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Scrum at Home

Beyond chore charts and personal Kanban

19 June 2015

Steve Ostermiller
Platinum Edge

When I engage in or overhear conversations of how people implement Agile practices and, more specifically, Scrum in their personal lives, I'm convinced we're barely scratching the surface of what is possible.

In fact, many dismiss the possibility of implementing Scrum fully outside the scope of software development, usually due to misconceptions of what Scrum is and what it is not. Plus, many so-called Scrum or Agile implementations outside of software development are limited to the Kanban method practice of "visualizing the work flow."

Granted, transparency -- visualizing the workflow -- is a crucial step in harnessing the power of agility and minimizing chaos in our lives. And this step alone creates a huge win for anyone who will use it to inspect and adapt.

But, before showing you my experience and the benefits of Scrum in my home, here is briefly why I recommend using Scrum as one of the simplest frameworks for organizing people and work in any industry, business function, or household.

Scrum is. . . . Scrum is not. . . .

At its core, Scrum is based on empirical process control, which is using what is exposed through transparency and experience to inspect and adapt continuously over the course of a project. To facilitate empiricism by using Scrum, there are simply three roles, three artifacts, and five events (see the two interior circles in Figure1). This is Scrum. No more. No less. Anything else is a common Agile practice that fits well within the Scrum framework. Common practices that work for software development may be different than those that work effectively in other industries, business functions, or even households.

It's common to dismiss Scrum's broadening application because so many things that are not Scrum are being evangelized or misinterpreted as Scrum, making it seem more prescriptive than it actually is.

The figure below illustrates that Scrum is built around the foundation of empiricism. General concepts alluded to in the Scrum Guide are addressed through common Agile practices, such as Implied Scrum. Again, these may vary from situation to situation. A broader collection of Agile practices also complement Scrum very well, such as eXtreme Programming (XP) practices in software development. Households may find other unique and effective practices that promote inspection and adaptation to whatever life throws their way. (But hey, even XP's Pair Programming might work really well for two siblings working on a household task together.)

Scrum at its core, with common Agile practices

Household challenges addressed with Scrum

Let's take a look at households or, more specifically, families.

In 1999, Ellen Galinsky (president and cofounder of Families and Work Institute) published a study of families titled Ask the Children. Her findings shifted my paradigm of what I thought I needed to improve in my family.

Based on Galinsky's survey of over a thousand children and their parents, parents perceived challenges in the home differently from their children. For instance, when parents were asked what they thought their children's one big wish would be, they answered that they thought their children wanted to spend more time with them. When they asked the children directly what their one big wish was, they wished their parents were less stressed and less tired.

I have spent time analyzing this. As the father of five children, ages 4-15, I now realize that even if I make more time for my children, if I'm stressed and tired for that time, I'm virtually useless to them. And yes, I have been too stressed and too tired more than I like to admit.

Galinsky's study also revealed that parents think that their children will remember the big events (e.g., vacations or five-star living) most once they leave home. The children's answer: The little things, the routines, the rituals, the reinforcing events at the start and end of each day are the things they will remember and miss once they leave home.

Because perception is reality, I can't argue one bit with the children's responses to both questions. I've experienced these realities firsthand.

Stress and fatigue happen. Some reasons are directly related to physical health, such as diet, exercise, sleep patterns, and so on. Other significant factors include:
  • Multitasking
  • Hyperscheduling
  • Unclear (or even uncommon) household and family goals
  • Lack of structure and routine
I decided to use this transparency to inspect and adapt my own household situation. We have implemented Scrum at our home. The specifics and mechanics are a different discussion for a different post. Bottom line, for my household of seven, implementing the Scrum roles, artifacts, and events has yielded great benefits:
  • Transparency of what each person wants and does
  • Ownership of household decisions and projects
  • Structured inspect-and-adapt tools and habits
  • Rhythm to our days and weeks
  • Clear expectations among all family members (not just parent-child, but also sibling-sibling)
  • Collaboration
  • Patience for our own and each other's mistakes
  • Prioritization. Ordering. Resisting the urge to do everything all at once
  • Decisiveness
Perhaps the best benefit is the last: Togetherness, in general.

But wait! There's more. . . .

Recently, our visualized home work flow on a 4 x 6-foot task board, along with daily and weekly feedback inspection points (e.g., Daily Scrums, sprint planning, sprint reviews, and retrospectives), revealed that we were trying to do too many things at once. We were avoiding true prioritization and setting out on goals that were less important and less practical than others. After a few failed attempts at prioritizing family projects, we finally had a deeper discussion about our family budget than I ever thought possible.

Discussing family finances was not something we did in my family when I was growing up. I had no visibility into what our family finances looked like. And up until this experience, I didn't think these types of discussions were appropriate for my family. But exposing our family budget to our entire family has been the best idea I've had in a long time.

I sat down with our children one night and wrote the number of dollars I make in a month on a whiteboard. I then wrote the number of dollars we pay for our mortgage, followed by our car payments and our various budget line items. I then subtracted all those amounts from my income to show what was left at the end of each month. I circled that number and went to the other side of the board to start a different list.

The new list contained all the big things that we wanted to do: vacation to Hawaii, Disney World, and Europe; complete major household projects; pay for college and marriages; and save for rainy days and retirement. Next to each of those, we estimated the amounts we would need to put aside each month in order to attain each of the goals independently. I added all the monthly amounts and subtracted the sum from the circled amount from the first list. This revealed a substantial number of dollars -- dollars we didn't have each month to work toward each of those goals all at the same time.

So, the next question was the one that any responsible portfolio manager would ask: "We can't do all of these at once. As a single team, we can effectively only do one at a time. Which one is most important to us?"

I wasn't sure what answers I was going to get. My nine-year-old daughter spoke up first and said, "I don't care about going to Disney World anymore, until I know we have emergency savings and some money ready for me to go to college." Her older sisters couldn't agree fast enough.

I was a little surprised but mostly pleased. It was their informed decision. We're not going to Disney World this year (which was our previous plan). And everyone owns that decision.

Instead, we're starting to break down our savings goals (i.e., vision and road map) into chunks (i.e., releases) and working on small, incremental progress each week (i.e., sprints) toward these financial goals. We're exploring ways of freeing up more income each month (i.e., iterating, inspecting, adapting) to accelerate our savings rate (i.e., velocity). The sooner we have our acceptable base (i.e., minimum viable product) of emergency savings, the sooner we can work on the college fund, and then the sooner we can start adding to the Disney World fund, or whatever becomes the next most important thing.

Scrum's simplicity and exposure has helped us be more effective and avoid the delusion that we can do everything all at once.

We prefer focus.

I like that my children are learning to think that way, and I feel less stressed knowing we don't have to boil the ocean. I get better sleep at night knowing we're working, playing and living smarter. Together.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 4.6 (7 ratings)


Brian Dreyer, CSP,CSM, 6/23/2015 11:12:39 AM
Fantastic Steve, well done! I like this simple line a lot - "Scrum is based on empirical process control, which is using what is exposed through transparency and experience to inspect and adapt continuously over the course of a project."

Also, regarding this household, one might say that married life starts agile, then gets waterfall-ish, given we say our vows like a "Daily Scrum" - standing up!
Bianca Sias, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 6/23/2015 2:51:24 PM
I really enjoyed this article. Much of this is at the heart of a new venture I will soon launch, the idea of which was born at a coaching retreat nearly 5 years ago. I would love to reference this piece and potentially collaborate further if you are open to it!
Steve Ostermiller, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 6/25/2015 7:08:59 PM
Thanks Brian! Much could be said about vows and identifying potential impediments at the same time. Must refrain here.

Bianca, I'll PM you. Can't wait to hear what it is you're working on.

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