Scrum for One

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That’s a funny word, isn’t it? “Scrum.” Scrum is a project management strategy for software development teams. The name comes from rugby (I guess) where it refers to the start of a new play. In the programming world, it’s a technique of coordinating a team’s work without a clear plan, working towards attainable short-term goals, and then repeating the process towards another set of goals – which I suppose is kind of like playing towards a goal in rugby. Except, you know – fewer broken bones. Hopefully.

I’m not part of a software development team. I’m not even a programmer. But when I came across an article on Scrum recently, it struck me that, while intended for big, collaborative projects, there were a lot of elements of Scrum that could be adapted pretty well to individual productivity. Although Scrum can be implemented at any stage of a project, it really excels as a way of dealing with projects that have stalled out for some reason – projects that have gotten stuck for lack of resources, lack of direction, even lack of teamwork – and that’s something that happens to all of us at one time or another. Maybe, just maybe, the principles that get teams of programmers back on track can apply to the projects every one of us has gotten stuck on.

Scrum 101

Although there are whole textbooks devoted to managing teams and their projects using Scrum, the basic principles are very simple:

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Scrumming Solo

Seems to me that, with a little modification, those are pretty good principles for anyone with some big projects on their plate – especially if you, like me, have a tendency to get side-railed. Of course, most of our projects aren’t collaborative, and they’re rarely as compartmentalized as computer programs, either. The idea of developing a project by evolutionary steps, with each step creating a potentially usable end-product, simply doesn’t apply to the kind of long-term projects most of us have as individuals – things like writing a book, learning a foreign language, or earning a promotion.

But the idea of Scrum is, I think, very applicable to our personal lives. The whole point is, through a process of constant self-awareness, to identify what’s holding us back, how we can work around it, and where the next few days or weeks should take us. Consider, then, “Scrum for One”:

  • Do what you can with what you have. There are bound to be hang-ups in any project worth doing, and it’s all too easy to look at a project and despair because you don’t have whatever you need to finish it. Well, you may not have what you need to finish, but chances are you have what you need to start, to do at least some of the steps needed to get yourself somewhere close to the finish line. And you can take heart from this peculiarity of Scrum: often, when working under less than ideal circumstances without all the necessities to finish a project, Scrum teams find that either a new solution emerges that’s much more within their grasp or, just as often, that the missing element isn’t really needed in the first place. At the worst, you’ll give yourself the time you need to come up with the missing piece – and meanwhile you’ll be moving inexorably closer to your goal.
  • Constant self-reflection. If you’re a fan of Allen, Covey, or Drucker, you’ve probably already accepted the importance of a weekly review. Scrum for One suggests that more frequent reflection might be helpful – nothing at the scale of a full weekly review, but a few moments of honesty each morning to define the work in front of you and any problems that might be standing in the way. Brainstorm a few minutes to see if you can solve the issue, and if not, put it in your to-do list for later action. A lot of time, just asking “What’s standing in my way?”is enough to trigger a solution – more often than not, the problem lies more in ourselves than in our situation.
  • Work towards clearly-defined, short-term goals. Give yourself a time limit and set a reasonable goal – reasonable, but meaningful – to reach by the end of that period. Projects that stretch out in front of you for months or years are discouraging (which is why so few people write books) while projects that are too small often aren’t very satisfying to complete.
  • Sprint. Sprinting the way Scrum teams do it won’t really work for individuals – you probably have a lot of different roles to play on a day-to-day basis, which means focusing on a single project to the exclusion of everything else is going to be difficult, if its even possible. What you can do, though, is block out a number of hours every day and use them to focus strictly on one project – no distractions, no knocking off early, no nothing until you reach your goal.
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Obviously this isn’t anything like a complete productivity system, but it’s interesting nonetheless. Scrum is a very effective way of managing projects, and is used by software giants like Microsoft as well as tiny start-ups and everything in between. If nothing else, next time you’re stuck, ask yourself the simple question, “What’s standing in my way right now?” and see if that doesn’t lead to “OK, what am I going to do about it?”

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