Project Manage Your Life
10 februari 2015
More and more companies are adopting software and product development frameworks like Agile, Scrum, and Kanban — which promote quick, iterative, lean production — to deliver higher quality products, faster. These methods help teams produce rapid, continuous improvements, via daily face-to-face communication and visual workflows.
If these methods can help teams get on the same page, streamline tasks, and reach collective goals more quickly, can they also help people be more productive in their personal lives? I recently spoke with Frank Saucier, executive and Agile coach at FreeStanding Agility, about how he applies these methods in his home life. (Disclosure: He’s taught and coached many teams at HBR on how to use these same practices.) An edited excerpt of our conversation follows:
What made you decide to try some of these work solutions at home?
Much of my work involves coaching teams to be more high-performing and self-organizing. My wife and I had a discussion about how our family of five is a team, and that we might benefit from similar approaches.
What specific productivity practices have you brought home to your own family?
Quite a few:
I use a Personal Kanban approach to manage the flow of my work and household agendas. As a trainer, coach, and consultant, there’s a good mix of work, client, home, family, and personal items that are constantly in competition for my attention. The board helps me keep tabs on everything and keeps things flowing — it’s all about being effective and focusing on the right thing at the right time. It looks like this:
When we’re teaching teams the invisible work of software development, the Kanban board on the wall makes it all visible. The wall becomes the work, and helps us learn habits like what to do when something gets visibly stuck in a to-do column. That translates well to home, too. We use columns like “To Do,” “Doing,” and “Done” — or sometimes days of the week. We ideally would want to see a sticky note move in the course of a day, so we have what’s called “flow.” This allows you to actually see progress, and conversely, to see when something is “stuck.”
My kids love the tactile approach of grabbing a sticky, and adding it to the board. For instance, they might put “go bowling” in our weekend column. It helps the whole family learn to incorporate new ideas, negotiate, compromise, and communicate.
When we use Scrum with teams at work, we are often in a 2-3 week cycle, holding “retrospectives” to keep us all on track. Our family meetings are a lot like a retrospective, where we cover the things that are most important for us to be working on. My wife and I hold a family meeting every other weekend, and we use an agenda template that includes:
- A check in on emotional states (mad, sad, glad, afraid). It’s important to do this at the start of the meeting — the point is to simply have people be present, and to have the space to say if they feel off, and why.
- A section for each person to give compliments to others they appreciate. This helps reinforce positive behaviors.
- A chores section, so we can all sign up for things that need to be done around the house, and be held accountable for them each week.
- A list of issues that we need to discuss as a family (for instance, the chores from the last family meeting weren’t done, school projects the kids are working on, priorities for the upcoming week, etc.)
Our 7-year-old has taken to using the agenda sheet to facilitate the meeting, which is teaching him good communication skills.
We try to have at least a couple of regular check-ins during the day. First, we try to eat dinner as a family. We ask each other about what we did that day, what we liked, any mistakes we made, etc. The second check-in is between my wife and me. After the kids are in bed, we step into the kitchen and talk about our day and what’s in store for the next one.
Every Thursday, after the kids are in bed, my wife and I meet in the kitchen and talk about two things: plans for the weekend, and the following week’s schedule, and what we need to do to coordinate it all.
I recently started an experiment using a background graphic on my computer that has the following boxed areas on it: To Read; Reading; Use; Reference; Keep. I have an area in the center that contains my trash icon. I move icons to the respective areas as I work to see if organizing my files and bookmarks according to how I need to interact with them helps me get through more things. It’s an experiment, but it’s already paying off in terms of helping me be more efficient.
I also use a quick feedback approach called Plus/Delta at the end of a busy day, after a key event, after teaching classes, after facilitating events, etc. I basically pull out a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. At the top of the left column, I put a plus sign. At the top of the right column, I put a delta symbol to represent change. In the plus column, I write down all the things that I did well and that went well. In the delta column, I write down all the things I would do differently in hindsight. It’s basically a reflection technique for learning and quickly getting closure.
Roughly once a quarter, my wife and I play a game where we list out all the potential expenses that we know are coming. That could be anything from the car needing new tires, to vacation plans, to new shoes for the kids. We then place the items on a sheet of paper with four quadrants: High Importance, Low Importance, High Cost, and Low Cost. This helps us get on the same page about which expenses we need to make to meet our goals.
That sounds like a lot. How much time does all of this take?
It’s actually really fast. The biggest piece is setting up these systems, but you don’t have to get it all right out of the gate because it’s a process that’s meant to evolve. Every day, I look at what I have on the Kanban board for the day, and make last-minute decisions about what really needs to be done — that literally takes five minutes. It kind of equates to daily standups for teams, where at the end of an iteration or sprint, you have a block of time to go deal with things. What takes more time is stopping to look to all the things that you can’t get to. Knowing that if it’s not on the board, it’s not going to get done that week forces you to prioritize.
Was it hard to get your family on board with these techniques?
There was, and still is, some moaning and groaning, but that’s OK. We’re trying to teach our kids that the family thrives when we all contribute and collaborate. It definitely empowers the kids to know that decisions are not just being handed down from on high, and it lays a foundation for good organizational habits.
Some of this sounds kind of low-tech. What happens when you’re not in front of the wall? Are there digital tools that work just as well?
I like to use low-tech tools, because it’s more important to learn good habits than it is to learn to use a tool. That said, there are plenty of digital ways to do the same thing — a good, free tool is Trello, which is essentially an online Kanban board. But, I find that with digital tools, a lot of great ideas get buried, and the simple act of moving a post-it across a visual board is very kinesthetic. I’ve also noticed that teams have better discussions when they’re around a physical board.
How has using these tools changed your family life?
There was an immediate benefit to seeing all that stuff laid out in one place. It’s made visible a much larger list of everything that we need to do — of all the pressures that we have on us as a family, and as parents. It’s helped us realize why we feel overwhelmed. When we saw exactly how much was on our plates, it forced us to make decisions on what we value.
It’s also helped us get on the same page with schedules, coordinating the family, and upcoming priorities. Very little falls through the cracks now.
Are there places where it falls apart?
It can be tough for young kids to stay focused for a family meeting. We keep it to 15 minutes or less, offer treats, cover the table with white paper and put out markers, and try to do a family activity at the end of the meeting. We also allow our 5-year-old to be done first and walk away when he needs to.
Has the increased organization at home affected your productivity at work?
It’s absolutely helped me focus on the most important things to spend time on while I’m at work. We all have limited bandwidth, and we’re bombarded with distractions that each scream that they’re the most important thing — but they’re not always. So, we have to be very good at discerning when to accept the interruption, which means knowing what’s most important — at home, and at work.