How agile can ease family stress

Agile methodologies help teams work more efficiently in the workplace — but its benefits can also apply at home
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Three people sit using laptops around clock showing 10:10

“You will never be completely ready. Start from wherever you are.”

This quote from C.J. Hayden motivates me to keep moving forward, especially in turbulent times. So when the rhythm of life was disrupted by COVID-19 last spring, it served as a good daily reminder both at home and at work.

At work, I am blessed with strong leaders and teams around the globe, and our operating rhythms and practices enabled us to swiftly meet the challenges. At home, however, it was a different story: As working parents of two elementary school-aged children, we suddenly pivoted from using our home only as a place of rest and renewal to a place of work, school, and virtual social activities. The path to success was less clear.

[ Read also: Pandemic parenting: 3 truths working parents wish bosses and colleagues knew.]

The greatest challenge was how to balance remote school learning for a kindergartener and a fourth-grader while simultaneously leading a global workforce. As a technologist, I was called to sort out Zoom meetings where nobody seemed to know how to use the mute function. As a mother, I was constantly monitoring homework assignments and worrying about whether my fourth-grader was falling behind.

I was called to sort out Zoom meetings where nobody seemed to know how to use the mute function.

As a family, we were re-establishing routines and aligning schedules with important meetings with teachers, co-workers, and others. The dog would inevitably decide to bark during critical conversations. It felt like a circus and the constant reminder to “start from where you are” pulled on my imagination.

I kept thinking that there had to be a better way. Then one evening I was working on a stack of math worksheets with my fourth grader. It was after dinner and everyone’s energy had been fully depleted for the day. It occurred to me that the agile methodologies and tools we used in our work environment could also help us achieve better outcomes at home. It might even engage the kids in a way that would give them a deeper sense of control.

Read also: Agile vs. DevOps: What’s the difference? ]

Building a plan - and a Kanban board

After a few weeks, our chaos turned into an organized set of routines with accountability.

The next day the idea took flight, and we built our first Kanban board. Using construction paper, we created a list of “stories,” which were the assignments. We added sections: To Do, In Progress, Submitted, and Done. We then scheduled a 10-minute touchpoint every night to plan the next day and set our intentions.

At the end of the week, we had a family meeting to do a retrospective and reflect on the week. We discussed what worked well, what could have been better, and what could we do differently the following week.

After a few weeks of this, our chaos turned into an organized set of routines with accountability. My kindergartener even got involved in practicing some of these concepts.

[ What tools help support scrum, kanban, and other agile methods? Read also: Top 7 open source project management tools for agile teams. ]

Tweaks for the new school year

As we navigated a new school year this fall, we have continued to leverage these techniques and have added more. We now do a morning checklist and a weekly plan that feels like a sprint. More importantly, our daily meeting (during dinner) offers an opportunity to iterate or pivot on our approach.

Leveraging agile has not only given us a greater sense of control and synchronization, but it also helped us calibrate our intent and outcomes as a family. More importantly, it has empowered our children by giving them tools and techniques for doing activities and enabled them to evaluate their assignments and define what it takes to accomplish a set of tasks. Sometimes they underestimate, but learning how to deal with failure is also an important skill.

As a working parent and as a leader with many working parents on my team, I recognize that the events of this year have brought new challenges and strains to each of us. While everyone has different variables to contend with, we all strive to alleviate stress.

Remember: “You will never be completely ready. Start from wherever you are.” For my family, we have adapted agile methodology practices to our family routines. Living in today’s unpredictable world, doing so has helped us feel less like we are walking on a high wire without a net, and today our circus is more enjoyable.

[ Want to learn more about agile and scrum? Read Scrum for beginners: What you need to know. ]

Monica Caldas is the Deputy Chief Information Officer for Liberty Mutual Insurance, where she is responsible for the technology roadmap and driving alignment around the company’s investments in data and technology across the company’s three business units.