How to Use Agile to Achieve Your Personal and Professional Goals

Written by Emily Porta

It’s January, and that means New Year’s resolutions, that time of year when our best intentions--improve our lives, pick up that new hobby, and learn that new skill--last for a few weeks before real life gets in the way. As a Scrum Master at Rangle, I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few weeks about how I can take what I practice at work every day to help others achieve their project and team goals and apply those concepts to bettering myself in 2018. Luckily, there are lots of concepts that I can take from the Agile project management philosophy to make a series of resolutions that have a much greater chance of sticking than “I’ll go back to the gym...at some point...somehow.” Here are some simple concepts you can draw on to help you follow through with your goals in 2018:

1) “Responding to change over following a plan”

This phrase is one of the four values that make up the Agile Manifesto - the guiding values underlying all Agile projects. I include this value first in thinking about how to successfully follow through with life goals because the first thing that will get in the way of your goals is everyday life. We all know that things can change drastically in our lives from month to month, and as a result a plan you make that hinges on the reality of you life in January might not apply anymore by the end or even middle of the year. To form a successful resolution, you have to bake into your plan the ability to change that plan given new information, life circumstances, restrictions, and opportunities. For example, if you map out a detailed monthly plan for the next 12 months, you might feel productive, but really all you’ve done is set up a plan that’s bound to make you feel like a failure when anything changes. Try a one month - or better, one week - plan instead, and then plan the next week or month once you’ve achieved the first part of your goal.

2) "Simplicity is essential"

The Agile Manifesto also has a set of Principles underlying the four values. When I help Product Owners refine their project backlogs, and help teams refine their stories, I often go back to this particular Agile principle: “Simplicity - the art of maximizing the amount of work not done - is essential.” In technical projects this means examining the various ways to provide the desired value to the end user, thinking creatively about how you can get that same amount of value in less time with less complexity, and then doing that. Similarly, for your 2018 resolutions, you can apply this principle to your goals to examine if there isn’t some easier way to attain what you really want. Ask yourself: “What’s the easiest and quickest way I can get to the same result?” instead of just executing on the first plan that you think of. Remove barriers to your success early, and you’ll be much more likely to succeed.

3) INVEST in your goals

INVEST is a handy mnemonic used in Agile projects to help individuals remember the core characteristics of a good user story (i.e. “small increment of what needs to get done”). It stands for: Independent, Negotiable, Valuable, Estimable, Small, and Testable. It may be fairly clear for anyone who’s been on a software project, especially an Agile project, what this means for developing a user story; Make sure that Maria won’t start the story only to find that Aminah needs to wait for it to be done to start her work, or that Jane’s users don’t actually need the feature, or that it will take weeks to get any part of it done in a form that can get feedback from said users. But how does this relate to something like a New Year’s resolution?

You can take the INVEST principles and apply them to your resolutions for 2018 in much the same way you’d think about applying them to user stories:

  • Is your goal independent - that is, in order to attain your goal, are you going to have to overcome any barriers that will block your success? Will there be other things you need to accomplish before your final goal? Or many things you’ll need to execute on at once to make your goal happen? If so, you might want to go back to our Simplicity value and consider ways to remove barriers and dependencies to your goal before starting.

  • Is your goal negotiable - can it change? If your goal is related to other people, will they be willing to accommodate and change the plan to adjust for real life? Will you allow yourself to do the same?

  • Is it valuable - really ask yourself, if you can only do one thing to improve your life this year, what is truly the most valuable thing to you personally? There’s no point spending time on goals that only look good to others or don’t appeal to you. You’ll just lose interest and set yourself up for failure.

  • Is it estimable? In software development, we often give stories “story points”, a relative value that holds no meaning outside of the team, to our stories to judge how complicated certain stories are in comparison with previous work. You can use this concept for your resolutions by making sure that they’re practical to complete in the year, based on things you’ve accomplished in the past, and that the goal is clear enough that you can determine that.

  • Is your resolution small? Many small resolutions are much more likely to succeed than one big one - consider how you can break down your year goal into a series of smaller accomplishments.

  • Finally, is your resolution testable? This one might be the least obvious in terms of how to apply the concept to your personal life. We don’t exactly write unit tests for losing weight or do user testing on learning the piano. So how can we apply testability to our resolutions? Consider what we’re doing when we test: does this piece of value work with the rest of the system? Do we have a set of logical things that should and should not be able to happen when we create this piece of value? In our case, for our resolutions, we can ask ourselves: will I know if this goal in fact makes things worse for me? How? Will I know if I was successful in implementing this goal? If so, specifically how will I know? What are the indicators of success?

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