Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Drunken PM meets Personal Kanban

For the past 18 years I have been developing my skills at helping people manage the work they have to do into a state of ninja-like perfection-ish. As I have progressed in my career I have had the good fortune to work on projects of varying size, duration and cost. Some have been successful, but more have not – and that is okay because those are the ones where I’ve learned the most. To demonstrate my proficiency in my chosen profession I have obtained multiple certifications to prove I know how to manage work in both a traditional approach and an Agile approach. I’ve even spent years teaching others how to get those same certifications. Along the way I also got an MBA to demonstrate… whatever it is an MBA is actually supposed to demonstrate beyond that I am willing to be in debt until I go to my grave.   And I’ve given up thousands of hours of personal time leading volunteer organizations that focus in managing work and teaching people how to get better at it.

After all that, I feel it is fair to say I am fairly well versed in how to manage projects and I’m pretty good at it.  My experiences have taught me many things… most of them the hard way. And with this, I have found only one single truth that spans all of it:
Being skilled at helping others manage their work is no guarantee you will demonstrate any level of skill at managing your own.
In fact, I think it is fair to say I pretty much suck at managing my own work. I’m not saying I am not good at getting things done. I get stuff done all day long, and usually, it is the most important stuff. But I’m not good at managing it.

When I started working in project management, this was not a problem. It was 1995. I did not have a cell phone. I had one email account and I could log into AOL from home or work via my 14.4 modem. There was literally only so much information I could access in a day. Compared to now, the information overhead I faced on a daily basis was pretty light. My weekly to do list usually looked something like this:

This is a sheet of notebook paper folded in half 3 times, so that each side contains 8 boxes just like the one above. When the section of the paper got too crowded, I’d copy the open items to a new section and start again. A single sheet of paper torn from a notebook could usually take care of my list of to-dos for 2-3 weeks. (This was how we did things back in the olden days before the Palm III.)

And now, as I am writing this, blog posting about having too much to do, Things has 170 items in it waiting for me to get to. Granted, they aren’t all due today but it is so many that even trying to manage what I am not going to do has become pretty much impossible. I’ve tried many different approaches and finally reached a point where I thought I had it sorted. At that point, my goal, with any single piece of information, was to get it out of my head and into something more responsible as fast as possible. For me, this means put it in Things if it is an action I have to take care of, in Evernote if it does not go in Things and on those occasions where I am not able to access electronics, I have my overpriced Field Notes notebook and one of those weird sticks that ink comes out of. With this I have gotten very good at making sure I capture everything worth capturing. But dealing with it after… that is where things get wonky.

This past December I found myself in the bizarre position of having to take a whole month off from work. It was that or lose the vacation time. While I’d expect this would sound like a truly wonderful opportunity to most people, it scared the crap out of me. The problem was, I had so many things I wanted to do during my vacation that I was pretty sure I’d end up just curling up in a ball on the couch and watching all 10 seasons of MI-5 again just to avoid having to pick which thing I was going to take on first.

As much as I love MI-5, I didn’t think I’d be able to cope with losing Tom, Zoey and Danny again, so I decided to do something about it. And, since one of the main things I do for a living is teaching Agile, I decided to practice what I preach and started getting set up to give Personal Kanban a try.

I’m writing this after 5 weeks of my own attempt at Personal Kanban. I've been holding a retrospective once a week and keeping a journal on how it is going.  My current plan is to keep working with it and experimenting with different practices to see what works for me and what doesn’t. I’ll be posting back to this blog about once every two weeks with updates on what I’ve learned and what I’m going to try next.

A friend of mine once told me that when he met with new clients about Agile Transformation, he tried to focus on making sure they understood that Agile was not going to make them faster, but it would make the broken ugly things so obvious that they’d have no choice but to deal with them. I’ve seen that happen over and over in my own work. I am happy (and totally annoyed) to report that the exact same thing happens when you apply the practices at a personal level. 

If you are interested in learning more about how to apply Kanban to managing your personal work, you might try Personal Kanban by Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry.