One Day I Will Rule the World

World Domination, Babies and Middle Eastern Dance

January 14, 2012

Household Scrum: Getting Shit Done

A new weekend is upon us; time to begin the next cycle of Getting Shit Done.

Remember last spring when I bought some vintage windows and said that I was going to be done that project so fast that I’d just tell you what I was going to do with them when I was done? Well, it was actually pretty fast, but then I never came back and said what I’d done with them. So, now you know: what I did was paint the back of the glass so I could hang them up and use them as white-boards.

They are now hanging in my back room, with one of them serving as a plain old white-board for lists, etc and one serving as a scrum board to help me organize my life.

A scrum board is a tool for managing agile software development. We use them at work, and since bringing the idea home for managing the household, I’ve had a number of people ask me how I make it translate to household management, so I thought I’d just post it here for reference.

There would be a lot to cover if I were going to try explaining scrum fully, because it’s an in-depth software development methodology with decades of books written about it. There are experts and consultants to help you learn and implement it and certifications and affiliations you can acquire to qualify yourself in it. But those things are about managing tasks with many stakeholders (developers, the developers’ employer, the client and the end-user) in development situations where a feature’s needs are often poorly understood at the outset of the project. For managing your household, you can strip scrum down quite a bit.

The basics of scrum that you should adhere to are:

  1. You work in regular segments of time (like a week or two weeks), called sprints.
  2. Tasks are organized to be as granular and discrete as possible. You estimate each task’s difficulty in abstract “points” (not time or anything measurable), then you put them in priority order based on which task provides the most value. Using the points estimates for context in how complex tasks are you then decide how much of the list you can get done in your next sprint.
  3. You wrap up each sprint with an honest look back on the last sprint in order to strategize how to do better in the next sprint.

The whole point behind it is the creation of that feedback loop. As long as you are honest with the feedback, each iteration through that loop should allow you to perform better.

Vintage Window WhiteboardThe main benefits are:

– because you prioritize your tasks based on what delivers the most value it becomes more difficult to procrastinate or avoid tasks. So if fixing the toilet is at the top of the priority list but you find yourself saying “well I can’t do that until I’ve cleaned out the fridge”, you have to honestly ask yourself, “why didn’t I write a card for cleaning the fridge then? Or if I did, why isn’t it higher on the list than fixing the toilet”.

– because your tasks are granular and prioritized, you don’t get bogged down in hinging one task on another task which hinges on another task. For example, we’re totally the kind of people who say things like, “the kids’ rooms need cold-air returns in them because the air flow isn’t enough to keep them warm. But if we’re going to run some new ducting up there and we’re ripping apart the walls anyway, then we should run it next to this wall that we wanted to change the layout of, which means we should probably plan the built-in bookshelves we wanted in that wall”. But when you look at the priorities, “cold air returns” provides way more value than “move this wall”, so really, given the effort involved in the wall moving against the value it will provide, you have to admit that you probably won’t get to wall-moving in the next couple of years and cold air returns are way higher priority than that. Turns out they’re high enough priority that they should be undertaken even if you can’t save effort by combining two projects.

– if you’re a team (or a couple), it encourages you to be cross-functional – especially if the tasks are unequally weighted towards one person’s strengths. Because if all the things at the top of the list are not your strength but the person or people who are strong in them are already doing tasks, then you’re just going to have to pick one up and figure it out. Again, it just comes down to priorities. You could skip your way down to something that you like doing better, but it wouldn’t be honest or fair and the board with the list of cards in priority order makes that obvious.

Primarily we’ve found it helps a lot with prioritizing. We have such a list of tasks (SUCH a list) that it had become hard for us to track. High priority things would get forgotten and seasonal tasks wouldn’t get done before the end of the season and whenever we had a moment to work on things, we couldn’t remember what our next priority was and we would totally just fritter time away non-valuable tasks. This process lets us easily break things down into sprint-sized phases so that we only have to focus on a few things at a time, it makes it easy to move from one task to the next without having to stop and debate what the next task should be, it lets us plan for big projects without spreading ourselves too thin and it keeps us from wasting time on make-work projects that don’t provide much benefit.

If you decide to try scrum, don’t make the mistake of pushing yourself super-hard and needlessly upping your estimates of what you can get done. Most of us feel like the point of measuring is to keep you in high-performance mode – but the point of scrum is to aim for a sustainable and predictable working pace. We know that when we’re really pushing ourselves, we can do almost twice as many points in a week, but we can’t sustain that pace. If we aim for what we can sustain, then it’s easy to plan our upcoming work to make sure that time-sensitive tasks end up in the right sprints.

If you’re interested in how big a project we’ve managed to make it through using this system – we pretty much got through the whole sewer excavation, replacement and stair building using scrum. Ian did most of that work, so his would really be the final word on whether it was helpful, but I found that it kept us on track whenever we started to overthink a task by working in too many factors – we’d come back to what was on the card and say to ourselves, “it just says build the stairs. Let’s not overthink what the wall next to the stairs is going to look like or how it’s going to fit together. Those questions can be handled when we pick up that card in the future.” It also helped us estimate how long the whole project was going to take. We started it when Christmas was only eight weeks away – and if we could only work on it for our weekends, it was going to be pretty hard to predict how liveable our house would be for Christmas. But, knowing that we do about 3 to 4 points worth of effort on weekends, and having already put points values on each individual tasks we were able to keep tabs on what was likely to be done when.

Aside: while it was completely a fortuitous accident that the old catch on the window perfectly holds one of my whiteboard markers, it should be easy enough to reproduce. The catch seems like the standard size that I’m used to seeing on all the old windows (in my city anyway). And the marker is a Quartet – the kind where the lid is fluted in a slightly Calla Lily shape – which is integral to the way it fits in the catch.

In my next post, I’ll go into more detail on the actual steps that we follow in our Household Scrum process.


« Previous post

Leave a Reply