Homegrown Agile: E and the Schooling from Home Scenario

It’s day 9 of “schooling from home.” Yes, that is what they are calling it. My oldest is sort of in heaven – M is reading books, doing university work remotely, meeting with counselors from the safety, comfort, and security of her suite. L is recuperating from a spill on her skateboard (she is going through a skater girl phase, which yes I approve of!) and taking care of business. But E. The brilliant, scientific, inventive, witty, thoughtful 16 year-old soon-to-be man is struggling with this responsibility; with being self-managed and self-organized.

And then it happens. I get a call from one of E’s teachers telling me that E is struggling to turn in school work in this time. After pulling E into the conversation, talking through the scenario with the standard banter of “yes, we’ll fix that,” and hanging up, I do what any caring, “fail fast, fix fast” agilist does when a team or an organization misses a goal – I lay into him. And I mean good.

“What are you doing?”
“What have you been working on for the last two weeks?”
“Why am I just finding out that you missed turning in assignments”
“I don’t trust you!”

Sound familiar? My heart sinks just rehashing it in my head. Here I am, supposed to be this coach and agilist and I completely miss the mark at home with my own son. On top of it, with my voice raised high, I forget that M is on a call with her university. So I’m not just a hypocrite and an irrational person, I’m an obnoxious rear end now expecting a visit from family and children services!

Self-managed and empowered vs. left alone

Some of us have mistaken self-managed, self-organized and empowered teams for just “leaving them alone.” The two are not the same! We sometimes grant autonomy before good habits and ways or working are formed. We sometimes allow for self-management when the same old ways of thinking that got us all into this mess are still present. We sometimes empower teams and people that we haven’t built a relationship, understanding, and trust with; and yes, this has to be built.

So my wife (E’s mom) and I (well me) calmed down (maybe after some threatening from my wife) and realized that we (well me) had not given him actual tools, techniques, methods, to change his ways of thinking but then just left him alone in his hovel (bedroom) to just (hopefully) do the work. So we quickly turned the dining room into a work space where he could be away from the distractions of the day and simply focus. We brought him into a place where we could be with him and interact and be available – the dining room is right across the entry from my office – and not just answer questions or look over his shoulder, but be there to encourage and coach.

Visualization of work

The more I do this job of mine, the more I truly believe one of the most powerful tools to organize work, life, whatever, is to visualize your work – the whole gambit – board, cards, all of it. This might be basic for some of you, but I’m not sure the times I’ve talked to seasoned agile leaders who struggle with their teams because they don’t know what is being done because their teams don’t know what they are working on because the body of work is in some random system because they don’t have a place to visualize and have representation and familiarization with all the stuff needing to be done. Yes, I know that was a run on sentence, but I bet as you read it you sped it up to get to the end (my point). Visualization lets us see the gravity of our situation but also – done correctly – gives us the out.

With E, we created a simple board. We talked through the meaning and the reason. I asked questions to get him to form structures around the concept. We talked about his entire body of work vs. the committed to body of work for the day. We discussed what each column meant. We color coded each subject not to silo but to understand where each requirement or task was coming from. At the end of the time, E had prioritized his work based on a timeline (first in, first out) approach, understood the work, estimated the work (using his done work as a relative “work per pomodoro’s” scale), committed (but not overcommitted) to the day’s work, and more importantly, felt that he could accomplish the goal. He saw “done” from just the few minutes of work this afternoon. Immediately we were on the same page, were functioning as a team, and had started collaborating.

Time Management is not a dirty word

But Josh, you used the “M” word. Yep, sure did. Why? Because “time leadership” sounds funny. Seriously, though – yes, many of us employ tenured, highly intelligent, talented team members that wow us every day. But, why do we assume that after X years of working in an environment where they were told everything task to do, were micro-managed, were left to work in a black box with an outrageously distant deadline, that these amazing people will just automagically grow time management skills that align with the new reality that is agility? Why do we think that folks will just figure out how to break tasks down into small chunks of “done, valuable” work? Why do we just assume that an ability to work at a sustainable pace is just innate?

Enter the Pomodoro Technique. I actually love this approach because it is corollary to the ideas of relentless improvement, maturity (shuhari), and eliminating waste. I sat E down and said, “let’s work on one thing at a time for the next 20 minutes. I don’t want you to work on anything else, I don’t want you to change tasks yet, and I don’t want you to get off course. Let’s just try this.” After 20 minutes, he had finished task one; he had moved the task from in-progress to done and showed me where he had submitted his work in Google Classroom (part of our Definition of Done/Explicit Contract for the column for those of you keeping score). I then led him into the most important part – “take a break,” I said.

“But I want to keep working. I got something done and I have so much to do.” He replied.

“Nope. Take a break. Get a sip of water, go pet the dog, take a bio break. I don’t care what it is – clear your head for 5 minutes.” I retorted.

You see, I needed him to reset. He had just finished a task and it was important to reset. To give his brain a few minutes to switch context. His brain knew what was on the board, it knew it was going to do something different. It needed the time to wire a new connection. Team members need this too. We drive so much to get stuff done, especially when we have a long backlog of work, that we forget we are actually inviting waste and ineffective behaviors when we don’t pause.

There was another part to this too. I needed him to realize this was about sustainable pace. Today it was taking a 5 minute break between “pomodoros,” but tomorrow it will be on a bigger scale – the day and how we retain creativity in the midst of work, how we build in time for neural plasticity and coaching, and how we teach and coach some techniques that will not quickly be tossed to the side because they bore or inhibit him. Think about that – we want to teach our team members to be better than they are now, not for us but for them.

For more about the Pomodoro Technique, check out:

  1. My Pomodoro School Day (Take 1, MVP, check back and I’ll update more): https://joshuathinks.files.wordpress.com/2020/03/pomodoro-school-day.pdf
  2. Wikipedia for a short overview
  3. A good timer to help out.
  4. Good Article about Pomodoro and scrum from Lean Magazine

Finally

People and teams are looking to us to help. In many ways, they don’t know they are and the signs and current state of their work, their attitude, and more can clue us in on where they need help. Every person wants to succeed, everyone wants to be able to move into a place of self-management, self-organization, and autonomy, but they also need to get there. Remember this next story next time a team doesn’t quite pull it off and you, as a leader, want to start calling down fire from heaven. Your role is to find the success in the failure, to lead through the challenges, and to be authentic and engaged while leading the teams to grow trust.

Now, go be awesome.

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