Project Management

The Reluctant Agilist

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About this Blog


Recent Posts

Chief Scrum Master & Chief Product Owner - Checking in with Melissa Boggs and Howard Sublett

Ryan Ripley - Fixing your Scrum

Leadership is Language with David Marquet

Agile for Non-Software Teams w/ Gil Broza

Understanding Trauma w/ Brandon Brown

Personal Kanban - Track Your Happiness

When my efforts to employ Personal Kanban reached a point where I felt I had gone as far as I could on my own, I decided it would be a good idea to find a coach who could hopefully help me see things more objectively, challenge me on the assumptions I was not conscious of and, in general, find a way to become more disciplined in my approach. (The expectation was that more discipline would result in greater productivity.)

Brian Bozzuto, an Agile Coach from BigVisible was kind enough to agree to act as my coach. We worked together for several weeks on a number of different aspects of my approach to Personal Kanban.  I’m going to try and take these on at a time in different postings.

When we started out discussions about my approach to Personal Kanban, one of my biggest questions was how to understand value. I was operating under the idea that anything that does not add value is waste and should be eliminated. There are things with clear value (doing work you get paid for) and things which present no obvious value (sitting on the couch watching a movie), but which have value in terms of a longer game because they are restorative in some way.  Still, I was having a hard time in my internal argument for some of the latter. interviewing people about their use of Personal Kanban, I encountered many who said they prioritized work solely by what makes them “happy”. A few of these people said they only do things that bring them as much joy as a child feeding ducks.

Which left me wondering… who changes the cat litter?

Boz and I talked for a while about happiness and he suggested we both sign up for Track Your Happiness. This was something he had not done before either so he also agreed to sign up for the experiment. The service is free. For a period of time the service will send you an invite (via SMS or email) to log on to their site and take a quick survey of what you are doing, and how you are feeling about it. It also provides some basic reporting so you can see what information the data has to offer about how “happy” you are.

You can adjust the frequency of the surveys. They continue until the report has enough data for it to be able to offer you some insights. After that it is supposed to begin polling you again at some point in the future.

When you take the surveys, some of them have questions which clearly make sense and some which can start to seem rather tiresome because you get asked them again and again. And there are some that are quite amusing. I often received a question asking what I was doing at that moment. The options included things like:


Watching Television



Making love to another person

… If you decide to try out Track Your Happiness and you feel compelled to stop and answer a survey while you are making love… I really don’t think Personal Kanban is going to solve your problems.

During the first few days I got a report that showed this:

What the service was telling me was that, based on my responses up to that point, the place where I was happiest was at the airport. Initially, this seemed horribly wrong on many levels. At the very least it seemed comedically pathetic. But, on second thought, the airport is one of the places I am usually the least stressed. I always arrive extra early, I book my flights with lots of in between time, and in the aiport I’m generally just spending time in my bubble, headphones on, working or reading. Other than my borderline obsessive fear of germs from other passengers, it’s a pretty chill place for me. (I should also point out that by this point in time I had only been using Track Your Happiness while I was on the road. So no surveys had been completed while I was at home.

As I used the service and kept reviewing the reports, I started to wonder if happiness was really a good way to frame value within the context of Personal Kanban. The “happy as a kid feeding ducks” thing weighed quite heavily into that. (I should mention that this explanation of the kid feeding a duck thing is slightly incorrect. This will be revisited in a separate post in the future.)

In the end, I have come to the conclusion that there are people who try to prioritize their work so that they only do what makes them happy. From speaking with these people, they tend to delegate or refuse to do things that do not make them happy. For me, and the way I look at the things I do, there are things that I do which clearly bring me happiness, like taking my wife out to dinner or playing a game with my daughter. And there are things I do that, initially, do not seem to have happiness to offer me.  I believe that when faced with those types of things to do, regardless of what it is, it is the frame with which we look at the thing which helps us see value in it, or not. For example, I may have a very difficult client to deal with. This may be someone I had a history of trouble communicating with. Rather than approaching it with a “this will not bring me happiness mindset”, I try to remember to approach it with “what positive thing can I derive from this encounter”. If it is a difficult client, maybe it is as simple as trying to improve my ability at being present and actively listening to them, or being diplomatic, or understanding their body language and trying to use my own to see if it can impact the situation in a favorable way. through this exercise of spending a few weeks completing the surveys was incredibly helpful in developing my understanding of how I see value. The biggest epiphany for me was realizing that I actually like pretty much everything I do, in one way or another. Before going through this survey I had no awareness of that and would never have agreed with this statement. Going through the process of being questioned over and over about whether or not I would prefer to be doing something else made me keenly aware of the fact that my issue is not that I have things which make me happy and things which make me unhappy. I just have things that, in one way or another, make me happy. I enjoy doing all of them either because of the action of doing them, or the benefits they provide.

Realizing this was a significant discovery for me. Unfortunately, it brought me right back to where I started. I have many things to do. My challenge with prioritization is that I want to do them all. To one extent or another, they all provide value for me. at this point, the question is not “does it provide value”, but “does something else provide more value”, or how to I balance the “valuable” things I am doing so that there is enough work, enough personal, etc.?

Posted on: June 12, 2013 10:46 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Zen and the Art of Personal Kanban Maintenance

Personal Kanban Weeks 13-16: 

Zen and the Art of Personal Kanban Maintenance


Phaedrus had Quality
I have Value

The more I examine my approach to getting work done, the more I am aware of the inefficiency I have baked into it. The more I study about Lean, the more I become concerned about "waste". Waste is bad. Waste must be exterminated!


But what about the waste that is in there on purpose? Is that really waste?

When I teach classes, I bring a few extra workbooks for students, just in case. Most of the time, it goes in the trash at the end. So, the waste of creating extra materials for extra money is made worse by discarding it at the end of the class. Massive waste. However, that waste provided me with peace of mind that enabled me to be better focused on teaching the class. So, was it really waste?

To understand what waste is occurring and where it is taking place,  I need to understand what I am doing that does not contribute to "value".

Value = ?

In interviewing people about Personal Kanban, several of them said they prioritize work based on what makes them happy and that they only do things with make them happy. 

Initially, this sounded great, but, 

IF (value = happy)

THEN (who changes cat litter?)

I wasn't doubting the people who told me they prioritize based on what makes them happy, I was just struggling with all the other stuff that still had to get done.  When I asked what they did with the work that did not make them happy, they said they would delegate it if it was truly necessary. This was not something I was able to envision applying to my own world though.  I have no one to delegate to.

(Minions would be nice.) Even if I did, the thought of just dumping all the not happy work on them does not seem entirely in synch with my understanding of  servant leadership. 

I am clearly struggling with "value". I need some help.


To mark the halfway point in my 6-month experiment with Personal Kanban here is an update on where I am with it…

Original Goals - 100% achieved

1. I have learned more about how Kanban works and how it is different from Personal Kanban.

2. I have demonstrated to myself that I am capable of actually practicing some version of Personal Kanban

Having reached a point where I have solved my initial questions (above), I realized that to go any further with this I was going to need to solve a different (bigger) question:

What is value?

I also realized that if I wasn't going to go the same route as Phaedrus, I was going to need some assistance. 

While I've coached teams in Agile, I've never actually had a coach myself. This seemed like the perfect opportunity. I asked Brian Bozzuto if he would be kind enough to coach me and he was kind/foolish enough to agree to work with me for a few weeks. During our initial calls we talked about a number of topics which I will be posting about in the coming weeks. One of these, however, was "value".  After discussing the prioritizing by happiness approach, it seemed that defining happiness first would be key.  Boz suggested we both try an experiment. We each signed up for Track Your Happiness Once you sign up you begin receiving polls from them a few times a day trying to determine your relative level of happiness. After you complete a number of surveys they create a report that is designed to provide you with a better understanding of the things which truly bring you happiness. 

In the next post I will explain why the DFW is (sadly) my happy place.

Posted on: June 03, 2013 06:31 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Personal Kanban : The Heart of Darkness


Personal Kanban Experiment... Weeks 10-12

Kanban. (expletive) Still only in Kanban. Every time I think I’m gonna wake up back in the GTD…

Towards the end of my experiment with Kanban-for-1 I was feeling like I had lost my way. I was still carrying too much work to be able to make use of Kanban-for-1, but my attempts at using it had taught me a number of useful things.
  1. Whatever I use, it needs to be completely portable.
  2. Whatever I use needs to be available to me whether I am online or off.
  3. Whatever I use needs to be simple enough that the act of using it does not become a time/productivity suck. The tool can’t be in my way.
  4. I really like working with a physical board and would like something as close to that as possible.
  5. When I am home, and using the physical board on the wall, the process works quite well for me.

I toyed with the idea of trying to get a piece of plastic that I could use for a physical board and that I could roll up and carry with me. But I’m guessing that the person in seat 21A (who is probably still a bit irked about losing the battle for the armrest) is not going to take kindly to me unrolling my big Kanban board to work on it mid flight.

The Horror, The Horror

I did attempt to use my Kanban journal. This is the book I make notes in each week on how things are going. I carry it with me each time I go on the road, so it seems like a great fit. Exiting Kanban-for -1, I re-created all my post its and created a PK Board in my notebook that was just like the one on my wall. It worked great until I actually placed the post-its in the book. I was right back to the Kanban-for-1 issue. Drowning in a bunch of stuff I could not really see clearly. Just like with Kanban-for-1, if I had to move a task, first I had to dig through the piles of tasks to figure out where it was.

Disclaimer: I should point out that if you are reading this hoping to get to a point where I realize I’m just carrying way too many tasks… you might want to get a sandwich… it’s gonna be a while.
I decided to take a look at the Personal Kanban apps again. My requirements were the same:

  1. Must be available on laptop, iPhone and iPad.
  2. Must be as close to my physical board as possible (meaning must allow for swim lanes).
  3. Must have some capacity for dealing with recurring tasks.
  4. Must be available online and offline with a sync capability or something as easy as capturing notes on a post it or index card.

Basically I’m looking for Things, but Kanban style (cough cough Cultured Code cough cough).
Since I’ve started writing this blog people have been kind enough to send in a number of recommendations. Trello seems to be very popular. I’ve also received suggestions that I use Evernote for Kanban. I’d love to be able to do that, but I’ve not yet found a tool that would allow me to do so in as effortless a manner as I am looking for. Basically, if using the tool is more work than pulling an index card or a post it out of my pocket and capturing the item/updating the item while I am in an elevator, walking down the street, or sitting on a plane, it’s too much work.

Unfortunately, none of the tools I was able to find met all my requirements. However, after looking over the options, I decided o give Leankit a try. My reasons for choosing it were not entirely scientific, but I’m human…

Leankit allowed me to do the following:
  1. Set up my swim lanes just like I had them on the wall.
  2. Define the work state columns however I wanted.
  3. Establish whatever WIP limits I wanted and warn me when I tried to exceed them.
  4. It let me color code the cards based on work type.

The last point may seem trivial, but to me, it is very significant and one of the primary reasons that I have so much trouble with personal Kanban applications. The value of my physical board is that I can put everything I had to do up there at once. I can look at it all at once. It is a really big information radiator. For me, it’s a billboard telling me what is going on with the things I feel I need to do. No matter how awesome the software is, or how big my monitor is, there doesn’t seem to be a way to replicate the big thing on the wall + tactile interaction thing.

While my preference for a physical board is clearly established, there is no way that my physical board and my Martin travel guitar are going to fit in the overhead, so I need me some app-age.

"Never get out of the boat... Unless you were goin all the way."
(Capt. Willard)


I used Leankit for about a month during this project. As far as Personal Kanban apps go, it is my weapon of choice. I’ve not tested out the paid version, which includes some extra features and more detailed analytics, but I found the free version to be very helpful in tracking my work on the road. My favorite aspect of the application was the customization. I really liked that I could set up my board in Leankit to mirror the one I have at home. In practicing any work habit, I believe the first step should always be the physical practice. If it moves to an electronic tool, then it is important to select a tool that allows you to mirror your physical behavior. Leankit offered me the most freedom there.

It even allowed me to set up multiple backlogs so that I could mirror how Things had worked for me. While I wasn’t able to figure out how to get recurring tasks going, I was able to create a ReUsable backlog so that each night I could move the recurring Daily items back into that backlog if I wanted. I didn’t actually end up doing that, but it somehow eased my mind to know that I could.

It also allows you to set due dates, mark work as blocked and it has an icon system for type of work.

So, Leankit allowed me to replicate my physical board on the web. It also has an iPhone application which took a little time to get the hang of, but which allowed me to update items as long as I could get online. With respect to my requirements:

  1. Must be available on laptop, iPhone and iPad (PASS)
  2. Must be as close to my physical board as possible (meaning must allow for swim lanes) (PASS)
  3. Must have some capacity for dealing with recurring tasks (FAIL)
  4. Must be available online and offline with a sync capability or something as easy as capturing notes on a post it or index card (FAIL)

From a mobility standpoint, with the exception of offline sync, the tool works quite well. It allows me to access my work, update it, enter new items, etc. You can even set it up to allow you to access multiple accounts. On my iPhone I have Leankit set up to access my personal account under one email address and another one I use for Scrum Alliance volunteer work.

The fact that Leankit did not meet all my requirements is not significant for me. None of the applications I looked at were able to meet all of them. From a customization, portability and usability standpoint, I am a big fan of Leankit.

You can't go out into space with fractions.
Initially I had planned to keep testing different applications. What I discovered after a few weeks was that while I want to the portability, the loss of big information radiator-ness was crippling. This was something I decided needed further research, but not so much in the way of testing additional apps. What I felt I needed a better handle on was why I wanted the apps and what I was actually doing with them. I do expect to go back and test out some additional apps – I really want to take a look at Trello because a lot of people have mentioned to me that they use it. But, after a few weeks with Leankit I decided to bail on trying new software for a while because it was time to start working with a Personal Kanban coach. Coverage of that will begin in the next blog post.
Posted on: May 14, 2013 12:57 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Personal Kanban Week 9


Productivity Hangover

Ten minutes ago I was supposed to be writing this blog post. What I was doing instead was cleaning out the articles I have stored in Instapaper that have been in the queue for so long that they are no longer worth reading. This seemed really important at the time. And, I was actually-really supposed to be writing this blog post 30 minutes ago. But 30 minutes ago I was doing the stuff I meant to do 2 hours ago. And that is because 2 hours ago, I was still asleep because I stayed up until 3 AM trying to finish the things I had planned for the yesterday. This morning is all about the productivity hangover.

Yesterday, like most days, I planned too much into the day. There was no realistic way I’d be able to get it done given the fact that time is not quite as flexible as I’d like it to be and that I don’t have one of those boxes from Primer.

When a problem comes along... 

In working through this Personal Kanban project there is a question thing that has remained kind of an open issue for me the entire time. What about WIP? If you aren’t familiar with it, WIP stands for Work in Progress. In Kanban, the goal is to limit your work in progress in order to help maximize your throughput. Or, to put it more simply, you need to understand how much you can do at once before you start mucking things up. Once you understand that, you need to prevent yourself from taking on too much at once (and mucking things up). This also helps you understand how long it takes to get items through the system.

For the most part, the practitioners of Personal Kanban that I have spoken with have admitted that WIP is not something they pay much attention to. In speaking with them I did not dig too deeply on that topic at the time because it seemed to be non-critical. I was looking at WIP as a holdover from a more traditional approach to Kanban that had less relevance in Personal Kanban. Also, whether or not it is right or wrong, the items on my board are not sized in any way. Everything is the same, whether it is a writing a new Statement of Work, doing a load of laundry, finishing Clive Davis’s biography, or going through the legal steps of closing down a company. It is all just stuff I am trying to prioritize and do.

If you can dodge a wrench…

A few weeks ago I started working with an Agile Coach who was willing to take on the role of being my Personal Kanban Coach/Sherpa/Confessor. I am very fortunate that he was willing to take this on. The guy is brilliant and I have mad respect for him. I also can’t help but feel a bit bad for the guy. As far as being a coachee goes, I’m definitely having much with the room for optimization.

When I told him I told him I wasn’t really tracking my WIP I am pretty sure I heard him fall off his chair. The productivity guilt monster reared up and shamed me… so I recanted. I explained that I was tracking WIP …-ish. Which meant I had listed a number for WIP at the top of each of my columns and then I just wildly ignored that whenever the hell it seemed convenient…. Which was/is most of the time.

Putting the “fun” back in dysfunction

Shockingly, there are days when I can’t get everything done. Many times the reason is that I have other activities scheduled during time I would otherwise be working. I feel safe in the assumption that I am not alone in this. And yet for many of us, we somehow manage a level of delusion that permits us to plan to do work during the time we know we will be otherwise engaged. When this happens, we have these items, which we unrealistically planned, which cannot be completed on the schedule we put together. I have a master’s degree in project management and I’m deep with the Agile. I know how I am supposed to do this. I also know that how I am doing this is not healthy. I know it is not realistic. And yet it happens, over and over. I’m slowly becoming even more aware of how sharply fundamental an issue this is and how deeply and negatively it impacts my productivity. Because I do not have a clear and present awareness of my capacity and how to plan for that without exceeding it, I am always overfilling my bucket.  When I am teaching people in a work setting about how to keep from doing this, it’s easy to explain. I even have a calculator I’ve made for folks to use to help prevent them from overcommitting themselves each Sprint. But on an individual level am I really supposed to size every single thing I do and plan for doing just that and no more? That’s just not realistic.

And suddenly, just like that, I’m one of “those” students. The ones who like the ideas behind Agile, but who really need to spend some time at the Wall of Won’t.

(The teacher in me would now like to take the student in me out back now for a quick kneecapping… just for good measure.)

Sadly, I do not have a card for that on my board.

I hate when that happens.

Sherman! Time for a new Experiment!

I believe that understanding my capacity at a daily level, and planning to meet, but not exceed that capacity will allow me to complete more work each day. I believe that getting more items to a done state each day, and not leaving a lot of unfinished work on the board will have a positive impact on my ability to get work done that will further improve my productivity. I also believe that if I do not plan to do more than is possible in a day I will be better enabled to get the rest I need to be as productive as possible in future day. This is all common sense. It’s been proven over and over. We all have that voice in our heads telling us that we are special, that we can do more, that we are not bound by the normal laws of time and physics.

Yeah… not so much.

To experiment with this I am going to run two tests. First, I’m going to try the easy one … estimating ideal time for the items in my list and then also estimate my capacity. It will involve some overhead because I am going to have to do this every day, but I will try it for a week to see what happens.

The second part, which will be more challenging for me will be to try breaking my work up into pieces that are small enough to track progress on a daily basis. I’m going to run this for two weeks and then report on it.

Next week I’ll be back to the topic of software for Personal Kanban.

Posted on: April 30, 2013 11:53 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Personal Kanban Week 7


I had run across nomad8’s Kanbanfor1 physical boards at an Agile conference during the previous year. While one part of my brain looked at them and thought, "Wow, they are really charging a lot (about $28) for something I could put together myself on a chalkboard, whiteboard or refrigerator for $0. It was difficult for this part of my brain to get a message through edge-wise because the other part of my brain was drowning it out. The other part of my brain apparently thinks if I amass a certain volume of apps designed to “improve” my productivity I will somehow magically be transformed into some hyper productive version of myself that can work a 16 hour day, spend several hours of quality time with my wife and daughter at night and still manage to get something called “a full night’s rest”.  That part of my brain was shouting "BUY THAT NOW NOW NOW NOW NOW!"

Fortunately, I was able to talk myself down… probably by spending the same insane amount of money on a book I haven’t read.

When I found the app for the iPad though… I really compelled to test it out. And, it is very pretty to look at. I used it for several weeks… or rather, I tried to, did I mention it is very pretty to look at? This posting will concern it self with my review of the app. (Next week I’ll talk about what happened in between my attempts to get my world sorted with Kanbanfor1.)

The app has updated since I began testing it, so some of my concerns may have gone addressed already. I also think it is important to state up front that the issues I had with the application are not really problems with the application, they are problems with my approach to work.

The Basics

Kanbanfor1 is laid out in a very clean, basic way. You get boxes for the following:

  • Things to Do
  • Next
  • Doing
  • Waiting
  • Done
  • Notes

You also get a trashcan where you put the notes when they reach a state of whatever comes after done… ascended maybe?


The app is about as basic and simple to use as it could possibly be. There is a box with a “+” sign in the top left of the screen. Click it, and you get a New Task pop-up. You enter the task description, select from one of 6 colors for your task and click Done.  The task shows up in the Things to Do column. You can move it across the board. That’s it. That is all it does. I love that. It is what made me want to try it. ... (Once I came to grips with the fact that if there is a Kanban app that allows for online/offline access with sync. I am unable to locate it.)

I placed a task of each color in the notes field and used the names from the swim lanes on my physical board. I then replicated all the tasks from my board into Kanbanfor1. As far as I know, there is  no capacity for WIP limits in this app… it is bare bones, but kind of elegant in its’ simplicity.

(And did I mention it is pretty?)

While I knew this was going to be an issue, I underestimated how annoying it would become.  What I store on my iPad is only available on the iPad. This is great when I’m teaching a class or sitting on the couch, with my iPad. This is completely useless when I am trudging through an airport with a ridiculous amount of luggage. So, in those moments, I’m back to Things…, which I then re-enter into Kanbanfor1.

This lack of constant access didn’t seem to me like it should be a big deal. In practice though, I noticed that rather than updating as I go, which I do with the physical board, I was just not doing that with the app on my iPad. I ended up just capturing things at the end of the day. A subtle difference, but it meant that when I was posting the updates, I was having to look through all the tasks, figure out which ones I had completed and move them from Things to Do into Done. I lost the value that comes from the staged movement, and I lost the boost from moving it into Done when I completed it.

What was a more significant issue for me was the fact that there is no ability to change the size of the board. Sure, you can pinch and zoom, but it just makes the stickies larger too. If you have 10-20 things to do, this board is great. If your backlog has 30-40 things in it, this board is tough to work with. At least if you are going for that whole big, visible information radiator thing. In order to get all my tasks on the board I had to create stacks. So, in "Things to Do" I have a stack of things I have to do for work. There may be 10 things in there, I have to just stack them up, maintaining priority is not easy – you have to unstack the tasks one by one, and then restack them. (If you happen to suffer from something in the neighborhood of OCD, you are looking forward to hours spend restacking tasks in priority every time you want to work in a new item.)

So what I end up with (sans the WIP limits) is stacks in each of the boxes. While I love the simplicity and I think the way the app is designed makes a lot of sense, for someone who is carrying a lot of tasks, this board will simply not work. I think if there were some capacity to manage the height of the boxes, or the size of the tasks, it may work better. Unfortunately, at least while I was testing it, this was not the case. If, however, I had a more manageable set of Things to Do, and I was always going to have my iPad with me (the way I do my phone), I think this app would be a perfectly fine solution… even without the syncing.

Help Wanted

If anyone who reads this can recommend an app that offers online and offline access with a sync to reconcile changes, that is available on IOS, please let me know. I have been researching them, but so far, it is all about the cloud. I think the cloud is great, but when I’m stuck in the actual clouds for several hours at a time, I need to be able to enter new items and make updates.

Posted on: April 11, 2013 05:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Computers are useless. They can only give you answers."

- Pablo Picasso