“Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.”
Working with agile teams since 2008 made me witness many stories. I learned and internalized the scrum routines by practicing them daily for more than 9 years now. I challenged them and asked so many questions about until I found the answers. And then I reached the point where I created my own routines which support me doing what I love to do. But I didn’t stop there.
I condensed in this post 9 agile lessons which you can easily apply in your daily work. They should help you to easily overcome the challenges most of us have in this fast pace changing world.
Here are the 9 lessons!
1. Plan the Day
“He who every morning plans the transactions of the day and follows out that plan carries a thread that will guide him through the labyrinth of the most busy life. The orderly arrangement of his time is a like a ray of life which darts itself through all his occupations. But where no plan is laid, where the disposal of time is surrendered merely to the chance of incident, chaos will soon reign.”
Agile teams plan not only their sprint or iteration, they plan their day as well. The daily stand-up is a short meeting where the team synchronizes and plans the day.
Use a daily planner to write down your 3 most important tasks. You can download my template for free here.
Write down these 3 tasks before you start with anything else, like reading emails, social media, etc. This helps you keep the focus for the day.
Imagine the day like a bucket. We can fill this bucket with a lot of sand grains (that represent small and unimportant tasks) and at some point the bucket will be full and your day is over. There is no more space left for the bigger rocks in it, for your important tasks.
But you can proceed also in a different way. You start with the bigger rocks and try to fill the bucket. And there is still plenty of space for the many sand grains which can easily be placed around.
So start the day with the most important task you have. This will make the difference.
- Use the daily planner which you can download here
- Start the day with the most important activity
2. Use a Pull Principle
“If you don’t believe there’s some organizing principle, or somebody up in the sky pulling the strings, then it can be very stressful. And nature itself is very arbitrary – it’s not malevolent or benevolent; it doesn’t even know we’re here.”
One of the most important principles in any agile methodology is to use a pull principle.
Pull means that you start to work on a new task as soon as you have free capacity. You decide which will be the next task you are going to work on. You pull the work.
On the other hand, the push principle means that new tasks or activities are assigned to you by somebody else, your boss for example. Working based on a push principle leads automatically to multitasking which will not only make you less productive but will create a lot of stress on you.
One huge advantage of a pull principle, especially if you work in a team, is that resource or capacity planning becomes meaningless. The load of each team member regulates automatically.
- Avoid push by simply refusing new tasks which somebody else delegates or assigns to you
- Visualize your work and create transparency. Your team and your colleagues will see what you are working on.
3. Visualize your Work
“The harder you work… and visualize something, the luckier you get.”
Agile Teams always use a visualization tool for their work or activities they perform. They call it task board. In Kanban, it can be also called Kanban board but at the end of the day its main purpose is to show all the tasks and activities the team is working on.
Here are just few reasons why you should visualize your work:
- you can better manage your projects
- plan your tasks and ensure that the important tasks are done at the right time
- improved teamwork and transparency
- avoid redundant activities and focus on the essential tasks
In this blog article I describe 9 reasons why you should use visualize your work.
- Use a personal Kanban Board which you can download here
- Visualization helps you to see the whole picture and allows to easily identify dependencies
4. Focus vs. Multitasking
“The effectiveness of work increases according to geometric progression if there are no interruptions.”
You might believe that multitasking is an efficient way of getting things done quickly. I wrote a blog about that and if you play the game I described there, you will quickly understand how bad multitasking is.
Our mind is very efficient at switching focus from one task to another. However, if we work like that we lose time in re-establishing the context of our new task. There are situations where the tasks we work on are pretty simple and the loss in time through context switching is totally acceptable (like cooking dinner while talking on the phone).
But as soon the complexity of these tasks starts to increase, it becomes very difficult to maintain focus and the efficiency to process each task simultaneously quickly diminishes. While this can be done to some extent, it comes at a cost of added time and poor quality.
Agile Teams limit their work in progress in several ways.
- In Scrum they use Sprints as fixed time intervals (1 – 4 weeks) which allows the team to focus on a very limited scope.
- The team works only on a few features at the same time, ideally 1 or 2.
- Each team member focuses on one task at a time.
- Kanban teams are using WIP (Work In Progress) limits which do not allow to start working on new tasks before the ones in progress are not yet completed.
“Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.”
Scrum teams are following an inspect and adapt cycle. This means that at the end of each sprint they show or review the result of the sprint. This is usually a set of new features or requirements which the team has implemented. We call this inspect.
The team also uses a retrospective to look back on what they have achieved, what they have learned and what they can improve or change in the next iteration. We call this adapt.
Use a simple retrospective at the end of your day and ask yourself the following questions:
- What worked really good for me today?
- Which are the moments or the events of the day I am really proud of?
- What can I do differently or better tomorrow?
- Take 10 minutes and reflect
- Write a journal
- Focus on the achievements at the end of the day
- Learn what you can do differently
- Use the reflection part of the daily planner which you can download here
6. Work in Small Batches
The batch size is the unit at which work-products move between stages in a certain process.
If you have to follow a specific process, a sequence of steps, then make sure that the amount of work (batch size) which you pass to the next step is not too big but also not very small.
Here is a practical aspect of small batches which you can easily understand.
Studies show that the average businessperson sends and receives ca. 120 emails a day — and that number is expected to grow to 140 emails per day in two years. Interrupting your work for each and every email is a huge mistake and the number one productivity killer today. But not everyone is aware of that.
We could for instance process our emails once in a week, in a big batch. Or we can react and process each and every email immediately in a micro batch, as soon it has arrived. But there are also other ways.
What is the solution for this productivity-killing email overload? The answer is: start processing your emails in small batches. By reading and responding to your emails only twice a day, you’ll allow yourself time to be productive while simultaneously ensuring you never miss an important note.
- Identify activities which can be grouped together and do them at a time
- Read and process your e-mails twice a day: 10:00 o’clock and 16:00 o’clock
7. Use Slack Time to Create something new
“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.”
Slack time is a kind of idle time. It looks to be idle time but agile teams are using it to improve and make things better.
In Scrum there is a retrospective which has the purpose to identify improvements in the team process. In Kanban, slack time occurs automatically as soon as the team uses a pull principle.
You can consider slack time as the time in which you learn something new, improve an existing process, work on a prototype etc. You do something out of your daily routines.
- Never plan your day to 100%, there are always unexpected things you have to deal with
- Do once every 6-8 weeks an innovation (FedEx) day with your team
- Include time for daydreaming
8. Ask for Help
“Do not be afraid to ask for help. Nobody gets through college on their own.”
During the daily stand-up, each team member answers three questions:
- what have I accomplished yesterday?
- what do I want to accomplish today?
- is there anything blocking me?
In my opinion there should be a forth question as well: does anyone need help?
Team members are encouraged to ask themselves for help. This is a wonderful act to ask for help and see so many of your colleagues who are willing to help you.
- Dare to ask for help. Show that you are vulnerable and need support at this moment. Carrying a task and solving it together can be a wonderful feeling!
9. Break the Routines
“Music companies and buyers are not too encouraging towards independent musicians. Everyone wants to play safe and go with established names, but unless one breaks this routine, no new talent will come and survive.”
Routines are good because they provide us an orientation and give us the required stability to perform our job really good.
Agile teams follow routines as well, in Scrum we call them sprint planning, daily stand-up, sprint review and retrospective. The team follows these routines sprint after sprint.
The huge advantage of the routines is that the team can achieve an incredible performance, it becomes really a high-performance team.
But on the other hand, innovation and creativity can emerge only if routines are broken, or transcended. Therefore, it is important to question and challenge the routines and break them from time to time so that something new can grow.
Working with Scrum or Kanban will automatically build in a certain amount of slack time. Use this slack time to challenge the existing routines, by allowing creativity and innovation to become your friends. Slack time is the golden gift which will help you put the seed of new ideas.
- Challenge existing processes and ask if there is also a different way to do a certain activity
- Play and experiment. You will learn from each failure
- Do a retrospective with your team every 2nd week and identify new experiments you want to try out
Even if you choose one lesson to try it out, you will get results.
However, you can easily combine them and you will have the compound effect because they will stack up.
Remember this one thing:
It is more important to be consistent, rather than the amount of actions you choose.
Small actions, small steps, big results.
Then inspect and adapt based on the progress and results you get.