Personal Agility (RC2)

Personal Agility is a simple framework for people who want to do more that matters and have more impact through their actions. This article explains Personal Agility and how to use it to achieve your goals.

As a release candidate, the information below is correct, but not necessary complete. This document assumes some familiarity with Scrum, which needs to be de-emphasized in future versions. Important concepts, including the “boat and the sea” metaphor and creating alignment with stakeholders are not yet included. And I need to add some pictures… Stay tuned…

Personal Agility is based on the same values, principles and patterns as Scrum, but recognizes that organizing your life is a different challenge than developing a product in a team. As such it is much more general and can be applied in situations where Scrum is not appropriate.

I was initially inspired by an article Critical Things Ridiculously Successful People Do Every Day, by Travis Bradberry, in which the author suggested that such people manage the minutes, not hours. I decided that I wanted to be such an individual, but quickly realized that if managing the minutes is key, then such people must lead much more predictable lives than I do. My life is not that predictable. So I set out to create something that balances focus with flexibility.

Today, almost everybody has more things to do than time to do them. Highly creative people have almost by definition more ideas than time to execute them. In either case, deciding what to do and what not to do is the key to doing things that matter.

Personal Agility is designed to enable you to reflect on your goals and intentions at regular intervals, so you can ensure that you are doing the right things first, and can you stop working when additional work brings no further benefit.

I tested Personal Agility for about 12 weeks. My wife Sabine served as my Celebration Master for most of that time. We were amazed at how we both have gotten much better at getting important things done (even though she is not formally doing Personal Agility herself). We also understood each other much better and had fewer unpleasant surprises during the week. The weekly discussions on what’s important help us synchronize and focus on activities beyond the urgent tasks of daily life. Over a year later, we still do it — with a smile! — and really miss it when for some reason we can’t.

I believe Personal Agility can help anybody do more that matters and have more impact.

In a business context, Personal Agility can enable managers and their staff to achieve high alignment and transparency about goals, forecasts and milestones achieved. In a personal context, spouses and partners can coach each other to set and achieve objectives together. And as a coach, you can use Personal Agility to enable your clients to identify and work toward their important goals in life and work.

Why Personal Agility?

It takes just as much time to flip a quarter as to flip a penny, but the quarter is more valuable. So where should you invest your time? On the quarters, i.e on the things that bring value to you.

Sometimes resting or “chilling” is the right thing to do, and that’s OK too. Personal Agility doesn’t try to tell you what’s important; it just helps you to recognize what’s important to you, so you can do the right thing.

Personal Agility enables you ask and find answers to the key questions that enable you to make better use of your time:

  • What is important?
  • What is urgent?
  • What do I want to accomplish?
  • What am I going to do today?

Like Scrum, Personal Agility is defined through a small number of roles, artifacts and events. Each of them exists to help you ask and answer these questions, and ensure that your answers are still the right answers as you and your situation evolve over time.

Unlike Scrum, Personal Agility has no rules to follow. Personal Agility consists of a few agreements to make with yourself and maybe one other person, so that you ask yourself important questions at regular intervals. If you miss a week, it’s not the end of the world. If you find that certain aspects don’t bring you value, it’s OK not do them.

I think of Personal Agility as a kind of gravitational force – it exerts a gentle, attractive guidance that always pulls me back to doing the right thing.

How does Personal Agility work?

In a nutshell:

  • You meet with yourself, your Personal Agility coach, or your manager once per week to review the last week and set goals for the upcoming week.
  • You discuss what’s important, what’s urgent, and what you want to accomplish this week
  • You visualize your goals and tasks with a Priorities Map
  • You reserve time for important, but non-urgent goals.
  • You set a key goal each morning for your day

I use Trello to visualize my Priorities Map and my calendar to plan my things that need coordination with other people.

Personal Agility is not about contemplating your navel or answering the deeper questions of life. It will help you figure out what really matters in the sense of what drives your actions.

Once you have figured out what really matters, or “where you want to go,” Personal Agility will help you get there.

Core Principles

Personal Agility was inspired by what I recognize to be the core principles of Scrum:

  1. Inspect and adapt at regular intervals
  2. Produce something of value at regular intervals
  3. A team solves the whole problem
  4. One voice is responsible for answering the question ‘Why?’
  5. A coach helps everyone get better

Roles

Scrum defines three roles: The Product Owner, who is responsible for Why, the Development Team who is responsible for delivering the solution, and a Scrum Master, whose job is to help the other two roles and the organization get better at their jobs.

Personal Agility also defines three roles, “Me, Myself and I.” Think of them as your personal Product Owner, your personal Team, and your personal “Celebration Master.” How these roles are assigned depends on your context. Optimally you will take on two of the three roles and get help from another person for about one hour per week for the third.

Me, Myself and I

“Me! Me! Me! It’s all about me!” — My inner Product Owner
“I do all the work Myself!” — My inner Team.
“I often have to remind Me to be nice to Myself!” — My inner coach

If you are not employed or under contract, then you are an independent, thinking agent. You are responsible for your own life. You get to set your own priorities and do your own work. In Scrum terms, you are both the Product Owner and Development Team.

Even if you are employed or under contract, you are still an independent, thinking agent, and you are still responsible for your own life! You still do your own work, but your might not get to set your own priorities, especially at work. In Scrum terms, you are the Development Team and Scrum Master, but your manager or other stakeholder takes on the role of Product Owner.

None of this prevents you from asking others for help, working with others, or even working in a Scrum team in a larger context. It just says, “it’s your life, you are responsible for it, and you get to decide.”

“Me” — Your Personal Product Owner

Me’s job is to answer the question what really matters. “Me” has an answer for the question why should you do this (and not that)?

What if you do not have control over your priorities? For instance, if you are working in a company and you have a manager, this person may have control over your priorities and your time (hopefully just at work!). The events are the same, except that you take on the role of Celebration Master and meet with your manager (your “Personal Product Owner”) to ensure that you understand what really matters, review what you have accomplished, discuss what is important, what is urgent and what you need to accomplish this week.

Myself — Your Personal Team

You are always yourself. You do the work of your life.

“I” — Your Celebration Master

What does a personal coach do? A coach helps you unlock the potential in you. The assumption is that you know or can figure out how to solve your problems, but may need help identifying the problem or the best course of action, so a good coach asks you the right questions.

The main duty of your Celebration Master is to ask the key, “powerful” questions at the weekly Celebrate and Choose event: What have you accomplished? (High Five!) What is important? What is urgent?

So your Celebration Master will meet with you once per week to review what you have accomplished, discuss what is important, what is urgent, what really matters, and given all that, what you want to accomplish next.

Artifacts

An artifact is something created by people. In this case, created to help you achieve some other purpose. The artifacts of Personal Agility help you answer three essential questions:

  1. What is important?
  2. What am I going to work on?
  3. What have I accomplished?

Priorities Map

You manage priorities as a kind of a story map. The columns correspond to the different kinds of importance, and the cards in the columns to individual goals or tasks. Your Priorities Map includes at least these 6 columns:

  1. What really matters?
  2. What could I do?/what is important?
  3. What is urgent?
  4. What do I want to do this week?
  5. What did I get done this week?
  6. What have I gotten done in previous weeks?

The what really matters column shouldn’t change very often (once you’ve gotten it figured out) and shouldn’t have more than three or four entries. If too many things matter, then nothing matters. Sort this column by importance (to you).

  • The columns What could I do? and What is urgent? enable you to perform triage on the many things you could do and decide which ones you want to accomplish this week. Sort by importance, which is also the order you want to get these items done.

At the weekly Celebrate and Choose, move cards from important or urgent into do this week. Sort the cards in the order your want to have them finished. As the goals are accomplished, move them into done this week. This makes it easier to review them at the end of the week. After the celebration, move them to done in previous weeks, so that they are out of the way.

What if a goal can’t be accomplished in a week?

There are two possible approaches: One is to make cards for smaller goals that can be accomplished in a week. The other is to create a checklist for the steps along the way, checking them off as you go along. Both approaches have their merits and disadvantages. It’s your Personal Agility! Experiment and pick the approach that works best for you in your situation.

Forces Map and Breadcrumb Trail

The Forces Map can be used to organize and prioritize to-do’s according to what really matters. If you have many things to do for multiple priorities in your life, then it may be helpful to have a to-do list for each major force in your life.

Sometimes the best way to understand where you are going is to see where you have been. Organizing your done items by week or by month enables you to see what has actually mattered to you in the past.

This is called the Breadcrumb Trail. It offers a hint at what really mattered in your life in the past. If what mattered does not agree with what actually matters, then choose to do different things moving forward to get on course.

Your Calendar

Your time is limited, so how much you can do is limited as well. Time-critical, “urgent” things tend to push out other important things, so scheduling important goals to ensure that you have time to work on them can be very helpful. Or use the strict sequencing of your do this week column.

You are the master of your calendar, not the other way around. You put things in your calendar to help you do the right thing. But if your needs change, that’s OK, change your calendar!

If your schedule is too full, especially with immovable appointments, you become inflexible and have no time to do actual work. So in general, important tasks should only be scheduled during the current week, and known, urgent tasks should be scheduled only a day or two in advance. Obviously if you are scheduling time with someone, you may need to schedule it further in advance, but be aware of the dangers of an overfull calendar!

Checklists

How do you know something is really done? In Scrum, you have a Definition of Done, which is an agreement between the various roles so that everyone means the same thing when they say it is done.

In Personal Agility, you usually only have to answer to yourself or your Personal Product Owner, so a check list is probably sufficient.

I use Trello to manage my tasks. My Priorities Map includes two additional columns: “True North” which gives me a long term perspective on what I want to accomplish, and Templates, for things that I do over and over and for which I want to reuse the Checklists.

Personal Agility does not define a “Product Increment,” though if the metaphor is useful to you, you can of course use it. For example, a startup CEO might say “We want to become a viable business. At the end of each iteration, our company should be closer to being a viable business.”

In Personal Agility, the idea is simpler. Each week should support what really matters to bring you closer to your goals or to whom you want to be.

Events

Week

The basic rhythm in Personal Agility is a calendar week. Once per week you get together with yourself, your Celebration Master or your Personal Product Owner to review your priorities, celebrate what you have accomplished, identify what is important or urgent, and choose what you want to accomplish in the upcoming week.

Weekly Celebrate and Choose Event

Each week starts with the Celebrate and Choose (“C&C”) event. In Scrum, this would be Sprint Review and Sprint Planning. You can do this on any day of the week, though earlier in the week often feels more natural. The agenda always addresses the following questions:

  • Celebrate: What have I accomplished since the last C&C event?
  • What really matters?
  • What could I do this week?
  • Chose: Of those things, what is important and what is urgent?
  • Chose: Of those things that are important or urgent, what would I like to accomplish this week?

Important means, if you don’t do them, something undesirable will happen, but there is no immediate deadline or consequence if they are not done. For example, getting your book written is important, but nothing will happen to you if you don’t write a chapter this week.

Urgent also means something undesirable will happen, except an immediate deadline means that if something is not done quickly, something undesirable will happen soon. For instance, if you don’t make a credit card payment, you may incur a penalty or worse.

A common problem is having so much urgent work to do that there is no time to do important work. Recognizing this, blocking time for important work, and reducing urgent work are key to achieving long-term objectives. After reviewing what is urgent and what is important, choose tasks and goals that will best bring you forward and you think you can accomplish in the course of the week. Reserve time during the week in your calendar for important and/or time-consuming activities that are not urgent.

Daily Celebrate and Choose Event

One key cause of procrastination is having too much to do. Where are you going to start?

At the beginning of each day, ask yourself three questions:

  • Celebrate: What did you get done yesterday?
  • Choose: What is the most important thing to get done today?
  • Unblock: If that is difficult, who could help?

The first question is to help your morale. The second question is to help you decide where to start. And the third question is to help you get unstuck (if it’s needed),

When I started doing this, I quickly discovered three things:

  1. Nothing worth writing down takes less than 25 minutes. If it really is trivial, I should do it right away. Otherwise, the minimum time to handle an issue is a “pomodoro.”
  2. I am a hopeless optimist. Things always take longer than I thought. I learned to budget more time than I thought it would take, because it will take more time than I think.
  3. I am still a hopeless optimist. Even after adjusting my estimates to be more realistic, I discovered that after a couple of days of working at full speed, I need a rest. A sustainable pace is less than 100% utilization. So take time for breaks.

I have an email sent to me every day with the Daily Celebrate and Choose questions. Even if all I do is look at the email and answer the questions in my head, it helps me focus.

Saying Yes, Saying No, and What Really Matters

Sooner or later, you run out of time. Sooner or later, you will need rest. Sooner or later, you will have to say no. The question is not will you say no, but when will you say no, to what will you say no, and how will you say no. Some goals will never get any work done. You might as well take them off your radar screen.

The decision not to do something should be an active decision. You should say no to things that do not bring you value. This frees time for things that do bring you value.

I found it useful to define “True North.” This is the star I navigate by. What is really important? True North is the first column on my Priorities Map.  The top item in that column is “do something for my family at least once per week.” By having my priorities in front of me, I am reminded of what I need to say yes to.

In Personal Agility this “true north” is called What Really Matters. It is the answer to the deeper whys of your life. If you know what really matters, if you know why you do things, it becomes possible to say no to things that don’t matter. If you can build consensus on what really matters in your team or organization, then you have a basis for making decisions that stick.

How to Start

Getting started is easy:

  1. Agree with yourself to try Personal Agility for a month.
  2. Ask yourself, why are you doing Personal Agility? What do you want to achieve? Write your goals down and stick them on the wall or on the fridge – someplace you will see it!
  3. If possible, agree with someone to be your Celebration Master or Personal Product Owner to try it for a month. (If you can’t find someone, you can do it yourself, but having a second person involved makes it easier!). If you are doing this at work, your Personal Product Owner is probably your manager and the C&C event is called a “weekly One on One.”
  4. Pick a time for your Weekly Celebrate and Choose. You’ll need an hour (maybe 2 hours for the first one). It should be the same day and same time every week, preferably at the beginning of the day.
  5. Create your Priorities Map with the six columns. (I use Trello for this). Start entering Goals and Tasks in the what could I do column.
  6. Meet up with your Celebration Master weekly to celebrate and choose.
  7. Review and update your Priorities Map frequently.

Join the Community!

If you think this is cool, join the community and join the discussion. I am working on a book. You will find chapters as they become available as well as a free intro video and free tools.