#agileselfdev: Notes from Austin

[This post originally appeared on its own blog, prior to my merging all Agile Self Development posts into Discardia's archives.]


Thanks again to everyone who attended our core conversation session this morning at SXSW Interactive! We had a great group to explore these concepts, particularly as they relate to getting the most out of intense experiences like conferences.

While it's still fresh in my mind, I want to share some of what we brought to the session and heard from folks there.

One of my key beliefs, which led to the creation of agile self development, is that personal growth happens most effectively as a series of small, incremental changes. When there is a huge, daunting goal often our little monkey brains freak out and nothing gets done. The mountain just seems too high to climb. When Marcy and I instead think about effectively helping people make small incremental changes, we're finding that we can use some of the techniques for agile software development that help teams build a little bit of software at a time and continue building it into something more full-featured, making adjustments and changes along the way. It's a natural set of tools to adapt to personal growth, especially for engineers. What we've written about so far here on this site is a beginning of a practice we hope will grow; none of it is set in stone and we're looking forward to iterative improvement in the approach itself.


So what is "agile software development"? Agile is a lightweight methodology used for writing software. It is a reaction against document-heavy, waterfall-style development. The Agile Manifesto was published in 2001 and the practice community has grown continuously from there.

What does Agile do?

  • Creates early and continuous delivery of valuable results.
  • Adapts readily to changing information and requirements.
  • Measures progress against estimates regularly.
  • Reflects on effectiveness, tunes and adjusts accordingly.

What are some tools Agile uses?

  • 3×5 cards or Post-Its to make a list of possible choices.
  • Stack-ranking them to decide between options.
  • Estimation poker to see how long things will take.
  • Iteration plans at the beginning of a cycle.
  • Team standup and acceptance daily.
  • Retrospective or end of iteration meetings at the end of a cycle.


So what's agile self development? Agile self development is a lightweight methodology used for personal development. It is a reaction against all-or-nothing goals, resolutions, and productivity systems. It enables geeks to re-purpose tools they already know and we hope the practice community will evolve from here.

What does agile self development do? Same as Agile! Creates early and continuous delivery of valuable results. Adapts readily to changing information and requirements. Measures progress against estimates regularly. Reflects on effectiveness, tunes and adjusts accordingly.


We see Agile Self-Development as a series of sprints, correcting and adjusting as new information is learned. Here (as Marcy described in our last post) is the way we envision it working:

  1. What is your big, exciting vision?
  2. What are all the ways you could start?
  3. Which item is do-able now, and yields immediate results?
  4. What can you measure?
  5. Now, start the sprint!
  6. At the end of the sprint, host your retrospective…
  • How did it go?
  • How accurate was your estimate?
  • What did you learn about the world/yourself?
  • What will you change for the next sprint?


Here's an example: Imagine someone whose vision is of a light-filled, uncluttered top floor apartment instead of her current dark and dreary basement one. She knows she doesn't currently have the savings to move, so how can she use agile self development to make progress toward that goal over the next month?

She gets out a blank piece of paper and brainstorms lots of ways –practical and silly – she could get closer to that dream. Then she circles the ones she could start doing right now. From those she picks a couple to focus on for this sprint and she makes an appointment with herself in her calendar for one month in the future to hold a retrospective and review her progress.

She's going to work on her debt by reducing her spending and not using her credit card. That's easily measurable – and she can note in that calendar appointment the current numbers to save herself time when comparing later. Whenever possible be nice to your future self!

One of her uncircled ideas was 'get a raise' which isn't fully under her control, but she can influence it. She decides she is going to check when her next review is, look at what her boss wanted to see in the way of improvement at the last one, and then find ways to demonstrate her progress in those areas. On her work calendar she books half an hour in each of the next four weeks to focus on that. She can measure herself against those review goals.

Her last focus area is to start eliminating junk that doesn't need to move to the new apartment. She sets up a charity box and empties the trash and recycling so that every time she notices something that isn't in her vision of the new place, she can immediately move it into one of those outbound bins. Measurement here is simply how much she gets rid of and how her mood improves as the current place becomes less cluttered.


Good so far? Now how can we apply agile self development to get getting more out of SXSW? How can each of us pay attention to this experience and make it a valuable sprint?

Let's start with imagining an awesome next Wednesday (or whenever the end of the conference will be for you). That's another way of saying 'I'm defining a sprint of now until I come back from SXSW and I'm brainstorming the touchstone for a successful, valuable sprint’. What's my state of mind on my way home? Envision a valuable outcome, then examine possible choices – with that touchstone in mind allowing you to eliminate things that won't provide the outcome you're seeking. After that, if necessary, do some rough ranking to reduce down to a non-overwhelming number of options.

Why keep a lot of options? Agility! Our rebellious monkey brains don't like to be told what to do all the time – monkeys don't like leashes – so support your ability to shift into your current most effective gear. 'What is best for me to do now with my available resources, context, and energy?' (Hello, Getting Things Done, eh? Remember what we said about using the tools and tricks from anywhere that work best for you.)

One very small action you can take many times a day which impacts your overall sprint and your bigger goals is to take quick measurements of your current state. Am I a sponge or a faucet or pan full of baked-on gunk? Is it time to collect or share or step back to rest and evaluate? At SXSW, it's good to ask yourself 'Am I ready to absorb more?' Make room for both session/networking time and processing/napping time.

Another tip: Cutting Losses and Splitting Differences. Be where you are, getting something out of being there. When you find you're not making progress toward your goals for this sprint, cut your losses and shift to a more rewarding option. Splitting differences is a conference hack. If there are two sessions you want to attend at the same time which aren't too far apart, relocate between them at the halfway point. Bet on good panelists to select your first-half choice and sessions on stimulating topics for the Q&A to select the second-half choice. You will gain some knowledge from both which will make it easier later to absorb more from further research on the topics; you may also discover that one of them isn't useful to you and save yourself the time of listening to the recording of that session or tracking down the slides later.

[Bonus didn't-get-to-give-in-session tip!] Another great thing to pay attention to is how you're managing hunger. There are so many fun things to do here that you can forget to eat (or forget to eat something healthy). So if your goal was to be alert and happy for SXSW, you could choose to do a sprint where you pay attention to when you eat, and what the results are in terms of alertness and mood. Then the next day, you could choose to eat more or less often, depending on what you learned. A big deal for us is to try to avoid the low-blood-sugar crash state. A friend just told Marcy that last year she was waiting in line for a party, all the restaurants were fully booked, so they ordered take-out, and ate it outside in line. Not the most elegant dining, but it kept her going through a busy night.


We had a great group of folks in the session who jumped right in and had a great conversation – hooray! – but, just in case, we had this additional example prepared to kickstart the discussion. It turned out to be eerily like some things that actually came up. (Well, eerie without the context that I specifically looked at popular session topics this year and picked my example details based on that).

Say I decide the valuable results I want are to come back to the healthcare company I work at with new information I can present on the mobile technology landscape (to justify to them the cost of having sent me here) and having met five new people who experienced a move from marketing to product management who might be able to mentor me making a similar move. Next I would brainstorm a lot of ways to do that and let's say from those I choose to [1] hit the all the sessions I can on the state of mobile technology in broad terms or as it relates to healthcare or similar industries specifically and [2] to go to some sessions on product management and [3] to try to find and chat with some product management folks at booths the trade show. I've got a plan of action, with some session alternative lined up and productive things to do during the day when I'm not in sessions. And I've got measurable ways to check my progress: my confidence about writing the presentation and how many potential mentors I've met. If on day three I have a bunch of good mobile tech data for my presentation, maybe instead of another session on that topic I can instead go attend the meetup one of my new product management contacts told me about that's at at the same time and find even more potential mentors.


Here are some key points in our initial remarks and the discussion which especially resonated with people:

  • Measurement leads to mindfulness. As @Toshiba_Bill commented in the Twitter hashtag discussion, this is reminescent of the Six Sigma idea that you don't value what you don't measure.

  • Be nice to your future self. Both in the sense of taking information you have at hand now and putting it where you'll need it later and of setting measurable, achievable points of progress in the direction you want to move. Compassion, kindness, self awareness, and reflection are blessings you can give yourself with this approach.

  • A daily standup is an opportunity to ask the same questions asked in an Agile programming context: "What did I do yesterday? What will I do today? Am I blocked?" This can happen with other people or through a brief time spent writing (This is related to the "daily pages" concept frequently mentioned in books on becoming a writer and is thus another example of grabbing tools and patterns which work for you from anywhere and blending them into your own useful combination). @mrsungo and @piercingwit are planning a standup here at SXSW tomorrow morning (Sunday) at 9am at the Starbucks at the Marriott.
  • We quickly went over our principles in the Agile Self Development Manifesto and people seemed to resonate especially strongly with these two: "Quality of life over quantity of achievement" and "Simplicity over complexity".

  • Checking in with yourself to see if you're primed to absorb, share, or, as @piercingwit put it "think and relate" was a popular takeaway.

  • Our wonderful group was incredibly generous with sharing themselves and listening openly to each other. One of the most inspiring comments: "I've stopped trying to smash doors through brick walls, and instead I now look for the open doors before me." There was a recurrent theme of not trying to control everything, practicing more non-attachment, and enjoying the emerging journey guided by our values.
  • A great quote was shared: "“Discipline is remembering what you want.” (I've found three different attributions for this one, but it seems to be from David Campbell, the founder of Saks Fifth Avenue).
  • There were lots of great spins on Agile language. I particularly liked "You are your own product owner" and "What's your self acceptance criteria?"

  • @sabrinacaluori summed up nicely: "So freaking simple. Envision the outcome you want. But leave options. Be agile. Allow yourself to adjust in the moment."



Comments from the original post:

Dinah A few more notes from the discussion I just found:

– Daily writing as a personal scrum

– Frequent low key assessment: "How do I feel right now?"

– Reflection at end of sprint to listen to inner voice

– Setting goals is about remembering our motivations. Why do I care? What fuels my passion for this?

– habit creation: start with *minimum* viable product (e.g. 1 minute of meditation not 30)

Posted by: Dinah | 03/14/2011 at 02:20 PM

Piercingwit @mrsungo and I followed through on the daily sxsw scrums – and it wasn't easy dragging our happy asses out of bed after 3-4 hours sleep! But it was extraordinarily valuable from the standpoint of focusing us on our goals for sxsw and making us accountable to each other. In fact, it went so well that I'm starting up a group here in Birmingham next week. I hope to set up a simple wordpress or tumblr blog to track our progress over the weekend.

Posted by: Piercingwit | 03/19/2011 at 08:14 AM

Dinah Hooray! That's great. Please do keep us posted on how it goes and what you learn.

Posted by: Dinah | 03/19/2011 at 04:17 PM

Dinah I forgot to include these SXSW session notes from Kaitlin Maud in my roundup: http://plixi.com/p/83488788

Marcy also encountered a nice summary of Agile from Christian Nelson of Carbon5 as "iterative, adaptive, collaborative, and reality-based".

Posted by: Dinah | 04/18/2011 at 11:41 AM

Author: Dinah from Kabalor

Author. Discardian. GM. Current project: creating an inclusive indie fantasy ttrpg https://www.patreon.com/kabalor

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