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My Agile Family

Over the years I’ve leaned on TED Talks to heighten my Emotional Intelligence.

Starting with why (Simon Sinek).

A better understanding of introversion (Susan Cain).

How to listen better (Julian Treasure)

and the power of vulnerability (Brene Brown).

How power posing can help boost confidence (Amy Cuddy)

and how to find joy (Ingrid Fetell Lee).

And while these talks have had a significant impact on my life, there’s one that stands out for, as my eight-year-old puts it, “helps us be a family.”

For those of you reading this who’ve spent some time designing and building software like me, you may already be familiar with Agile and its transformative effects on teams. For those less familiar, Agile is a “group of software development methodologies based on iterative development, where requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing cross-functional teams.” As a Certified Scrum Master and Agile Coach, I’m quick to point out that Agile is cultural and must be tied to the way people work; that it creates transparency, encourages trust and communication, and puts the value on people.

In the mid-2000’s I converted to Agile after watching many a traditional waterfall project fail and wanting to work more effectively. In those early days we were utilizing iterative software development concepts, and when Scrum (one of the methodologies) grew in popularity, I jumped hook, line, and sinker into applying it whenever I could. I even had my father and husband, both traditional software project managers, get certified in Scrum.

When I came across Bruce Feiler’s TED talk on how families can use Agile, I had two young boys who were not quite able to write. But I tucked it away, hoping that one day, I could apply it in my own household. Bruce’s talk, inspired by Agile, was to introduce families to concepts of flexibility, personal and team accountability, sharing feedback, and a focus on goal setting.

I came back to it when my boys, only two years apart in age, were bickering constantly, spending more time on screens, and getting more agitated with the pressure of school, homework, and activities. The pressure on all of us was increasing and the connection was decreasing. Much like my software teams of the past, my family desired a different way of working together.

We started simply by utilizing concepts from Scrum. One wall. A pack of sticky notes. An easel pad of sticky poster-sized paper.

We all wrote user stories of things we wanted in our family and put them on one poster. One user story per sticky note. I want to go to Disneyland so we can have fun together as a family. I want to have built-ins in my office, so I’ll be more organized. I want to get a haircut before school starts so I feel confident on my first day of school. I want to run a half marathon to improve my health. We each listed all the things we wanted to achieve: house projects, personal goals, family activities… a huge backlog of items that required the support of our family in order to make them happen.

Then we decided to plan a three-week sprint. In the sprint, we’d take items into the backlog that we’d do over those three weeks. We started them on a “To Do” poster, then had another poster for “In Progress” and another for “Done.” Every couple days we’d come together for a “standup” – a meeting where we’d huddle around our Scrum Board and share what we’ve worked on, what we’re planning to do, and anything we’re struggling with to make that happen.

At the end of the three weeks, we had a family meeting. It started with a showcase where we celebrated all that had been done in the three weeks. Any items that hadn’t been done we moved back to the large backlog. The second part of the meeting was a retrospective. We discussed what has been going well, what hasn’t been going well, and what we want to try and incorporate into the next sprint. And then we’d start the process all over again, moving into the next Sprint by selecting items in the backlog.

I know what you might be thinking. What GEEKS! Did this really do anything for their family? Why yes, yes it did. The boys, yes, even the five-year-old, were writing well-constructed user stories of things they personally wanted to accomplish. And we all had a forum to share feedback. For the first time, our older son shared: “Mom and Dad – your user stories don’t have much fun in them. I wish you’d focus on having more fun.”

While sure, perhaps this would have come out around the dinner table, the format of Scrum allowed us to establish a rhythm for doing this and allow us to all recognize that we’re always learning and improving. That it’s okay to try something and fail. That it helps us all when we speak up.

As I sit here writing this, my older son is next to me on the couch. Just asked him, “hey Lucas, what do you like about Agile?” He said: “It keeps us on track as a family. I focus on what I want to accomplish instead of fighting with my brother. I like it.”

When we’ve taken breaks from it the kids ask to put the posters back up and do Scrum again. They seem to thrive when they feel they’re in the driver’s seat and get to contribute to the family plan.


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