Today I want to tell you about a framework I stumbled upon in the past few months, taken directly from my business project management textbooks! (YAY!!)
But Roxine, I don’t want to read about some boring business management method-thing!
Oh, am I the only who gets excited about project management?
Oops.. But it’s better than accounting, right? RIGHT.
Now, that’s settled, on to the framework!
This project management framework I’m talking about is called Scrum and it can help solve some common student problems:
- Getting your work done when there are so many interruptions throughout the day,
- Planning out a group project from start to finish and, when the deadline’s looming and you’re 90% done, realizing that what you’ve done wasn’t what the professor wanted at all,
- Signing up for a liberal in a subject that you have never taken (“But the Industrial Revolution sounds so interesting!”) and you have absolutely no idea how to study or how to take notes for it.
Now I know what you’re thinking… No way can this Scrum thing do so much!
Hear me out.
Scrum can do all this because it was built to handle uncertainty in software development.
But its principles are directly applicable to the uncertainty in student life!
Specifically, applying Scrum to your schoolwork will teach you:
- How to prioritize your work the right way,
- How to create and gain momentum as you study day after day,
- How to identify and address red flags early (especially in those darned group projects),
- How to study effectively, not just efficiently.
And most importantly, applying the Scrum framework will teach you how to capitalize on the abundant freedom that we take for granted as students. Freedom? Yeah, man. Think about it: Apart from deadlines, we choose when to do the work (freedom of time) and how we do it (autonomy). In short, Scrum gives you a framework so you
stop procrastinating procrastinate less. I’m not trying to sell snake oil here… Because it really does work. If it’s worked for the FBI and for flailing software startups Scrum will most certainly work for your academic career.
How I Stumbled on Scrum
Around July, I read this post by Cal Newport. In it, Cal relates the story of a newly hired software engineer who didn’t have an email account setup yet. In the workplace, an email address is the key to life. Just ask anyone you know who works in corporate! An email address gives you access to the tools you need to work. Your email address is who you are in the working world. So when Cal mentioned that this new employee who didn’t know how to access anything in the company and didn’t have an email address was still able to be a valuable and productive contributor to the company’s project, I was really intrigued. And that was when I saw my first Scrum Board.
And let me tell ya: It was love at first sight.
If you know me, you know that I am a huge fan of learning about principles and frameworks that can be applied to many areas of life. And when I saw that Scrum board, I knew instantly that this was something I could use, not just for school, but for many aspects of my life.
I HAD to learn more about Scrum.
So I picked up the shortest book in Cal’s list: Scrum: A Breathtakingly Brief and Agile Introduction.
And HOLY COW did I go down a wonderful rabbit hole!
In Scrum I learned a dead-simple and counter-intuitive framework for keeping track of projects and executing them as painlessly as possible.
From the book Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland, the creator of Scrum, I learned six key Scrum principles that now guide me as I work on just about anything (including this blog!):
1. Speed. Scrum is all about starting things now, doing things fast and failing fast… So I can fix things ASAP and keep going.
2. Flow. Just as a ball rolls down more smoothly down a paved sidewalk than a rocky hill, managers of Scrum teams (called Scrum Masters) are tasked to remove obstacles standing in the team’s way. As a student, this means learning to identify and remove obstacles that stand in the way of you doing great work.
3. Acceleration. As impediments are removed, the ball picks up momentum and accelerates at an ever increasing rate. It’s like using the same lever on a lighter load. As you remove waste and impediments from your workflow, you realize that you are producing 2-3x more output than before with the same amount of effort.
4. Tangible Results. As Jeff Johnson, a Scrum master who worked with the FBI, said, “Showing the actual product was the most powerful part [of Scrum].” At the end of the day, the short-term goal is to have a finished product that can stand by itself. And even if this is something only you will ever see (like a first draft of an essay), you will have a working “prototype” that you can evaluate and improve on the next time you sit down to work.
5. Clarity. One of the biggest benefits of working with Scrum is being able to know exactly where I am on a project at any point in time. To take the previous example, because you have a written record of where you are in the essay (the first draft), you know for sure what you next step is to improve on the first draft, either by rewriting the draft to create a second one or by moving paragraphs around to make the parts flow together and strengthen your arguments.
6. Effectiveness. During every period of work (called a Sprint), you can only select a certain number of tasks to work on. By doing this, Scrum forces you to provide as much value in as short a time frame as possible. And the only way to do this is by focusing on effectiveness (doing the right things) over efficiency (doing things right). I mean, think about it. If the question that you are trying to solve is the wrong one, you will never get the right answer no matter how hard you work! But before we keep going… Let’s clear something up first.
What Scrum is Not
If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you’ll know that I love planning:
- I love having all my dominoes in a line, my duckies in a row and my schedule blocked off into nice little bricks of time.
- I love knowing exactly how long I’ll be working on a task for.
But let’s get one thing clear though: > As much as it pains me to say it, Scrum is NOT about thorough planning. Rather, Scrum focuses on execution over planning. Working the Scrum way does not mean that you don’t plan but instead, the goal is to plan just enough to be able execute… Because more often than not, the plan doesn’t get followed anyway! You’ve probably seen this yourself:
- Your groupmate gets sick and can’t deliver their part of the project.
- You have a midterm that you forgot to study for and you have to use up some of the study time that you’ve scheduled for another course to prep for it.
To paraphrase the poet Robert Burns,
“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
This effect of this over-focus on planning leads to wasted effort and time because, as our friend Jeff says, “Trying to know the unknowable is wasted.” And if there’s one thing that Scrum people hate.. It’s waste.
So what does all of this have to do with being more productive and managing my time as student?
As I mentioned before, because there is so much uncertainty and wasteful work in life as a student, we need a framework to help us cut through the noise. But don’t take my word for it, here is what our FBI Scrum Master friend Jeff has to say on the matter:
Scrum embraces uncertainty and creativity. It places a structure around the learning process, enabling teams to assess both what they’ve created and, just as important, how they created it. The Scrum framework harnesses how teams actually work and gives them the tools to self-organize and rapidly improve both speed and quality of work.
Let’s break down his quote part-by-part:
“It places a structure around the learning process.”
Don’t you wish you had a step-by-step guide on how to study for Statistics? Or Chemistry? Or Economics? The problem with these courses is that they are so different from each other and each requires a different way of thinking and studying. If you apply Scrum to school, you will be constantly learning and assessing how you learn so you can rapidly test note-taking systems and studying techniques and hit on the right formula… Before the semester is over.
“Enabling teams to assess both what they’ve created… And how they created it.”
Simply put, using Scrum for your academics teaches you how to assess feedback from your professors (I.e. Tests, assignments, essays, etc) and how you worked on them.
“The Scrum framework… Gives them the tools to self-organize and rapidly improve both speed and quality of work.”
Let’s face it. No matter how much we complain about not having enough time to do everything we have to do, the truth is, we do have enough time. Scrum teaches you the tools to prioritize, manage yourself and, ultimately, do better work in less time!
My Scrum Story So Far
Since I’ve only started using Scrum seriously in the past couple of month, I am still a certified Scrum n00b. But despite this, I’ve already used it for a number of projects with good success:
- A family trip I planned over Thanksgiving weekend,
- My church fellowship’s Thanksgiving dinner,
- My school schedule.
Thanks to Scrum, planning for the family trip took less than 10 hours total.
The best part was that on the day we were leaving, for once, there was no yelling of “I thought you were doing that?!” and screams of “DANGIT. WE FORGOT TO DO THIS, TOO.”
If you’ve ever planned a trip of any sort, you know that even short, overnight trips can take weeks to plan… And if you’ve ever gone on a trip with your family, you know how much of a relief it is to not have to be at the receiving end of the yelling. 😉
For my fellowship’s thanksgiving dinner, my friends and I had to get food and set up a program for 50 people… Surprisingly, no one was pulling out their hair and frantically running about for once.
Part of the reason was because the scrum board listed out all the tasks that had to be done, and each person simply had to check things off once they were done their assigned tasks.
Finally, for school, I’ve learned to enjoy every moment of whatever it is I am doing, instead of feeling upset when my perfect fixed schedule is interrupted time and time again.
Oh, and One Last Thing…
Forgive me if I sound new age-y for saying this… But Scrum has changed the way I view the world.
What started as simple quest to learn more about project management as a career has turned into a quest into applying Scrum as part of my life.
Before Scrum I would be hesitant to take on big projects because I hated the feeling of overwhelm. I used to dread group projects because I hated how one person (usually me) was stuck with all the work. I used to feel frustrated amidst all the goals I had for my life because, although I knew I had the capacity and the time to achieve them, I could never seem to have a clear picture of what I wanted to do.
Now, I treat my life as one big project made up of smaller sub-areas (school, career, fitness, church, sports). I treat each sub-area as a mini-project with Scrum as the framework.
For the next few months, I plan on studying and writing about Scrum and how it can help students like you and me achieve better results with less or the same amount of effort! And of course, you’re invited along for the ride! So if you haven’t yet, make sure to subscribe to my email newsletter below to make sure that you never miss a single post! Finally, if you’re interested in learning more about Scrum and want to jump ahead, I recommend checking out the Scrum website and Jeff Sutherland’s book Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time.