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Life Lessons That Can Be Learned from Agile

Agile methodologies began as a software development process that emphasizes incremental and iterative improvement.

The most popular agile methodology is scrum. Scrum utilizes sprints that focus on adding or improving features to deliver a potentially shippable product. There are many lessons that can be gleaned from studying agile.

While agile was born out of software development, the essence of these methodologies can be applied to personal development. Here are some lessons we can take from agile:

Focus on stories rather than tasks.

The focus of these sprints is on ‘stories,’ which capture the bigger picture of why users use products. In software development, stories are intentionally high level, refraining from outlining specific design and technical specifications, rather emphasizing functionality and ‘why’ people would use the product.

‘Stories’ lend a very useful perspective about how to view tasks. It’s easy to become alienated from your work when you don’t acknowledge the bigger picture of ‘why’ you’re doing something. If you’re a university student, for example, and you have to complete an assignment, it might be helpful to write a journal about big picture goals to remind yourself of how this assignment plays into the bigger context of what you’re doing. You might, for example, write about how this degree will allow you to look for jobs in the desired field. Therefore, instead of viewing your task as a ‘complete economics assignment,’ view it as ‘helping readers of this assignment clearly understand the fundamentals of demand elasticity.’ Not only is this more specific, but it gives you a clear motivation when you’re completing a task and places emphasized on personal responsibility than simple completion of the task.

Constant feedback becomes the iterative improvement

Agile goal setting inherently requires reflection and feedback from end users. You can incorporate this as well with your work. If you’re in school, for example, the grades you receive could be a form of feedback. You can also speak to a TA about where you can improve. It’s okay, too, if the majority or all of the feedback comes from you. Self-reflection is integrated into agile with ‘retrospectives’ which allow teams to assess more foundational areas for improvement. Whatever your metric for success, focus on continued improvement.   

How do you use feedback to focus on continued improvement? In your sprints — or in the allotted time period to complete your goal or project — focus on creating a ‘potentially shippable product’. But what does this mean in goal setting? It means breaking down your bigger goals into smaller, achievable goals, rather than viewing the Goliath and all of its accompanying steps (resembling a waterfall approach to development). The latter will inevitably become overwhelming. For example, if you are planning a wedding, think of what the minimum threshold would be in order for a wedding to take place. Maybe it’s securing a venue and a priest. Perhaps the next iteration focuses on catering. The next iteration can focus on entertainment, and so on.  

Don’t let the worst case scenario instil paralysis. Allow yourself the opportunity to adapt and respond to challenges.

Often when we’re in planning stages, we get bogged down by the considerations of what could go wrong. We can find infinite reasons for delaying starting something so we can prepare for a potential challenge. There’s a fine balance between identifying legitimate risk and becoming paralyzed by excessive rumination. At some level, you will have to accept that things could go wrong, but that doesn’t mean they will. People are insistent on Murphy’s Law, but having the confidence to adapt and respond to challenges is a skill that sets the most successful people apart.

How do you balance legitimate concern with worst-case scenario paralysis? A lesson from Jacques Derrida might be useful here. Derrida’s most famous contribution to philosophy is ‘deconstructionism’. The concept is often fraught with philosophical jargon, but the essence of deconstructionism is the idea of conscientiously challenging your loyalty to an idea and understanding the inherent truths that exist within the opposite.

It’s worthwhile to acknowledge your assumptions, the inherent values that you take for granted as being inherently valuable and deconstruct them. This is not to say to do away with your assumptions or values, but instead to completely justify them, and if they are unfounded, move towards positions that are more founded. If you are starting a new business and you’re trying to assess the problem that you’re solving, ask yourself if it’s really a problem. Even if you’re convinced that it’s a problem, try to play the part of someone who is fully convinced that it isn’t a problem. That is not to say that you should come up with any excuse for why something isn’t a problem. When you’ve won the argument with the devil’s advocate, you’ve done your job well.

Assess all of your concerns and assumptions through the lens of deconstructionism. Sufficiently challenging naturally unfounded concerns will naturally convince you to move away from them. 

Just start, and if problems arise, you can always address them.

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