From the Students’ Perspective: Scrum Smooths School, Home Life

Image of a student excelling at remote learning using agile frameworks and scrum techniques to manage classes and homework.

Today in our agile at home series, we're discussing using Scrum to manage remote learning and pandemic living with seasoned at-home agilist and Scrum Alliance® Certified ScrumMaster® and practitioner Aaron Vadakkan. His father, Certified Scrum Trainer® Manoj Vadakkan, started using Scrum at home with his sons when Aaron was about eight years old. 

“We continue to add more of Scrum to our daily routine as a family,” Aaron Vadakkan said. “So now my brother and I use Scrum to run our at-home business. I use Scrum at home and in club leadership at school and, of course, to organize my own work.”


Define Done to Reduce Conflict and Miscommunication at Home

According to The Scrum Guide, the Definition of Done is a formal description of the state of the increment when it meets the quality measures required for the product. The Definition of Done creates transparency by providing everyone a shared understanding of what work was completed as part of the increment. For an at-home agilist or family Scrum Team, defining done:

  1. Helps you and your family prioritize your work by defining the value of completing it.

  2. Promotes positive discussions that may prevent miscommunication-driven conflict.

  3. Helps you craft an agreement around necessary, versus “nice-to-have,” goals for that work.

  4. Creates an entryway into conversational check-ins about progress toward a goal.

Though Vadakkan’s father led the family Scrum Team for many years, when the boys entered middle school, the family had a big problem: the children’s Definition of “Done” was not the same as their parents’. A common problem both at home and in the workplace, this discussion proved pivotal for aligning the family for ensuring the most important work was completed to an agreed-upon standard.

“My parents couldn't figure out and agree when all the work was considered done or not,” Vadakkan said. “My mom wanted me to clean all the dishes, mop all the floors, vacuum all the carpets, and do all of that before I could go outside. And that's when we started using our definition of done. We use it as a checklist that both of our parents and I agreed on, so that we both know when something is done or not.

“We have a more general definition of done for bigger things. And just something that applies to everything. And then we have a definition of done for specific subjects like for math, before you finish all your own work, we have to show all your work, show all your calculations. Before you finish an English project, you have to cite all your sources, figure out the in text citations, that type of stuff. So we have a big one. Big ones for all subjects, and all things and more specific ones.”

Related: Read More in the "Scrum at Home & Personal Agility" Collection

Refine Shared Backlogs Together to Increase Family Productivity with Scrum 

  1. Create a comprehensive backlog of everything your household or family hopes to do or must do as a team. 

  2. Create a separate backlog just for what can be done this week (a week is a great Sprint length for personal agilists and at-home Scrum teams).

  3. Choose a community space in your home to host your Sprint Backlog (which is your to-do column), a doing column, and a done column.

  4. Assign a meeting facilitator (a Scrum Master) and a Product Owner (the person holding the vision for your team).

  5. Host a family Sprint Planning event on the same day each week as the first part of your “sprint.” Here, you will break down the projects in your Sprint Backlog into tasks that can be done in less than an hour, and you will ensure everyone agrees the Definition of Done still fits those items.

Though the initial work of detailing big projects onto small, actionable cards can feel both daunting and time consuming, Vadakkan explains that these 30- to 45-minute tasks provide a near-immediate sense of accomplishment that snowballs throughout the day. 

“It definitely does seem like more work in the beginning, but once you break everything down and you understand how much work you really have, you'll have a sense of peace of mind that you might not actually have as much work as you thought in your head,” he said.

This foundation supported Vadakkan’s family as each individual in the household, responsible for professional, educational, and household backlogs of tasks, figured out how to transition to pandemic life. Vadakkan said Scrum helped him hold himself accountable for his work and the timeline in which he completed big projects.

“With Scrum, I generally start by breaking down each assignment into individual tasks,” he said. “And then I put it on my board. So I can kind of visualize how much work I have that week. And it's definitely harder to procrastinate, if you have all this stuff in front of you sitting in the to-do column, just staring at you. And I have it on my Scrum board that's sitting right in front of my desk.”


Define Scrum Roles, or Accountabilities, for Your Home Life

It helps to have both a household Scrum Master and a Product Owner, Vadakkan explains, to give each person a focus during family meetings. Vadakkan’s household backlog, like many, lives separately from his personal and school backlog as well as that for his business. The family uses the Scrum accountabilities to help keep household projects and goals moving forward during the pandemic. His mother, whose professional life is in science, not Scrum, is the family Product Owner. Though in the beginning, his father was the family Scrum Master, it now falls to Aaron Vadakkan. 

“The Scrum Master is generally responsible for removing the impediments and things blocking the team from getting their work done,” he explains. “But of course, I’ve got to be a team member in the household too. So I just facilitate all the meetings and help to break down the tasks into doable things, especially with work that involves all four people in our house.”

With a lot of work to distribute amongst those in the household, a board that is visible to everyone allows transparency into each person’s schedule and serves as an opening for conversations, not just about tasks, but about values and priorities. 

Color-coded sticky notes for each person help Vadakkan’s mother (and the rest of the family team) understand to whom the work in the family backlog belongs and who really has the capacity to get it done.

“That helps us to figure out who's doing work, who's doing what, especially for bigger things,” Aaron Vadakkan said. “And that helps us with our mom. She's always like, ‘I'm the only one doing stuff in this house.’ If you look at the board, you have color-coded sticky notes for everyone, so you can start to see when somebody is actually doing more than everybody else.”


The Secret to Communicating Capacity: Make it Visible and Doable in Your Sprint

For aspiring at-home agilists and those who are learning to develop and refine their backlogs, Vadakkan recommends ensuring that the top tasks on the board each week (a typical at-home Sprint) can be completed in a timespan as short as 30 to 45 minutes. Without breaking each project down into short tasks, it becomes easy to underestimate the work and overestimate capacity, he explains.

“Really break it up and make it visible to yourself and to others so that you're moving things constantly,” he said. “If I have a nagging dad coming at me and telling me to mop up all the floors, well, you can visibly see that I have a lot of stuff on my plate. So I don't have time for that.

“Once you finally finish the first task and move it to the done column, you kind of just have to keep going. It's like a snowball effect, if you cross things off of your list.”

And this may seem obvious, but do the math, he explains, to identify exactly how many of those 45-minute tasks fit into your family Sprints,” which for most families, is one week.

“If you can't get everything done in a week, it's not a big deal, you can just move on to the next week and figure out how much you can really get done,” he said. “You can visualize and just add up how much time is the entire week of work gonna take me, and is that realistic?

“I think, especially when you start, make sure your Sprint is a short time period. That's what Scrum is all about: having short increments. And I would say it's alright if things come up out of nowhere. You can always add something to your board and when you're done with your Sprint, you can kind of look back and see, ‘Which things could I have predicted that were going to come up and which things came out of nowhere?’”

Sprint Planning — the time during which Scrum teams detail and break up their work — is the first event in the Sprint. Vadakkan sprint plans on Mondays because his teachers assign the week’s work on that day. He says he finds it easiest to operate in one-week Sprints for school. The same is true of Emilia Breton’s family, as she says most children grasp the concept of a week more easily than longer time periods. 

This is where it becomes important to understand that most agilists and Scrum teams maintain two backlogs: one for the current Sprint and one for … everything else that might ever get prioritized.

“So first, we have this Sprint Planning meeting,” he explains. “That's where we divide up our work and take it from the Product Backlog, which is kind of the big list of everything you want to get done. And you break that down into your personal to do list for the week or for the Sprint.

“There are big projects, big essays that they need to get done within like two months. But you're not going to finish the entire two months of work within the first week. So we want to break that down into stuff that's manageable into stuff that you can get done in the first week. Like, if you have an essay, maybe you want to get the introduction done in the first week. So, you can move the introduction into the to-do list.”

Even though, to some, this sounds like adding work to work, Scrum teams and personal agilists become more efficient, not just with the process, but in their own lives, by practicing agility or Scrum.

“With the virtual world we're in, it's easy to get lost and get discouraged,” he said. “I would say that the Scrum board really helps a lot because it provides some peace of mind because you have everything planned out, and you know you won't forget anything, because it's right there on the to-do list. And once you see your done column filled up with sticky notes at the end of the week, it's like a sense of accomplishment to be like, ‘Look how much I got done this week!’ It's pretty satisfying.”


Scrum Sprint Planning and Agile Retrospective Techniques for Your Home Life

“You have to start somewhere, and starting small is all you really need — you can always improve from there,” Vadakkan said. “Starting small with short Sprints or a Planning, a Review, and a Retrospective. That's really all you need. And it's really pretty simple to get started just having a Scrum board and sticky notes on your wall.”

A Scrum or Kanban board is divided into three columns: to do, doing, and done. Vadakkan explained that it is ideal to limit the work in process — in the “doing” column — to one item per person, a concept called a “WIP limit” in the agile world. 

A Retrospective at the end of each Sprint helps agilists understand their approach to work at a higher level. Opposed to simply looking at their breadcrumb trail of tasks completed and celebrating their accomplishments, during a Retrospective meeting agilists learn about and discuss how they are most likely to succeed. These can be important family meetings, in which the most important questions are: what worked, what did not work, and how would we like to do what differently next time?

“The Sprint Review and the Sprint Retrospective both happen at the end of the Sprint,” Vadakkan said. “The Review, you kind of look at what are the individual tasks that I got done? ...And a Retrospective is more: What was the process? Did I break it down? 

“So Retrospective is about the process. Review is about the tasks themselves. ...You might wish, at the end of your first Sprint, that you broke up your first task a little better, or you got a little bit of feedback from your teacher, or your whomever, in the middle of the Sprint. So our goal is always to continuously improve and get more efficient. And once we have a baseline to go off of we can always get better from there."

Related: What Is Scrum? The Scrum Events

“I hope that Scrum can be used widely in schools, especially public schools like elementary, middle, and high schools,” says Vadakkan “...because I think it can help students as well as teachers who have to assign the work. All this online stuff is new for teachers as well.

“The areas of life into which the Scrum framework may be applied are endless — anywhere there is work to be done, moreover people with whom one must work together, Scrum or any degree of personal agility can help with prioritization, collaboration, and productivity.” 

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