When things get hard…

“We practice when things are easy so we can use it when they get hard.”

The phone in the dining room rang, the caller id showed my parent’s number.  My wife looked at the phone, then up at the clock, then at me.  Somehow, we instinctively knew what was coming.  I pushed the speakerphone button, and I heard my mother’s voice, quiet and wracked with grief. “I’m all alone.”

Early the next morning, I walked into my parent’s home.  My mother met me just inside, and wrapped her arms around me, sobbing.  I returned the hug and held her for a few minutes.  My father’s death had been sudden and unexpected.  So much so, that she wasn’t prepared to take on the myriad, mundane, day-to-day responsibilities of running the house.  That was why I was there.  To help her through the next few days of phone calls, and visits, and ultimately to unravel my father’s bookkeeping system to make sure the bills were going to continue to be paid.

She began with a long stream of things she needed to do.  She had already filled a page in a spiral notebook of people who had to be contacted and stuff that needed to be done.  But the list was mostly random.  One item flowed into the next.  No order to them at all.  No regard for which were important.  Even as we stood there, she thought of something else to add – as she would repeatedly over the next few hours.  More than once during that day, I would find myself categorizing things that came up.  “Yes, we need to look into that today.”  “That can wait until the weekend.”  “That’s one for the weeks ahead.”  “Let’s not worry about that one right now.”  When I finally left for the day, we had barely scratched the surface of what we needed to do.  At least I had managed to login to his computer, and was relieved to find he had kept near-perfect records of years of financial transactions.

Early the next morning, before I went back, I was checking in with one of the scrum masters on a team I am coaching.  We were talking about the state of things and the need to put some priority to it.  I don’t know how it started.  Perhaps it was some comment from him that triggered the thought.  All I know, is I noted how much easier this would be if we could just visualize the list… it suddenly clicked.

I swept into Mom’s house that morning with a box full of post-it notes, sharpies and a pad of flip-chart paper.  I scanned her list, and started classifying the items there.  Some were big items that would take many steps to complete.  Others were simple one-off tasks.  I grouped related tasks together, and before long, I had list of Stories and Tasks which I began arranging on the first flipchart.  Stories were placed in a single column down the far left side, arranged in priority order, highest to lowest.  Then I put the related Tasks, stretching out to the right of each story.  I even settled on a color-coding for the different tasks.  Things we needed to go out to get (blue), blockers that prevented progress (orange), simple actions (yellow), and even a few nice-to-haves (green). Throughout the day, I added new Stories and Tasks as they came up, shifting stickies on the board as I went.  Mom watched with interest, but didn’t see any real difference between our two lists.  At one point during the day, one of her friends walked in, and looked with interest at the colorful sheet of stickies.  “That’s his list of things we need to do,” she said.

When I was satisfied with the list, I hung it on the far left side of the large aquarium that dominates the room.  Then I hung two more sheets to the right of that one.  I labeled each of the boards:  TODO, IN PROGRESS and DONE.

I then sat down at the computer and started looking into some of the items from the top of the board.  I worked at it for a couple of hours, and then realized it was getting late, and I needed to get back home to Becky and the girls.

Mom watched as I got up and walked over to the board and looked it over.  “I guess we didn’t accomplish very much today, huh?” she asked solemnly.

“Actually, we did pretty good.”   Starting at the top, I started moving stickies.  “This is done.  These two are done.  This one … is still in progress.  We’ll have to work on that tomorrow.”   The colored notes were shifted to the appropriate IN PROGESS or DONE board.  As I moved the task cards, I explained how I had started with the most important items at the top of the list, and focused on tasks that I could quickly finish before I left.  I pointed out two of the orange stickies on the TODO side.  “We need to figure those out by the end of the day tomorrow.”

Mom suddenly brightened.  “OH!  You’re keeping track of where you are on these!  I could do this, couldn’t I?”  She pointed at one of the post-its.  “I could do this one on my own in the morning.  So, when I start it, I move it over to here?”, she asked, pointing at the IN PROGRESS board.

“Yup.  And when you finish it….”

“I move it to DONE.”

I smiled and nodded.

“I can do this!”

I took a picture of the board right before I left that night.  The next morning, I called her as I left the house to let her know I’d be there in an hour.

“I finished 5 things this morning!”

“Cool!  Did you move the sticky?”

“Yes.  I also put that first orange one on the second board.  I’m going to call the funeral director as soon as we’re off the phone…”

For the rest of the week, we ended each day at the board, updating progress and figuring out what would be the most important thing to tackle the next morning.  The list grows smaller each day.  I was quite pleased to come in one morning to find some additional tasks on the board that she had thought of while I was out.  It helped us focus our attention.  Yes, there were a million things that we needed to do.  But THESE were the important things today — and look at all the progress we’ve made!

When I related the story above to my scrum master friend, he recited the quote that started this post.  “We practice when things are easy, so we can use it when they get hard.” 

This certainly wasn’t the first time I thought of applying agile practices outside of a work or software development setting.  But it was most certainly a personal application I had not seen coming.  Yet there I was in the midst of an overwhelming loss, and it was there in the chaos with me.  I was grateful beyond words that she took to it so naturally, and was able to use the method to bring order to the chaotic world she suddenly found herself in.  In a sense, it was a poignant reminder of why I became an Agile Coach in the first place.  I do this to make a difference in people’s lives.  And sometimes … it even helps me!

Author: Michael Marchi

Michael Marchi CSM, CSPO Co-Founder and Board Member @ APLN Chicago (michael.marchi@aplnchicago.org) Manager, Delivery Leadership / Agile Coach & Trainer @ Strive Consulting (mmarchi@striveconsulting.com)

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