Iterating (7/8)

Typically, a Backlog is (or gradually gets) ridiculously full of work. It can feel really overwhelming just to look at it. The key thing to remember is that it is never approached as a whole. It is broken down into doable units and fit into everyday life in manageable ways. This is done iteration by iteration, day by day, week by week, month by month. Life happens just like that – piece by piece. Our goals can change or their value can change and by working in iterations it becomes possible to keep up with these changes.

Three phases of an iteration

 1. Creation of the iteration plan
  • Take a closer look at the stories in the ‘Backlog’ column on your board.
  • Decide what could be done in the next iteration.
  • Make sure the selected stories are only so big that they can be completed in the course of one iteration (if they are bigger, treat them as epics).
  • Break the stories down into tasks as needed to ensure that definition of done is clear (the story will be moved to ‘Done’ column on your board only after all of its tasks are completed).
  • Move the stories selected for the iteration from ‘Backlog’ column to ‘Ready’ column on your board.
 2. Job gets done
  • During the iteration, whenever you start to work on a story, move it from ‘Ready’ column to ‘Doing’ column.
  • If the story has tasks, then tick them done one by one when they are completed. Many virtual kanban tools provide visualization of the tasks count and tasks completion count directly on the board.
  • Once the story is finished (or all its tasks are finished), move it to ‘Done’ column.

I come to my project boards at least once per week to do all these updates. If you are working on one project at a time or on a project-less bunch of to-dos, you might need to do it every day. Find out what works best for you.

3. Closing the iteration and Backlog grooming
  • After one month (or one week, or other time-box you chose for your iterations) the iteration is over.
  • Look at what was completed (I also like to archive it but you don’t have to).
  • Do your Retrospective (more about it in my next post).
  • Plan for the next iteration. At this point, you might realize that there are some new action items as result of your previous iteration or that some stories from your Backlog are no longer relevant. Groom your Backlog (add, remove, update everything as needed) so that you can always plan with up-to-date items that are prioritized according to your current needs, not according to the needs from X weeks ago.

These are the basic guidelines for how to iterate. The way to approach them can be very different from project to project. Let me share some practices that have worked for me and could inspire the way you build your own iteration process.

Example iteration practices

 1. Calendar

At the beginning of each iteration I look at my calendar and put in everything that could stand in my way during the month (my iterations are one month long). These are planned events such as a theater visit, a family celebration or a trip with my friends, a workshop or a music show I have already bought tickets for, etc. So first I get clarity on my schedule.

Then I look at the Backlog. Usually, with just a little prioritization, it is clear what stories should be done in the upcoming days. I also decide what is the one most important priority for me right now. This is something that I definitely want to see completed at the end of the next iteration, and I put that in my calendar as my iteration goal.

2. Dynamic To-Do List

After I move my stories to ‘Ready’, I proceed to create my dynamic to do list.

(There should be only one.)

I prefer to create it in Notepad for three reasons – it is simple, I can access it when I need it and I can easily go away from it when I don’t need it.

To-do list could also work in a personal diary or in smartphone. If I weren’t so used to .txt, I would probably try Evernote. Evernote is able to synchronize notes taken on computer with your smartphone and vice versa, so you can have your to-do list nearby literally all day long. Another interesting application is Todoist – this one can be synchronized with phone, downloaded to desktop and even synchronized with wearables such as Apple Watch.

I write down days in the week (including weekends) and distribute the work that I want to be done by the end of the week to the individual days. My project tasks (= those from my project boards), my chores (such as ironing) and my planned activities (= those from my calendar) are all included. My work in progress (number of to-dos per day) shouldn’t exceed 5 items. If there’s more, it really should be just reminders of very small, matter-of-minutes activities. This is because I want to enjoy each activity to the fullest, not to do it just for the sake of it being done. The less tasks I have, the more time I can put in being creative with them.

When doing this work distribution, I’m trying to put majority of my tasks on my most productive days or on the first days of the week. I don’t like keeping things for later and prefer to do everything sooner (which can be pretty tricky if not watched, eg. I often used to end up with a deadly Monday agenda). It might take a while to find the right balance in your to-do list.

Now the reason why I call it ‘dynamic’ is that it is reordered constantly and the to-do items in it are also changing constantly.

  • Items that are done and days that are finished get deleted.
  • Items that can’t be done when they are planned get moved to the next best day in the week.
  • New days are added (eg. at the end of Monday I delete Monday and add Monday of the next week + assign work to it).
  • I check my project boards at least once a week and when I decide to move new stories to ‘Doing’, I also immediately find a place for them and for tasks under them in my to-do list.

It takes some time to develop your best practice for working with a list like this. It might be a good idea to start small (use it only for organizing your chores and maybe your job tasks) and gradually start incorporating tasks from your project boards.

3. Favro (or other) kanban board

I have 7 boards in Favro, and I handle each of them as a separate project. I only work on a project if I have the capacity to work on it (as a matter of fact, I only have the capacity to work on it if it is a current priority for me).

No matter how much I want to work on everything at once sometimes, it is impossible. The reason can be internal (eg. the project is not important enough yet) or external (eg. I have to wait for someone to do something or for a particular date).

After some initial attempts to run all projects simultaneously, I found myself working on 2 or 3 at a time only anyway. It made much more sense. I take work from other projects only when it becomes more important than the work that is in progress now or when my to-dos are blocked and I’m left with some free capacity.

Another practice that I’m trying to follow is to keep the number of items in the ‘Ready’ column around 3 for each ongoing project. When it goes up to 4 or 5, it usually starts to feel overwhelming.

I understand my Favro boards as a useful tool for seeing my projects visually and for being able to see them gradually going somewhere. It also helps me to plan and to incorporate action items from my projects into my week.

4. Grooming practices during iteration

I groom my to-do list every day – items get removed, reordered within day, reshuffled within week, new are added.

I groom my project boards at least once a week – completed stories get moved to ‘Done’, new ideas/epics/stories/tasks are added to Backlog, tasks that turn out inappropriate for current iteration get moved back to Backlog.

At the end of the iteration, I do one final Backlog grooming to make sure that everything is ready for the next iteration planning and that the most important items are on the top of the ‘Backlog’ column.

5. Work in progress practices

I decrease my work in progress (WIP) limit if I was not able to meet my targets. It is needed to prioritize all the time so that you are only working on what is of value to you now, otherwise you will not be motivated to finish it.

Don’t be afraid to decrease your WIP. If you are like me, you will start at very high number of tasks per day (each day) and will need to learn to bring the number down.

You should continuously reinvent your ways of managing your WIP and your Backlog and apply what you learn to your new work. You don’t want to demotivate yourself by hoarding work that isn’t getting done. Work just on things that make sense and produce fun and value at the current moment.

Questions For You

What did you like? What did you learn? What did you lack?


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