Disclaimer: this isn't a tough-love motivational post about the importance of SMART New Year's Resolutions or that one weird (yet astoundingly clever!) trick on how to achieve them. Nor is it a clever and quirky way to show you how to conduct an effective retrospective because there are already plenty of great examples online, including this one. It's just me taking a bit of agile out of the workspace, introducing it to my personal headspace, then sharing my thoughts on what happened.
Tech professionals often apply philosophies from everyday life and pop culture (especially Star Wars!) into the workplace to help others learn, to make sense of the chaos in the office, and, crucially, to exploit any plausible opportunity to be as geeky as possible on company time.
There is a two-fold value in the reverse: adapting tech processes to common everyday questions and tasks allows you to practice and master a technique in a more familiar or functional setting while also helping you approach personal questions or obstacles in a creative, less linear way. One common task that could do with a bit of agile inspiration is the process for writing the New Year's Resolution List.
In our rabidly competitive American culture, where we're equally obsessed with the virtues of recklessly ambitious self-improvement and the paradox of egotistical self-sacrifice, there's something appealing about taking just one day to reflect upon the blur of the past year and look at what we might improve in the year ahead. (Kind of like what we should be doing between iterations! Okay, no more exhaustingly obvious correlations between agile and real life.)
A healthy and best-intentioned dash of resolve, however, coupled with a rebellious disdain for SMART goals (the "Clippy" of performance self-assessments), can rapidly mutate into a punishing list of impossible targets and peer-pressure traps that we torture ourselves with the whole year through. Come December 31st, we tend to have accomplished little more than a numb sense of failure which we eagerly drown with cheap sparkling wine so we can do it all over again on January 1st.
Does your list of resolutions make you cry?
Those are some reasons why I personally don't have much success with New Year's Resolutions. They're not usually valuable: I unwittingly make them too difficult (or too disconnected from my genuine deficits), I don't keep them, and then I feel bad about myself. Zero value. In fact, impossible resolutions are worse than zero value: they're emotionally radioactive; Sisyphean; the opposite of the conditions we need to learn and succeed at work or at home.
But I'm still drawn to the idea of resolutions. New leafs, blank slates, and other blithely uttered idioms: suddenly, they're not just bromides when you're struggling, as I am, to make sense of a year as fraught with uncertainty, fear, and grave events of global impact as 2016 has been.
In my life, in my outlook, and in my career, I'm always searching for meaning and that small, illusive sense of purpose along with control over what little I can influence. Resolutions must be meaningful to their creators alone. They should be connected to, or address, something important about the past and the future: creating a good resolution involves analyzing a root cause and visualizing a desired outcome. And in that analysis, you need to consider and apply it to, and for, no other person but yourself.
(Resolutions should also be capable of being accomplished, because, otherwise, what's the point? They should be specific, yes, and relevant. Achievable, definitely. And, ideally, measura-- Gaahh! Get out of my brain, SMART goals, before I destroy you, 50% of my German vocabulary, and all the plot arcs from Seasons 4-6 of Game of Thrones, in a remorseless tidal wave of $5 Prosecco!)
Back to the useful part of the article: here's how I used the Starfish / Wheel of Change Retrospective format (I've heard both of these terms used) to discover some themes from last year and brainstorm some actionable resolutions to lead towards desired outcomes in 2017.
The aforementioned Starfish retrospective format (aka Stop, Start, Continue, More of, Less of)
It's not necessarily my go-to template for iteration retrospectives, but I chose the Starfish retrospective because the five categories helped me structure and organize my thoughts with a bit more intent as opposed to a more vague technique, like the simple "good / bad / ?" headers, which I find to be better-suited for general discussion and open discovery. I like the distinctions that Starfish makes between the acts of continuing to do something, doing less of it, and doing more of it.
Even before putting pen to post-it, one thing I definitely wanted to do less of in 2017 was wasting time watching TV. All too often these past months, I was glued to the news following a terror attack or political event, or stuck on the couch gorging on the media equivalent of FunYums. (I do not regret watching Dead Pool four times in a row while recovering from a cold, however. This was a high-value activity in so many ways.)
I put "TV" down in the "Less" section first, then gave it a kind of parent objective: less time-wasting. (In practice, this is also a good technique to avoid getting caught up in the implementation details, aka the "how", and help the team stay focused on, or at least clearly articulate and spell out, the core problem.) And because I struggle with my TV habit more than I really should and I'm curious about the root cause, I applied a little Five Whys. Just why do I watch so much damn TV? Well, it's a lot easier than thinking about all the other things going on in my life. Why don't I want to think about them? Well, I'm avoiding other challenges in my life, like cleaning up my office or spending time being composing new music. Why? Because I can't solve those problems in their current form and they're too overwhelming for me to even contemplate a solution or initial first step. Why? Because it's just easier and more comforting to not think about them at all. (You get the idea.) So, my root cause: escapism.
Exploring root causes and themes
As I continued, themes started to emerge. I realized that TV is not only an escape mechanism, it's also a completely barrier-less way to spend time compared to those other, more challenging, activities. This helped me discover that barriers are a big theme from last year. When I wrote "Organized" in the "Keep" section, I had a bit of an epiphany related to my transition to a home office. (Backstory: I moved into a new house this past August, but I didn't have a real need for a home office until late October; suddenly, I'm working so much that I didn't have time (or so I thought) to fully unpack, organize, and furnish my home office until the end of 2016.)
I should never have delayed that organization for so long, because the unpacked mess became a barrier to doing anything beyond what I could accomplish on a laptop. For a time, my cluttered office was essentially one mammoth decision tree and I was too overwhelmed to figure out all the intermediary steps connecting the first to the last. My thought process would go something like this: "Hmmm... I want to start a professional blog so I can get my name out there a bit, but before I can do that, I need to create my own visuals, but there's no space for me to put up my big whiteboard because I don't have anywhere to put the stacked boxes of books because I don't have time to get bookshelves, so there's no way for me to curate my own visuals, so I can't blog! Screw this, I'm just going to watch Dead Pool again..." (Yep, helping a team is sometimes approximately 1,000% easier than trying to be an obstacle-removing scrum master for yourself!)
Digging into desired outcomes related to staying organized and the theme of "barriers"
After about 15-20 minutes, here's where I netted out. At a theme-level: in my "Stop" and "Less" sectors, I realize that, by worrying unduly and feeling like I don't accomplish enough, I'm often plagued with irrational unchecked fear and stress. To combat that, I'm resorting to escapism in unhealthy ways. However, I've already taken some steps to reduce barriers, add some constraints and structure, and create conditions where I can have greater focus in my life. That, in turn, will help me better define and visualize more concrete goals and track the progress towards them, hopefully helping me feel less stressed, fearful, and overwhelmed about a future that would otherwise quickly become a towering, panic-inducing decision tree.
The final result: circles around themes + notes about root causes and desired outcomes
More specifically, here are some resolutions or goals I arrived at through the course of this Starfish retrospective.
- to break my big goals and aspirations down into smaller, achievable chunks (yes, sigh, SMART goals) to reduce or eliminate mental and physical barriers so I don't get as overwhelmed
- to use a personal weekly Kanban to help me stay focused, measure my progress, and break down barriers
- to start blogging as one of my activities in business development (which, thanks to incredible good fortune through the kindness of my network, was not a necessity for me in 2016) to expand beyond word-of-mouth opportunities
- to get a professional logo, brand identity, and iterative passes of site content so I'll be ready to pitch confidently to new clients
- to donate more than 2% of my salary to charity to add purpose and incentive to my personal work (in 2016, I successfully set aside 2% of my earnings to help out charities like Doctors Without Borders, the Suncoast Center; a division of which was founded by my uncle Allyn Giffin, M.D., numerous friends' fundraisers for Movember and Avon, and United Way of Central West Virginia).
Going back to my original thoughts around using agile techniques on personal challenges, one thing I learned was that it felt even more natural and useful to identify root causes and brainstorm desired outcomes in the context of my own life. Focusing on "why" and "what" before jumping into "how" tends to be a mantra of mine, anyway, but it will be one technique I will use with more intent when I next facilitate or coach a retrospective in the office. And, as with good user stories and tech requirements, articulating some sort of clear, valuable benefit and outcome (the "why") in the resolution really does help you see why you want to accomplish it, and will guide you to phrase the resolution in an actionable and direct way that makes the most sense to you.
(I don't have a formal follow-up blog post planned as yet, but it would probably take the form of my personal goal Kanban. I'll check back in after a few weeks to let you know how it's going. If you have specific questions or tips you want me to address or experiment with, please catch me in the comments!)
Thank you for reading this far, and I hope that sharing a part of my journey gave you something to consider in yours -- Happy New Year, and happy solving resolution retrospectives!