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Using Scrum for Self-Actualization

Plan less, fail more, and treat achieving your purpose like a project

30 August 2017

Chad Kanyer, PMP, CSM
Ajolt Consulting (

For context, the title-mentioned “self-actualization” refers to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1943), which we all learned during our freshman year of college. To refresh memory, Maslow categorized our human needs into five tiers of a triangle, the lower rung being foundational/basic and the highest being self-actualization (our utmost achievement and fulfillment).
Maslow submitted that if the four lowest rungs were not met, we’d be stressed out and generally unfulfilled creatures, ill-equipped to strive upward toward the peak.

Sound familiar?

Coming from a dense Waterfall project management background and evolving in the past few years into an Agile (and Scrum, specifically) evangelist, I have noticed scary parallels between our use of the Waterfall methodology in the workplace and in our personal lives, specifically in the realm of answering the biggest question that floats around in our subconscious all day, whether in the driver seat or the trunk: What is my purpose?

I believe that as members of an immediate-gratification, fear-of-failure, constant-comparison society, we’ve grown dangerously accustomed to taking a Waterfall-style approach to fulfilling our personal purposes, leaving us in a state similar to that of our (finally) dismissed Waterfall projects in the workplace: struggling, energy-sucking, and/or stuck.

We love to construct elaborate life plans, ones with such daunting complexity that they hardly nudge us to actually take action toward fulfilling them. And if and when we finally take that leap, we quickly fall victim to shortsighted planning, too-rigid parameters, resource shortages, changing “requirements” (goals and findings), and many other unforeseen but inevitable tyrants of derailment. Using our embedded Waterfall mentality, we take the first steps but often get distracted, doubtful, discouraged, and derailed.

The results are self-evident; our lives do not change truly and tangibly. What is worst about this approach is that the creature comforts of our lives — food, shelter, safety, relationships, and esteem in our circles (the lower rungs of Maslow’s pyramid) — are rarely rattled by our lack of gumption. The mortgage is safely paid and the Tuesday night social club thrives on. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we remain far from self-actualization.

Let’s get closer to self-actualization, and let’s use the Scrum framework to do so. It’s a theory at this juncture, but I believe that it’s one worth exploring. I’m tired of “sitting, waiting, and Waterfall wishing” and am ready for some “Agile acting.”

Applying Agile

This is the general approach I’m suggesting we take to begin making our purpose into our project. The overarching goal of this approach is to turn ideas into action, failure into learning, and your interests and passion into tangible, measurable outputs.
  • Create a product backlog of things you want to accomplish in life — your biggest interest areas to explore, passion projects, big ideas, and goals — and break them into tangible, bite-sized, executable tasks. These are ranked in order of importance, or interest, to you.
  • Schedule these tasks for sprints with a sprint planning exercise, factoring in how many hours you have to work on them during the sprint (sprint capacity) and the time it will take to accomplish each task that you’d like to accomplish in the next sprint.
  • When the sprint starts, begin executing the tasks. You use a simple Kanban board to track the progression of each task as things unfold and work is performed, from “backlog” to “planned” to “started” to “awaiting external event” to “completed.” The goal is to complete the tasks outlined at the beginning of the sprint before the sprint closes.
  • During the sprint, conduct a Morning Scrum during which you ask yourself what you accomplished yesterday, what you’ll accomplish today, and whether anything is blocking you.
  • At the end of each sprint, in an introspective session, gauge your progress. Which ones became irrelevant and which were more complex than you thought? How can you get better at the ceremonies? Who needs to be added to the team?
  • You’ll use these learnings to groom, or refine, your product backlog and to improve certain components of the process, including your time estimates for tasks; your sprint output capabilities; and the difficulty, relevance, or interest level of projects you have in your product backlog.

Dream-team dynamics

Collaboration is the driving force of Scrum, but given that this journey is a largely self-driven and self-purposed one, you’ll be playing multiple Scrum roles at the start (this changes; read on):
  • You’ll serve as the customer and product owner, and this likely won’t change. Why? Because we are our toughest critics. The world will accept the idea that you settle on producing weak or intangible outputs, but you will not. Who is more qualified to assess the value of what you’re “delivering” than you? After all, you look into the mirror each day.
  • The ScrumMaster is a trusted mentor, significant other, close friend, or accountability partner. They know the drill and hold you to its structure and flow. They oversee your sprint planning sessions and advise during introspectives. They’re intermittently involved during sprints and can summarize your feats and findings at each sprint close. They clear blockers for you, or at least help you determine how to do so. Tip: Blockers can range from the more internal/emotional ones (“You actually are articulate; you should continue considering public speaking”) or external/situational (“If John is taking too long to review that for you, perhaps I can take a stab at it and keep things moving”).
  • You’ll likely start your efforts as the only team member; however, one of the goals of writing this article is to change this. For us to capitalize and improve this theory’s application, we must invite other purpose seekers along for our journeys toward self-actualization. They share the same persistent thirst, incentivizing and enabling them to encourage you, hold you accountable, and to learn from your experience.
Of course, this contrasts with Scrum’s application in business, but our primary goal is to apply the general framework to improve our pursuits of self-actualization, not to perfectly align to its constructs.

Team, try, and test

There is no shame in trying a different approach in achieving some of your bigger passions and dreams, and there are a surprising number of widely accepted principles that are somewhat congruent with this philosophy (e.g., the 80-20 rule).

Make this process work for you. Refine it. Involve friends and trusted coworkers (hint: practice discretion if your goals allude to you hating your job). Talk about it online (be kind).

Help me find a way to make this collaborative, as that is where Scrum differentiates (and proves) itself.

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.

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