Monday, January 7, 2013

Living With an Agilist

(Editor's note: The following is a guest post by Jen Rogalsky)

A couple of years ago Steve came home from work and announced, “Podcasts have changed my life.” My natural response was: “What? Podcasts? Not me, not our children, but podcasts?” He persisted with his original assertion. “Yes, podcasts. They’ve changed my life.”

This was my first introduction to the fact that Steve, through podcasts, had begun to learn about something called agile, and his declaration of devotion seemed to leave me with a clear choice: learn a little about this new interest or be left behind by this obviously life changing discovery. We were not immediately friends, agile and I, and yet along with the post-it notes and sharpies that have overtaken my house, some agile practices and principles have slowly become part of my life. I don’t pretend to be an expert in their application in a business context, but as I stumble through trying to explain to someone who asks me “What does your husband do?” I often come out with some kind of statement explaining that agile is applicable in some way to almost everything and everyone. Quite a lofty statement, and obviously somewhat hyperbolic, yet my personal adoption of some agile ideas is a testament to a sliver of truth.
So here are just a couple of examples of how agile practices have seeped through the cracks.

I like to picture myself as quite a broad thinker, capable of pondering and producing on multiple platforms simultaneously, unhindered by the shackles of linear constraints. Okay, so, that may look somewhat unsystematic to the outside viewer. And, okay, that may occasionally result in many simultaneously started, yet unfinished (albeit very creative and useful) projects. As I’ve learned more about agile, however, I’ve become more convinced, although reluctantly, about the value of shorter loops. Just as risky as it may be in a professional setting to invest money and energy in a long arc with feedback and product only at its end, shorter loops have proven their value for me, as well. I churn less often, (although sometimes churn on purpose just to be rebellious, now that I actually understand it for what it is), actively seek frequent feedback from those involved or implicated by my task rather than wait until the end to ‘test’, and force myself to be more systematic at finishing one task before beginning another, fueled by the motivating sense of reward that can provide.
My evolving relationship with kanban has been no less reluctant, and yet equally as relentless in slowly changing my practices. Steve introduced kanban into our household quietly, first making his own boards for house and renovation projects, then producing boards on the kitchen cupboards for when he was in charge of doing chores with the kids. I didn’t object as long as I wasn’t required to participate. “Let’s just do it already, instead of sitting around writing stuff out first!” was my usual response when invited to join the process. Steve’s gentle suggestion that he wasn’t born with the ability to help accomplish our common goals by subconsciously divining the detailed task list in my head wasn’t enough to convince me of kanban’s value. Once again, however, like the persistent drip of water on rock, my resistance has been futile. It began with observing the relative lack of nagging involved when he did chores with the kids. What a wonder to behold when they would eagerly race back to the board to move their sticky from “WIP” to “done.” Or to overhear them debating their preferences in referring to the middle column as “Work in Progress” vs “Doing.” Or to watch their ownership of the whole task process increase as they were given the opportunity to participate in the creation of the list and then freed to choose their own route through to getting all the stickies transferred over to “done.” And now, after a long, slippery slope, most of our Saturday mornings begin with the creation of a family kanban board on the mirror in the front hallway. We are careful to also include the fun and relaxing activities in the “ready” column, and we all share in the sense of satisfaction when, come Monday morning, the board is balanced quite differently toward “done.” kanban’s conquest to take over our house is almost complete, since I recently found a spare bulletin board that seems to be calling to me to be made into a personal kanban board. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Finally, Steve’s passion for all things agile has found its way to the very core of our most significant common project, by influencing the ways in which we parent our three girls. I often find myself thinking, “But isn’t this just common sense? Perhaps we are making these decisions because we’re so incredibly intuitive and such remarkable parents…” and yet I know that our thinking has been shaped by what we have learned about an agile approach to treating people in the workplace and applying these ideas to the little people we live with. A couple of deliberate parenting strategies have emerged. We deliberately try to assume our kids’ competence rather than treat them as inherently incompetent and in need of our micro-managing. We try to make expectations clear up front, but then encourage them to find their own route toward completion within the established boundaries. We’ve learned that feedback is most easily heard and adopted when offered immediately and within a conversation in which the kids are participants. And perhaps most significantly, we are trying to do whatever we can to help them develop what Linda Rising calls an “Agile mindset” rather than a “Fixed mindset.” I almost thought I heard angels singing when my daughter recently told me that she wished her friend would realize that “Life isn’t supposed to be easy! Challenges don’t mean you’re supposed to sit down and complain, just work harder and figure out how to get past them.”
All right, then, if agile ideas can eventually help my kid say something like that, even once, then I guess podcasts have changed my life too.