Some of the brightest ideas never saw the light of day. Some of the best projects were never started.
I think everyone is carrying around a large selection of ideas, new ways to get stuff done and interesting projects. But I also think that everyone knows the pressures of the day-to-day business having more tasks and objectives than can be completed in the time available.
With this time constraint in mind we begin to prioritize tasks usually putting day-to-day business needs first while pushing the other seemingly less pressing matters aside. This can go on for months and even years keeping you busy but piling up a lot of unrealized potential.
It’s this unrealized potential that carries the long-term benefits, such as learning something new, creating something magnificent or treading the road less taken. And it’s these activities that keep you in the game and ensure your division, your team and ultimately you stay up-to-date and relevant.
So why are we not doing all of this if it is so important?
The Psychological Hurdle
The problem with new things such as projects is that they are always something unknown. And the unknown can be pretty scary. You are leaving the proverbial comfort-zone and risk spending your scarce time and resources on something that may not pay off.
And looking at a lot of the projects and learning activities we’re talking about a lot of time and resources. Looked at the CISSP or PMP certification? Tried running up a side-project recently? That’s months of work. „I don’t have the time for that!“ you might be thinking and you are right.
Wait – what?
If you take a look at the effort as a whole and all the unknowns attached to the project that’s a lot of commitment demanded from you. And it’s totally okay to be unwilling to sign up for the entire package. But you don’t have to. Here is where Agile can help you in your personal and professional development.
Agile and Scrum twist the notion of traditional project planning and commitment around by acknowledging that committing for a large amount of work over a long time period is risky – so you don’t do that.
Instead you create a short term goal. Something that is maybe 14 or 30 days away.
You only commit to something that you can achieve in that short amount of time – as little as that may be. And you only commit the resources you can muster for that short amount of time.
This may mean that you only commit to work on a single chapter of the CISSP/PMP certification guides or that you only do a small prototype for your project. You don’t write a book, you write a chapter or just a single page.
The goal is to get you started as quickly as possible.
Don’t stand at the foot of the mountain staring up – make the first few steps and then look back at what you have accomplished so far.
If you find out that you are going the wrong way or don’t like where you are going – stop and look at other choices. That way you are always in for just a few steps and not committed until the bitter end.
But if everything looks okay and you’re feeling good – by all means, go a few steps more.
Projects – by definition – are always something new.
We already talked about that something new is usually scary because it carries a lot of unknowns. Project Management theory (and practice) tells us that at the beginning of a project we know the goal we want to reach but have virtually no knowledge how to do this best.
The notion of planning everything beforehand is something that works for well-understood processes. This is called the „defined“ approach.
You ensure that for fixed given input you will always get a specific output when processed. Most of mass-manufacturing works by using defined approaches. Human nature, especially when one is risk-adverse, favors having a clear plan and defined parameters beforehand.
Projects break new ground so the way to reach the goal is usually not very well-understood, sometimes even the goal is hazy. Trying to define everything beforehand is trying to shepherd cats – it does not work. It’s ironic that at the point of least knowledge we try to do most of the project planning.
So let’s not do that anymore.
Agile and Scrum favor the „empirical“ approach.
As described by Ken Schwaber in his standard book „Agile Software Development with Scrum“ the empirical approach focuses on observation and learning instead of following a strict plan.
In concrete terms you start your project based on the knowledge and assumptions you have now let it run for a while and then compare the results with your expectations. Through this comparison you learn more about the goal and the road to reach it. You also learn a lot about how successful your way of working is.
The important part here is that you actually spend the time on reflection and learning.
I know of a few companies that have implemented ISO quality processes – including reviews – but apart from doing the reviews there is little outcome. Review results are nodded-off and then quickly tucked away. As a result you get the worst of both worlds: The added work of following the process and the lack of quality by not learning to improve.
Agile and Scrum also recognize that mistakes will be made. Making mistakes is human. Making mistakes is okay.
So instead of focusing on trying to be flawless the goal is to take a look at why things went wrong and to look early and often. The earlier you find out that something’s going wrong the more time you have to act and improve.
The Bottom Line
The iterative, empirical approach of Agile & Scrum allows you to tackle large, risky projects without having to commit yourself until the bitter end.
Instead you set yourself small short-term goals and only commit yourself for that time frame.
At the end of the time frame you take a look back and check if you are satisfied with where you are.
If you are okay and feel you are going in the right direction – set up another short-term goal and continue. If you feel you are going the wrong way you have the freedom to stop and reorient yourself.
By adopting the empirical approach you do not try to plan for every step of the journey – just for the few steps ahead. You observe and learn as you progress adjusting your course and approach based on the experiences you make.
With the combination of these two concepts you can quickly get to the fun part:
Getting things done. Achieving (small) goals. Going home at the end of the day knowing that you achieved something valuable.
So start. Now.