An Autumnal Father-Son Scrum(ish) Story

November 8th, 2011 Published by Geoff Watts

So here’s the situation; the leaves are turning beautiful shades of red, purple, brown and orange, you can hear them crunching under your feet as you take a walk. Yeah…Autumn is my LEAST favourite time of year! I HATE clearing up leaves! When I bought this house, the fact that it had a fair-sized garden was not a plus point for me, and the fact that it was surrounded by huge trees was a very definite negative for this very reason.

Anyway, the gutters were full and causing leaks outside the front door so the alert had been triggered. I needed to get my butt in gear and clear them up. I was also looking after my 5 year old son as my wife was taking my daughter to her dancing practice. Could I actually get anything done while also entertaining Cody? Or could I possibly get Cody to help me with this task? Perhaps I could also use it as an opportunity to get across a little of what I do for a living – my kids have NO IDEA what I do as a Scrum coach. So here’s the story, see if you can draw any parallels to an agile team…

Project Kick Off

As I said the project was initiated by a small sense of urgency – leaking outside the front door – so I obviously needed to clear the gutters and that was a high priority. There was also the back garden, the back patio, the kids play area, the front drive etc so I had the makings of a backlog.


It wasn’t too hard to prioritise and split into sprints and, after setting ourselves an arbitrary sprint length of an hour (as much time as I thought we could go without a break), we created a plan.


My initial concern about whether I could motivate Cody to join me was unfounded. He couldn’t wait to get started, so much so that he forgot about the plan and just went to work on the garden! Apparently the opportunity to do “some of Daddy’s jobs” and work with “some of Daddy’s tools” were enough of a motivator for him.


This motivation was maintained through his opportunity to experiment with various tools – how he did the job was left up to him – and some were more helpful than others.


Indeed, in one case he actually created more work for himself (by putting the leaves into a wheelbarrow THEN into the bag) as it was more fun for him.

We actually had a chat about work while we were clearing the leaves and Cody defined work as “things that you HAVE to do”. I asked him whether he thought this was “work”. His reply was “No. Because this is fun”. It certainly felt less like work than normal for me as I was part of a team and having fun with my boy at the same time. There was a further twist to this later on as the “Tom Sawyer Effect” (something we explore a lot in our Advanced ScrumMaster class by the way) came into play. As my daughter returned from dance practice and saw her brother having fun, she actually wanted to join in. An activity that if I asked her to do, she would almost certainly have (im)politely declined, she was now volunteering to join in with!


Anyway back to the project and Sprint 1 was a huge success. The patio was prioritised #1 due to safety reasons (the leaves on the patio made it very slippery) and was complete in just over an hour. By being able to take a step back (and a photo for evidence) both Cody and I felt great satisfaction in having finished a “vertical slice” of the initially daunting project that we started. This increased our motivation to continue, gave us some value (the patio was now safe and clear) and also gave us some empirical data of how much we could clear in an hour.

After a short break, we moved on to Sprint 2 – the play area and the front gutter. We worked in small batches and organised our roles. Initially Cody would rake up a pile of leaves and I would put them into a bag, then I would rake and Cody would bag them. We both got better at both tasks and neither of us got bored with the repetition of just doing one thing. In actual fact we both had a preference (I preferred raking, while Cody preferred bagging) but we didn’t over-specialise. The batches were predominantly so we could both be effective (don’t spend too long raking up a big pile of leaves as the “bagger” won’t have much to do until you have finished) as well as an attempt on my part to mitigate risk (but I’ll come back to that shortly).

Quality, Technical Debt and Done

We had a few issues to contend with during Sprint 2. As we were clearing the play area, we needed to be careful not to throw away any of the kids’ toys in with the leaves. We needed to pay continuous attention to our clearing process and the “no man left behind” part of our definition of done was important as 3 soldiers were rescued from an unsightly demise (can you see him below?).

We also needed to ensure that we didn’t compromise our integrity in the pursuit of getting things done quicker. I have, in the past, been known to just sweep and/or blow the leaves behind the shed as a quick and easy way of clearing them up.

However, as Cody quite rightly pointed out, they were beginning to smell and we thought they might cause some problems in rotting the fence and the shed. While this might take a long time to actually cause a problem it’s something we decided to (a) not make any worse and (b) start mitigating by removing some of the technical debt I had created before.

In our eagerness we also risked the potential of over-engineering – clearing up too much. Perfect is definitely the enemy of good here and so some areas of the garden would be lower priority than others. We decided to leave them and focus on the highest priority areas.

Sprint 2 was another success and we had more visible, tangible signs of progress before we had our lunch break. It is at this point that I would really like to mention how proud I am of my 5 year-old boy pitching in with his old man and sticking it through to the bitter end…but I can’t! Obviously I am proud of him but my point here is that he lost interest after the second sprint so I was left to finish off on my own!

During Sprint 2, the bin, plus the 5 compost bins had become full and so our definition of done (recycled or composted) had to change. For the remaining leaves, our definition of done would now become (bagged and stored ready for transport to the tip)

On My Own

So Sprints 3 and 4 were done on my own while Cody was practicing his tennis serve and playing with Lego. This was OK in some regards as velocity actually didn’t drop too much but the fun factor had definitely gone for me. It became a chore again. One that I wanted to finish as quickly as possible. So I tried to become more efficient. Rather than raking and bagging in small batches, I created many batches to be bagged in one go.

I rationalised this as reducing the task-switching costs of putting down the rake, picking up the leaf blower etc but in reality I had added a big risk.What if a big gust of wind came along and ruined my piles of leaves? What if I ran out of bags to bag the leaves? In fact both of these risks materialised, leading to wasted effort – a massive demotivator for me!

Anyway, with the Autumn light drawing in, and after some help from my father-in-law, I had got to a stage where I could say I was done. However, after posting the picture below online, I was informed by a fellow Scrum coach that in fact I wasn’t done because I had “missed some”.

This hilarious comment had a couple of elements of truth to it. By my definition of done (I wasn’t trying to be perfect, just good enough) I was done. However, even while working, I realised I was never really going to ever get completely done. As I was clearing up, leaves were still falling. No system is ever going to be bug-free. The only way to ensure this is to have no system at all. Equally the only way I could ever really get “done” would be to remove the trees. And with every single one of them having a protection order on them that won’t be happening any time soon…

November 8th, 2011 Published by

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