfect place to start.