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My Agile Kitchen Remodel

I can’t help it. I’m a Project Manager. It is what “I Was Meant To Do”. When a project appears anywhere in my life, I get a compulsion to actively manage it. I try to back off and just go with the flow. “This isn’t work. It’s just a hobby (or vacation, or kid birthday party, or whatever), " I tell myself. "Stop taking it so seriously." But then I get twitchy. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking of work break down structures. I start sketching out high-level project plans in my head. My husband sees that look in my eyes and thinks, “here we go again… not another gannt chart on the fridge.” [I have a good husband. He tolerates this insanity.]

Last summer, we decided to remodel our kitchen. And I decided, much to my husbands chagrin, to act as the general contractor and manage the whole thing myself (yes, I am that crazy). With some good pre-planning (sketching out the goals of the project, high-level architecture complete, and all materials ordered and on-site), I took a week off from work to get this thing done. [Disclaimer, we are DYI-ers, so we knew at least a little about what we were doing.] Because I was enjoying Agile successes at work, I decided to use a loose Agile process to manage the kitchen remodel. Mind you, I never told the team that I was using Agile, nor did I outline the process we were using. I never made burn-down charts, used post-it cards, or any of the other artifacts of a process. (I’m not that crazy!). I just used an Agile mindset to guide the team through the project.

Here’s what worked:

  • The plan was built around deliverables (not tasks) delivered in iterations. ie – By date N - Wall is gone. Two electric sockets and a light switch moved. By date P – Upper cabinets are on the walls… etc. These things were obviously done-done when they were done.
  • Collaborative effort. Everyone lent a hand when needed. My husband and I assembled cabinets while professionals moved electrical outlets. And when my we tried to hang the cabinets ourselves, the pros noticed we were in way over our heads. (Who knew that walls in a 100 year old house aren’t straight enough to hang a row of cabinets?). They stepped up, gave advice and eventually took over. They were very gracious about it as well, and didn’t make us feel too inept! Think of a senior developer on a team with more junior resources.
  • Flexible generalists. All of our professional workers were very flexible experienced generalists. The same guy doing the plumbing also hung cabinets or did drywall. One guy rewired lighting one day, and installed the sink the next. (I’m happy to give the name of the contracting group these guys came from. They were awesome!) Think of a developer doing some database design work when needed.
  • We did only what was necessary. We didn’t replace the flooring and we didn’t move any plumbing. And, especially, we didn’t gold-plate it .We didn’t get top of the line cabinets (which I really wanted, but really we just needed more cabinet space). Our requirements, if you will, were in priority order.
  • We did daily stand-ups with our professional team. Note: most craftsmen and professional laborers DO NOT LIKE THIS AT FIRST (especially when it’s a 5’2” pregnant woman leading the charge). It took a couple of days for them to realize it was not only ok, but useful for them. They were able to set my expectations appropriately, call out any issues that needed to be resolved that day, and let me know how to help but stay out of their way. As a stakeholder, it gave me great peace of mind to see daily progress on my project, and I wasn’t pestering them most of the day.
  • We did just-enough planning. The overall plans were flexible and adaptable to the changes that came up in the project. Hmmm…we found a brick wall behind the drywall where I wanted the electrical outlet moved to. What do we do now? The team worked with me on alternative solutions. And because our original plan wasn’t to the nth degree of detail, these sorts of things didn’t set us back or stress me out.
  • All of our communication was face-to-face and ad-hoc. As the primary stakeholder, I was on hand immediately to help solve problems, answer any questions, and clarify any requirements. We were all co-located in the same room, so any issues or questions that came up were immediately dealt with and resolved.

The result – the kitchen remodel was completed in a mere 7 days. And it was fun. (Yes – I just said 7-day-kitchen-remodel and fun in the same sentence.) How’s that for an accelerated delivery method! Perhaps, too, I’ve found my next career. Hmmm….

So what does this have to do with Agile rollout?

When I hear folks starting to roll out Agile, I find they become obsessed with what tools to use, what artifacts are needed, and what processes to follow. I understand this obsession. It stems from a formal PM training which focuses almost exclusively on these things. PMs like things planned out and buttoned up tight. Plan up-front and execute the plan. Pure and simple.

But Agile is a different beast entirely. It is flexible, adaptable, and even organic. The real benefits are seen in the Agile “state of mind” – creating an environment that embraces change. Creating burn-down charts and note cards would have done nothing for my kitchen remodel. But the daily face-to-face interaction and my being on the job site through the duration worked wonders.

When you embark on your Agile roll-out, try to focus on the “soft” things - immediate face-to-face communication, flexible skill sets, adaptable project implementation, and just-in-time problem solving. Note cards, fancy software, burn-down charts, and documented processes, while useful and important, just simply aren’t going to bring you the Agile nirvana you’ve been reading about.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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