Fifteen years ago, I embarked on my Agile journey when I received my Scrum Master certification. Back then, I was one of three developers in a budding startup, where self-management was not just a choice—it was a necessity. My Agile experience multiplied as I coached numerous software teams through Agile and DevOps transformations. This experience expanded to non-IT in recent years, when I had the opportunity coach a marketing team (Agile Marketing) and an HR team (Agile HR) in their Agile transformation. These experiences sparked a self-reflection on applying Agile principles in my day-to-day life.
In this post, I attempt to share my agile work habits, which have been heavily influenced by what the internet dubs “Agile People.” Even though I’m currently not part of an engineering team, I find myself practicing Agile in daily work. While many of these practices come naturally to me, I recognize that they might not be as prevalent for others. My hope is that, through sharing the practices that shape the way I work, I can inspire and encourage others to embrace agility, leading to increased productivity and personal growth.
Note that I will be using Agile Scrum terms in this article. 87% of the Agile world uses Scrum, making it the most popular Agile methodology (source). To learn more about Scrum, see the Official Scrum Guide.
The Product Backlog contains an ordered list of user stories to achieve a product goal. The items in this backlog are ordered by the product owner based on each item’s value and estimated effort. While I tried this method for my personal task list before, I have learned that a simpler task list is better (especially since I’m the only person working on my own task list.) So my personal backlog (or task list) simply looks like this:
|Renew Azure Security Engineer Certification||22-Oct-2023|
|Blog Post: 5 R’s of Cloud Migration||15-Nov-2023|
|Take Azure AI Engineer Certification||30-Nov-2023|
The difference is to my application of Kanban Principles as I update this task list:
- Tasks are sorted based on which one I should be doing first. This is decided according to my perceived value, effort, and urgency for each item. I then adjust the target date to influence the sort order.
- Limit work-in-progress by only focusing on the top 1 or 2 in the list. This allows me to:
Professions such as developers, artists, and writers know the importance of being “in the zone.” This is what psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi refers to as the flow state. I have learned that it is possible to consciously get “into the flow”. I do this by intentionally carving out time in my calendar to focus on prioritized tasks in my backlog.
In positive psychology, a flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one’s sense of time. Flow is the melting together of action and consciousness; the state of finding a balance between a skill and how challenging that task is. It requires a high level of concentration. Flow is used as a coping skill for stress and anxiety when productively pursuing a form of leisure that matches one’s skill set. ~ Source: Wikipedia, October 2023
Here are some recommended readings on this topic:
- Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi
For those who experienced successful Agile projects, you know that the true value of Agile is in the mindset, the values, and the culture that is embraced by the team. I love the onion diagram illustration of Agile adoption. From this diagram we can see that while Tools & Processes are more visible, the Values and Mindset are more powerful. This is my attempt to share how I embrace these values in day-to-day work.
Transparency is about making it easy for people to know what you’re working on, and its progress. For projects, this means allowing stakeholders to see the real state and progress of the projecy (ideally) without having to ask you about it (so as not to break your flow).
One of the ways I do this is by simply making my calendar more visible to my colleagues. Aside from colleagues who don’t check my calendar before sending an invite, most can use their judgement on when is the best time to set-up a meeting. The result? I have less meeting conflict invitations and less people asking me “when are you free?” I have learned that people respect my calendar more when they can see why the slots are blocked. This in turn helps me maintain my flow-state.
But I do believe that individual transparency is more about integrity and trust. And this is where it can get difficult. Harvard Business Review also shared that Agile doesn’t work without psychological safety. I love this quote from Dr. Henry Cloud:
“There is a much greater degree of trust in the person of a more complete integrity. It is the kind of trust that looks out for your interests, as well as his or her own. In other words, you are not in it alone. There is someone who is not only looking out for what is good for him, but what is good for you too. That goes past just “win-win,” meaning that he will look out for you when it benefits him. It goes to looking out for you, period. One of the Hebrew words that means “trust” has the association that I like most when thinking of what “trust” actually means: To trust means to be careless. It means that you do not have to worry about how to “take care” of yourself with that person, because he is going to be worried about that too. It means that you do not have to “guard” yourself with her, because she is going to be concerned with what is good for you and what is not good for you. You do not have to “watch your back” with him, because he is going to be watching it for you. So, if something comes up in the deal later that neither of you thought of, you know that the person on the other side of the table is going to be concerned for your interests as well as his own. He won’t be a pushover and ignore what he needs, but he will have concern for you too, even when he doesn’t have to.” ~ Source: Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality
Servant Leadership is my favorite leadership style. So I was so thrilled when I learned that servant leadership is a key trait of a scrum master.
As I coach and advise organizational leaders, I would gravitate to engaging the direct people who will benefit from the advise. For example, in DevSecOps, I truly enjoy engaging the developers and infrastructure engineers to understand how they currently do things and how the use of CI/CD tools will vastly improve their work life. I enjoy engaging the main users with deep empathy (bottom-up leadership), and then share this empathy with the decision makers (top-down leadership).
Because of the Agile process and mindset, Agile teams evolve into high-performing teams as they complete more sprints. Similarly, I constantly seek to improve through continuous learning.
One of the ways I continuously learn is by having a good understanding of my learning style. I observed that:
- I read articles, blogs, and books better than watching >30 minute long videos;
- when possible, I learn technology better through hands-on self-exploration than following step-by-step guides; and
- especially when I’m stuck, seeking help from a friend, mentor or even online communities greatly accelerates my learning
When it comes to reading books, I learned that a typical self-help book will only have 12-15 chapters on average, with each chapter requiring 10 mins to read (based on my reading speed.) This means that, in theory, I could spend 10 minutes/night reading and finish 2 books/month or 24 books/year. While I don’t really read a chapter every night, I do think I am doing pretty well over the years.
Finally, Retrospectives — one of my favorite things about Agile. Retrospectives is a required ceremony conducted at the end of every Agile sprint. It is when an Agile team inspects what worked and didn’t work during the sprint, and plans on how they can adapt to be better.
Personally, this is the time I take to…
- Reflect on what worked, what didn’t work, and how to avoid it going forward
- Revisit my Why’s and my goals in life
- Reprioritize my backlog according to Stephen Covey’s Time Management Matrix
And two things that I need to do more of: (4) appreciating others and (5) celebrating my own wins and other people’s wins.