My wife and I had success in the first three months we applied agile project management principles when running our household. But it didn’t stay that way. As we got busier with life, the system broke down. We stopped updating the scrum board and our Sunday night family meeting was focused on other things, planning vacations, homework, extra-curricular activities. We weren’t working as a team and we were unmotivated.
Rather than give up, we decided to try some more radical changes. First, we ditched the physical board. We weren’t using it and it had become just another chore to do; however, we still needed to make sure the purpose the board was supposed to fulfill was still being met. One thing the board provided was a visible status of what was done. That, we realized, could easily be achieved by just looking at the house.
We also realized we could take it a step further. In lean manufacturing, there’s a concept called “Gemba Walk” (“gemba” is a Japanese term meaning “actual place”), where you go and see where the work is being done and learn from the folks doing the work.We started doing our own “gemba walks” of the house while the house was being cleaned. We could see the progress as it was happening and also learn more about how our sons were doing the work.
We had also been using the board to plan the work that was being done and we had an interesting solution to that problem. We let the kids do it themselves.
At first, they struggled to figure out what needed to be done. We realized that they weren’t on the same page as us and that we needed to set a vision.
In agile project management, requirements are often written as user stories. User stories are typically structured – “As <some person or persons>, I want <some feature or task done>, so that I can <achieve some result>”. At first, we thought about writing stories for each room and we realized that was over complicating things. We decided on one story:
“As the Mazza family, we want a clean house, so that we can have friends over whenever we want and work efficiently and without distraction.” In one of our family meetings, we had talked about wanting to have friends over to the house for dinner parties, for play dates or just to hang out. One of the barriers we saw was that we had to plan in advance so that our house was ready to receive visitors (anyone with two young children likely knows what I mean!)
The other point about working without distraction came up when we talked about homework and creating spaces in the house conducive to study. Having neat and orderly spaces helped us all focus more and made it easier for me to work from home in the evenings instead of having to stay late at a client.
Coming from a shared vision that we all agreed on made it easier for us to trust the boys. They got better at deciding what needed to get done and prioritizing. Add to that the fact that we were also there with them in “place where work is done,” learning and giving feedback, it became easier to be sure that we were working on the most important tasks. Not only were they engaged in deciding what needed to be done but also helping to determine who should do it based on skills, desire, and other workloads. We started sharing the work we had outside of the weekly chores and used that to figure out who should work on what.
The kids also wanted to be learning new things and I wanted them to be getting better at what they knew how to do. We did this with leadership and time estimates. We decided that each job would have a leader who was responsible for making sure it got done. Each of us took turns and we debriefed about what worked and what didn’t work in motivating a team. My oldest learned that yelling at his brother didn’t work so great, but that teaching him and helping him worked better. This way they were learning how to be better leaders.
We also would estimate the time the work took and would check how close we were. For example, when it came time to clear the table and load the dishwasher, we would set a target to try to finish by – usually 15-20 minutes. We’d loosely track how long it took last time (easier to do since we do it every night) and see how well we did against our goal. We’re talking as a team about how to do things more efficiently – for instance, taller people should put away bowls since they’re at the top of the cabinet. My youngest has even been pushing us to try to beat our best time of 10 minutes.
Looking back at what we’ve done over the past year, I’m reminded of a book I’d read by Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. I’m oversimplifying it, but in it, he outlines Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose as core principles of what motivates us. At the time I read it, I thought it only applied to creative or thoughtful work and I didn’t think of cleaning the house as qualifying. I’ve learned that it does apply. I think why it works is that in a large way it’s about respect and trust. Similarly, to project work, giving the boys autonomy and encouraging them to work on mastery and setting a vision/defining our purpose was about trusting them and respecting them. That trust and respect leads to higher performing teams.
I’ve found the same principles apply to my agile project work. Recently on a project, we (my team and I) were running behind on schedule and I was concerned we weren’t going to meet our deadline for the product release. My kneejerk reaction was to go to the team and ask them to work more hours to get the project done, but remembering back to my experiences at home, I went to the team instead and told them my concerns and asked them how they thought we should resolve the issue. They, like my boys, got more creative in determining who could do which tasks and they made some suggestions to trim back problematic (difficult to implement) parts of the scope of the stories. I took these suggestions back to the product owner – some were accepted, some weren’t. We found ways of working more effectively and the team decided on their own to work a couple of weekends without being asked. We got the project done on time and the team felt a greater sense of ownership and, I hope, trust, and respect.