Today in our at-home agility series, Peter Stevens and Maria Matarelli, Scrum Alliance® Certified Scrum Trainers, founders of The Personal Agility Institute, and authors of Personal Agility: Six Questions to Change Your Life discuss family agility, from mapping priorities to adapting together while staying on course. Thank you for joining us. Watch the full interview: High-Impact Agile Practices for Families, Partnerships, and Friends
“There’s this classic challenge: People everywhere have too much to do and not enough time to do it,” Stevens begins.
Citing the Agile Manifesto, he points out that a key goal in agility is to help teams do more impactful work in less time, ideally with less wasted effort. This idea, he explains, serves anyone well in anyone’s life: do more of what really matters.
“It really does translate to your personal life as well,” he said. “You could take out that ‘developing software’ part and replace the software part with just about anything else, and it still works. ...We're uncovering better ways of doing what we do, by doing it and helping others to do it.”
Matarelli points out that the agile value “individuals and interactions over processes and tools” can work as a cornerstone for harmonious households as well. No system will work harder toward a family’s success than all parties acting on shared values, such as those laid out in agility, she explains.
“Even collaboration over contract or negotiation, looking at responding to things that might change over sticking to the plan — life is full of exciting curveballs,” Matarelli said. “If we can be prepared to respond to change, and we can connect with people, we can focus on actions and outcomes over just talking about stuff.
“Learning, collaboration, purpose — I think that's agility,” she says. “If you become intentional about using that in your life, great things can happen. ... a lot of people talk about brilliant ideas every day, but not everybody acts on it. And I think that's the difference, right? What if you actually took action, you weren’t just talking about it?”
These values work hand in hand with a shared purpose, vision, or sense of direction in relationships and households.
“When I look at the ones who are doing well right now, I think that I see a recurring pattern: They have a sense of purpose, a sense of direction, they know where they're going, and why they want to go there,” Stevens said. “If you’ve got a sense of purpose, then you can weather the storm. It's when you don't have any sense of direction that you start to notice all the waves that are tossing the boat around.”
Powerful Questions from Agile Coaches to Help Your Family Prioritize What Matters Most
Who are we?
What’s special about us?
What really matters to us?
What is the change or maintenance we’re seeking together?
“‘Who are we?’ is a really powerful question in a lot of different contexts,” Stevens says. “The idea that we as a family have a vision of who we are, or that we as a couple have a vision of who we are, that gives you something to orient on when things are difficult.”
Matarelli adds, “‘What's special about us?’ Answering that question creates a family culture, which can be helpful for families to have a vision, and a sense of identity.”
For partnerships and families with young children, a single vision may be possible, but Stevens said his teens, who are not interested in being coached, share separate identities and therefore separate visions from their parents.
“You can't force anybody to do anything here,” Stevens said. “But what you do have is control over yourself. You can invite someone, and when they go through the door, they grow through the door, and that's wonderful. And when they don't, that's OK, too. A family is not a regiment, they're not all following the marching orders from the Von Trapp family from ‘The Sound of Music.’
“They are a bunch of individuals. The children are dependent on their parents, probably more dependent than they realize, but also more independent than they realize. The parents are helping their kids become fully functioning adults, if they're good parents. Each one has this personal vision of ‘Who do I want to be?’ And then there's this kind of collective vision of ‘Who are we together as a family?”
“...each member of my family has their own vision, who they want to become. And that's what's really great. Both of my kids have found purpose in the last year, and they've just grown up tremendously.”
What is important, Matarelli explains, is that each person’s vision is communicated and respected, and whenever possible, for families to find the common ground that unites them. Relationships united around “what really matters” manage conflict in more productive ways, she said.
“I think it's more important than ever before in this situation for a family to share a vision,” she says. “Because the vision is really that north star that you always go back to that helps you stay on track and remember what you're trying to do. So, when we look at conflict or the possibility of conflict happening, if you don't have a clear vision, I think it's more likely for that to occur.”
At the core of Personal Agility sits the question: What really matters? If each person in a family shares their vision of what really matters, that common understanding helps cultivate a more compassionate way of thinking and working together, Stevens said.
“‘What really matters?’ helps us make good decisions,” Stevens says, “because you have a understanding of what the other person is going through, and when they don't do what's expected, you can cut them some slack, show them some kindness, show them some understanding and offer help, as opposed to being demanding about what they didn't do. If you assume that everyone's trying to do a good job, then there's no need for blame.”
With reduced blame-laden language and increased understanding, Matarelli explains, trust grows and families operate from a place of alignment more often than not.
“If we're trying to figure out how do we prioritize within families, especially competing priorities, well, it starts with, do we know what matters? Are we conscious of what we're doing?” she asks. “Or are we running on our own cycles and patterns in a haphazard fashion? Are we in alignment and in harmony? That's the start of that conversation.”
To get to the root of what really matters to the family and the individuals within it, Stevens points to additional questions.
“The deepest question is always, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I doing personal agility? What's the change in myself that I want to make happen, or if I already am the person that I want to be, what is the state of myself that I want, to maintain this balance?’”
These questions help orient one toward what it takes to achieve a given goal or maintain a desired lifestyle, he explains.
“So you get three or four things, and these are constants in your life, or let's say, relative constants in your life,” Stevens says. “It's not that they're never going to change, but they don't change very often. Look at these things for orientation, when you're deciding how to spend your time, who to spend it with, what you want to be doing. Your time is the most valuable thing that you have, with the possible exception of your health. You only get to use it once. When you decide to spend your time, you're also saying that whatever that thing is that really matters, and whatever thing you're not spending your time on doesn't matter. And so you're always making these decisions. ... This is an indication as to what you think is important. If there's something there that really matters, which wasn't getting attention before, which you're giving attention to now, you're bringing yourself into harmony with who you want to be.
“It's so easy to look at all the things that we didn't do — it's easy to come up with ideas, and it's harder to do the things it takes. By having this context of what really matters, it also enables them to have a backbone, it enables them to say yes to this and no to that and be able to justify their decision.”
Stevens and Matarelli said how often the few priorities in a “what really matters” list change depends on natural growth patterns and life events. A new partnership, job, move, or a child might signify changes in what matters, but the natural rhythm of changes on this list sits at roughly one to three years. A path to noticing when your priorities have shifted is to simply follow the breadcrumb trail of your own actions and hold that up beside your stated priorities, they explain.
Stay on Your Purpose with Transparency & Shared Celebrations
Matarelli speaks of Stevens’ personal agility as the individual’s case for the agilist’s style of transparency and celebration within a family.
“If Peter just says, ‘Hey, here's my priorities map. I just want you all to know, here's what's important to me. Here's what really matters, and here's what I'm working on’ … you can very clearly, visibly see, these are the things that matter, and we can color code them at a glance. You look at your priorities map, you look at your breadcrumb trail, you can see: Are the things that I said that mattered, the things that I'm doing?”
With a family, she says, “It could be done one of two ways. You could either have each individual make their own priorities maps. Let's say Peter has his priorities map. His wife has hers, and let's say one day, his teenagers decide they want to experiment with this as well. Right? That could be super valuable just for them to be able to share, right? We look at agile: A big theme is making things visible, having transparency and openness.”
Or, she explains, the family could follow her lead on a recent experiment in combining priorities maps with other people around a shared priority.
“Our first attempt at doing a combined priorities map of multiple people was one of the largest raging successes of the last couple of years,” she said. “Sharon, who is one of my dear friends, she's someone who was one of the first Personal Agility practitioners who really had a profound change in her life.”
Both she and Sharon struggled with physical health and weight maintenance. Although they identified these as among the top three or four things “that really mattered,” neither woman could offer up a breadcrumb trail that indicated she had been prioritizing her health. They were both exhausted by their work, so they pulled in a third friend with a similar problem, put together a priorities map, and chose each other to celebrate with. Immediately, the trio began to shed weight and prioritize healthier lifestyles.
“What happened after that was magic,” she said. “When you look at it, having that accountability, having that shared vision, using the priorities map for a group of people, we found that to be very successful. And I think the next step is to have a family try it. Let's run some experiments. And imagine if you as a family, imagine us as parents, you listened to your kids and what was important to them. Imagine if your teenagers actually thought that you cared and understood them? Could we create visibility into what really matters, and actually listen, rather than telling them what to do and what not to do? I'm curious what that outcome could be.”
Establish ‘Working Agreements’ & a Check-in Cadence
From the beginning and throughout the lifetime of your family’s prioritization and celebration together, craft working agreements and have discussions about:
Transparency: How could we improve visibility into our progress?
Communication: How are we enjoying working together, and what might improve our communication?
Responsibility: Have our responsibilities changed or do they need to change?
Trust: How have we built our relationships on a trusting foundation?
Safety: Do we continue to maintain a psychologically safe environment in which we may all grow?
Agreements: Are our agreements serving our purpose and meeting our needs?
When embarking on applying agile practices and values to a household, focus on cultivating clear “working agreements,” lest covert habits sneak in and thwart your progress, Stevens said. Though they need not be formal, once identified, formalizing these working agreements makes regular check-ins and maintenance much easier. With clear working agreements, partners may then check-in regularly to determine the health and usefulness of the agreements in serving the family. Come to an agreement about how agreements will be maintained in your relationship(s).
“You need to have a long, thought-out conversation about ‘How are we really going to do this?’” Stevens said. “And how are we going to make sure that we don't fall into patterns that might not be constructive? … Working agreements are about creating common sense.”
These agreements can reduce the quantity and severity of conflicts in the family, because they build trust, Matarelli said.
“Having those working agreements allows the person who's not there to trust the person who is there,” she said. “They're in alignment, and they can act and make decisions in the moment. Just like your Scrum team, you want them to have that product owner vision, so that they always know where their Jamaica is, where they're headed. It's laid out a lot in our house.”
Matarelli points out that agility, at its core, requires communication and transparency. Drama, in real life or in cinema, almost always involves a miscommunication of some type.
“Always, there's miscommunication,” she says. “Every good soap opera starts out with, first of all, some sort of missing communication, where the partners didn't understand each other. And then they make all kinds of wild and crazy assumptions about what the other person was doing, you know, which leads them into this downward spiral, which makes for good drama, but kind of a difficult relationship.”
“We know pair programming is effective, right? Can you do that in life? And isn't that what couples are about?” Matarelli asks. “This is your partner in life. So you're not alone. And so it's so important to be in alignment and in clear communication.”
From the daily check-ins to retrospective conversations, Scrum-like family ceremonies offer a fantastic opportunity for clarity, communication, and alignment, the pair explains.
“Sometimes we're just off on different pages,” Matarelli said. “And when we take the time to do appreciations at the end of a retrospective … it's back to assuming best intent and noticing some common themes here as we talk. … The appreciation, to constantly reinforce that you are valued, you are important, that can also help build trust and openness.”
To increase clarity through communication, ask:
How's this working?
What's going well?
What should we do next?
What should we do differently?
“This really goes back to the core agile concepts of making things visible, and then surfacing impediments,” she says. “If we're not aware of what the problems are, we can't fix them. ...Having that clarity in the first place is essential.”
Psychological safety plays a tremendous role in family culture, Stevens said. Trust, says Matarelli, is built by creating a safe environment for transparency, failure, and growth. Proactive alignment helps set the tone, she said.
“Without people feeling comfortable communicating, it's not gonna work,” she says. “Do we understand and believe that our partner has the best intentions? Can we assume that they're just doing their best going through life? Or when conflict comes up? Or is it, ‘how could you or, how dare you? You’re living your life the way you want? Oh, how could you? I'm in your life!’”
With children, Stevens points out that “firm love” offers both safe boundaries and space for self-expression.
“It's all about creating safety,” Stevens said, “so that you can talk about difficult concepts. If you don't have safety, then it's difficult to to talk about things, because as soon as you push back, the guards go up. One classic problem a lot of parents have is, do I want to be firm with my kids or do I want to be loving with my kids, as if these things are somehow opposites. It turns out, they're not opposites. You can be loving or you can be harsh, you can be firm or you can be unpredictable. Kids do need safety. Rules are part of that safety because they know what to expect. They know how to act. All of these things give them context and make it possible for them to grow.”
The Power of the Pause: Celebrate & Choose Where Your Priorities Take You
“It's all about figuring out what you're going to say yes to whether you actively say no to the other stuff,” Stevens said. “It’s the notion that ‘Oh, yeah, I actually do have too much to do, and I can't possibly do everything.’ Then you can start to feel a little bit better about not getting everything done. … Prioritization is really key to what we do in Scrum, for exactly this reason: too many good things to do not enough time to do them. What are we going to do with the time that we have?
“Taking responsibility is hugely empowering,” Stevens elaborates. “What's the right thing to do or not do for your own life? I say, ‘Hey, it's your boat, you get to decide where it goes. And if you want to change the destination midway through the week, it's your boat, you get to do that.’ Then they say, ‘Wow, it's my boat. Wow, I get to decide, I get to choose.’ All of the sudden, that's very empowering. People start to see that they actually get to set the course of their life. This is where you start to see these really life-changing changes in people. That seems a bit redundant, but you get these dramatic changes in direction and people’s lives as they realize they actually do have their hand on the rudder. ... You're not just self-managing for your life, you're self-directed for your life, you get to set the course.”
Stevens and Matarelli say it over and over again, “Celebrate and choose your life.”
“One of the things with the celebrate and choose events in that weekly celebration, that we do is, ‘How are we doing as a family? How are we connecting and what could be better?’” Matarelli explains. “And really it's a retrospective at its deepest form.
“One thing to emphasize would be the power of the pause,” she says. “I think, too often, we don't take the time to stop and pause and take that step back. Take the view of the forest versus the view in the trees, right?”
In addition to celebrating wins, this retrospective view can be especially helpful for people prone to de-prioritizing themselves and their needs to be reminded why it might be both necessary and highly beneficial to prioritize what really matters to them.
“If we can take that moment to pause, that's going to make all the difference for us to stop and reflect on ‘where are we in our life?’” She said. “‘Are we getting the outcomes we want?’ And then in addition to that, I put a strong emphasis on, I want people to know that they matter and it's not selfish to take care of you first, if you can be at your best to then be there for your family.”
She cites a client who learned to set better boundaries with her growing children in this way, to tell them no and create space for those children to become adults who manage their own impediments with confidence.
“She’s been a better role model for them, because she's intentional about her life,” she said. “Now her kids are taking more responsibility. It's OK to put yourself first to be at your best for other people. Because otherwise you're running on fumes. And that's when you get frustrated, or you say things you didn't mean, or it's that one thing that hits you over the edge and you lose your temper, and, well, you're the one who chose to do that. So can you choose differently? And the answer is yes.”
Stevens emphasizes that agility is about inspection and adaptation, not perfection.
“You can be more in control and more intentional about the outcomes in your life,” Stevens encourages. “You don't have to know everything, you just need to be able to take the first step. … There's really nothing standing in your way from starting to think differently and act differently today. It's just taking that moment to pause. And when you do, and when you prioritize yourself, you may be surprised at what those outcomes start to be.”
Inspect & Adapt: The Agile Way to Work Together Better Next Time
Bringing the process full circle, the learning at the cornerstone of family agility happens within a safe space to inspect progress made independently and as a team, so everyone may learn and do better next time.
“Personal agility is a very kind of framework,” Matarelli adds. “It's not a scolding, ‘Ah, you didn't get that done.’ It's, ‘wait a minute, we're a little off course,’ the best thing to do when you're off course is to notice that you're off course and simply look at getting on course. And this reminds me of trying to find a place with maybe shoddy directions.”
“The question is, when conflict happens, when something goes wrong, what is your reaction? Is it to panic and freak out? Or is it to say, ‘What's the next best thing that we can do?’ Is it ‘Oh, my gosh, we've been off wasting so much time, how could you let us do this?’ Or is it ‘Oh, so we're not doing that anymore? What should we do? What's the next right thing?’”
Matarelli cites nonviolent or conscious communication as helpful tools in approaching these conversations with a separation of observation from judgement or criticism.
Within these conversations, partners and families enjoy the benefit of clarity of purpose as well as the flexibility to choose a more appropriate direction when it serves everyone involved.
“What's interesting about having what really matters in this first column of your priorities map, is it's really easy to communicate it when it changes, and it's really easy to help other people understand,” Stevens said. “It's also easier to help your partner because you can ask them, ‘How have you been spending your time?’”
“As agilists as we not only know what we're doing, we know why we're doing it,” Stevens concluded. “If what we're doing somehow isn't in alignment with that deeper ‘why,’ we can recognize that, and that makes it possible for us to change course.”
Visit personalagilityinstitute.org for more resources.
About the Interviewees
Maria Matarelli is an international business consultant, experienced agile coach, and Scrum Alliance Certified Scrum Trainer® (CST®) who consults and trains companies on reaching true agility. She is co-founder of the Agile Marketing Academy and Founder and President of Formula Ink, the international consulting company.
Peter Stevens is an author, executive coach, Scrum Alliance Certified Scrum Trainer®, co-Founder of the World Agility Forum, and creator of the Personal Agility System. He wrote "Ten Agile Contracts: Getting Beyond Fixed-Price, Fixed Scope," is an instrument-rated pilot, speaks four languages, and lives in Zurich with his family and two cats.
Together, they founded the Personal Agility Institute and are writing "Personal Agility: Six Questions to Change Your Life." Their goal is to help people and organizations become who they want to be and achieve what they want to achieve.