Using Scrum to Help with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) - Part Two
Settle in, make yourself a brew and enjoy learning from people who actually live scrum day in day out.
I would just like to add a thank you to Francis and Sally for being very open in allowing us to peak into your lives and to share it with everyone. Very inspirational.
This second post in the ‘Agile ADHD’ series from me, Sally Waters, and my husband Francis, is all about the details of how we implement Scrum at home.
For why we do it, and what results we have had, please read Part 1 (the introduction will be enough to help this post make sense). The short version is that Francis has ADHD, which massively affects being able to reach goals. Nothing helped with this until we tried Scrum.
If you’ve ended up here as someone who perhaps has ADHD but knows nothing about what ‘Scrum’ is, you can get a quick idea from this summary.
I don’t want anyone who is thinking of doing this themselves to be put off by the number of things we have added to our system. When we started back in July 2017 it was a standard ‘task radiator’ borrowed straight from the boards at work:
It’s now October 2018. We’ve spent over a year ‘inspecting and adapting’ what works for us. Our current board looks like this:
As you can see, a lot has been added. I’ll explain how (nearly) every part works in this post.
(Written by Sally; photos and editing by Francis.)
Do you record any metrics, and if so, what?
Story points! We used to just keep track of our total score for the sprint, but for a few months now we’ve been writing daily totals into our notebook so that we can have a more fine-grained view of our velocity.
We’ve only got around to analysing this data once, over a month or so from March to April 2018:
After making this graph, we calculated our average sprint capacity, so that we could match that to how many points we planned to do in our next sprint. But we only ended up doing this twice. This is because we have regular tasks, which can be done any number of times during a sprint and so their points-value is harder to predict.
Points are really central to how we do Scrum. They’re less a way of estimating a task and more a way of keeping score. We base our points weighting of a task on an instinctive mix of:
- importance (e.g. if it’s a hobby or checking reddit it gets fewer points)
- reluctance (i.e. how much we don’t want to do it)
- time it’ll take
- effort it’ll take
So for instance, even if a small admin task like ringing the bank will only take five minutes, if it’s something that Francis feels a lot of reluctance to do, it could be given 8 points. In a team of two, we no longer need to consult very much about how much something should be worth. Roughly speaking, we agree on most weightings (if we do disagree, it’s often Francis telling me sternly that I’ve undervalued my effort for a task). Because of this, we don’t hesitate to put a points score on a post-it note, even if one of us isn’t around, just to make sure it’s complete and ready to be used.
We still use planning poker numbers - so 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, or 20. Recently though Francis has gotten rebellious and started sticking 10s and 15s in there, and I find even I have started rating things 4s… Ah well. There’s also been slight point inflation. Francis reckons this will level off when, if ever, we stop creating new bonuses. :)
For some reason, the points are extremely motivating for Francis. People have suggested that we translate a certain score into a real reward at the end of a sprint, like going out to a meal, but we just haven’t needed to. It would feel weird to punish ourselves by not doing something nice that we’ve planned, and I doubt we’d have the discipline to do that either. But it’s enough just to aim for beating our own high score from previous sprints.
Francis: All life is a madey-uppy game. Might as well get a high score once in a while.
How many sprints have you done?
We started in July 2017, so we’re well over a year in now. We don’t try and do sprints while we’re away on holiday though! Right now we’re in our thirtieth sprint.
How long are your sprints, have you tried varying the length? What made you pick the length of sprint that you're using?
We always used two-week sprints, but (actually at Steve’s suggestion), we have just tried out a one-week sprint. We liked it; Francis was initially reluctant as it means twice the number of sprint planning meetings, but on the other hand he’s keen on building in more reflection by having a weekly retro. Already it’s been far less difficult to plan for a shorter time-period. I think having a chance to readjust weekly will help quite a lot with staying on track.
Do you theme your sprints with a Sprint Goal, e.g. concentrate on a DIY project, or just see what is ordered higher in the backlog?
We are trying to bring this in – although we call it a ‘Sprint Quest’. However, last sprint our goal was to get the wedding thank-you letters done, and we didn’t even start it.
I think the issue might be that the sprint quest isn’t integrated enough. We don’t remember to choose one in most Sprint Planning sessions and then we don’t base our decisions on what to do the next day from it either. Any suggestions for solving this problem are most welcome!
How closely do you follow the Scrum guide, i.e. do you follow all the Scrum Events (Sprint Planning, Daily Scrum, Sprint Review, Sprint Retrospective)?
Well… we try.
Daily Scrum – yes, absolutely. We do this almost every night before bed (even if we’ve stayed up really late).
Francis: If we miss a scrum we go to yellow alert. Two is red. I am always amazed at how quickly chaos can begin to creep back into life.
Sprint Review – as we’ve got no stakeholders (except the dog), this mainly consists of reading out everything we did in the last sprint as we move those post-its off the board and reclaim their pins. It’s heartening because we’ve always done more than I realise or remember.
Sprint Retrospective – yes, but like many teams at work, we sometimes get lazy and skimp on doing a proper retro. But last time it was actually Francis insisting on doing it. If we miss a retro, then occasionally we find ourselves arguing about something that could have been easily addressed if we’d made that space to sit down and talk a couple of days earlier. We also don’t innovate on our Scrum process, and that risks making it boring and less effective.
We haven’t actually experimented that much with the form of our retros:
- For ages, all we did was take a post-it note each and try to write down a few good and bad things about how we thought the last sprint had gone.
- Just recently, we spent five minutes writing a letter to each other. We then swapped, read, and discussed the letters, underlining things that could be turned into an action. We transcribed these to post-it notes and chose one or two to put into the next sprint. This worked really well and we’ll probably stick with this format for a while.
Sprint Planning – yes. (Francis gets a bonus ‘times three’ multiplier for this if he does it without whinging (his idea). Even though he is committed to doing Scrum, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t find parts of it boring!)
The level of detail in our planning sessions is usually limited by whatever we have the time and energy for. I have written a checklist for what we need to do, but it is too complicated and overwhelming - we never even look at it now, let alone get through all of it. We plan to write a drastically simplified version.
Here’s the main things we actually try to hit when doing a sprint plan:
- Reset the burn-up chart (erase the points we wrote on it and push it down to the bottom)
- Francis reads out all the events from our Google calendar for the next couple of sprints. I write them onto post-it notes and put them on the physical paper calendar. We also write post-its for any related tasks that need to be done to prepare for certain events.
- If we get further than this, we try to think of non-event-related tasks we need to do from a few of the different categories.
- If we’re doing really well, we take all the tasks we’ve decided on and put them onto the board in priority order - first within each category, and then overall too, so that in theory it’s always clear what task needs doing next.
- The sprint review and retro are usually done at the same time too.
Do you have a Daily Scrum and is it always the same time and same place, sticking to 15 minute time box?
We do indeed have a daily scrum – it’s last thing at night. It might be better if we chose a fixed time to do it, but we haven’t really found a way to make that work. We don’t set a timer either, but it doesn’t feel as though it goes over the fifteen minute mark.
Our routine for the daily scrum includes:
- Each counting up our day’s points (not forgetting to use the magic item - see below)
- Writing down the points in our notebook, then adding the total to the burn-up chart - see below
- Moving the tasks from ‘Done’ either to ‘Done Done’ (if they’re completely finished with), or back to do again if they’re a regular task [insert link to ‘Regulars’ heading below] or a repeating non-regular -see below.
- Spend some time planning the next day - bring any post-its for the next day from the calendar and choose our one ‘jewel task’ - see below.
We’ve got so practised at it now that it’s done pretty quickly, and it’s often quite fun. It’s a chance to tell each other things we need to know, and we get to see what the other person’s been up to.
The board allows all of this information about what needs to be (and has been) done to be exchanged in a neutral way, without nagging. We both see the board as the source of tasks and problems to solve, rather than Francis seeing me as the source of all this work. This used to be our only option, because I was the one with the ability to carry the mental load.
It also helps us have a more objective picture of the contributions we’re each making, which is crucial to keeping resentment at bay in any relationship. I’ve definitely heard of a bias where each partner in a couple will almost universally think that they do more work than the other partner, simply because we experienced doing all of our work but don’t always see the efforts the other person has made (if anyone knows what this bias is called, please let me know!).
Francis: Although in our relationship there is no question that Sally is slightly harder working than I. Even if I didn’t have ADHD, Sally is an exceptionally committed worker.
Who would you say fill the roles of Product Owner and Scrum Master - assuming that the pair of you fulfil the role of the Development team?
In terms of keeping us true to the scrum process, I (Sally) used to definitely have that ‘Scrum Master’ role as I was the one teaching Francis about it. However, nowadays more often than not it’s Francis holding us to doing the Scrum events.
In terms of removing obstacles, I wish we did have a separate person to do that for us! As I don’t have ADHD, the solution to a problem is often a bit clearer to me than to Francis, so sometimes I fulfil this role as well.
I’d love to have a separate person to take charge of filling our backlog with tasks, but then again I could never accept anyone else’s decisions about what I do with my life. However, if anyone’s got any good tips or ideas for a simple framework to help prioritise work across a broad range of life-tasks (both within and across different categories, short term and long term), I’d be very very interested in hearing from you!
Who orders the backlog, is this both of you or does someone have ultimate say and accountability?
It comes down to a joint negotiation in the end. Assigning one person as the product owner feels as though it wouldn’t work, because one person can’t just tell the other person what to do when you’re in a couple. However, it isn’t too hard because there are only two of us, and we can usually agree on a direction.
For categories like ‘career’ and ‘health’ it’s easy because we each have ultimate say and accountability for ourselves. We might experiment with assigning the Product Owner role for a couple of the more well-defined shared life-categories. For instance, maybe Francis could take responsibility for the ‘dog’ category. But even here it’s hard, as I have joint ownership of her so as a stakeholder I’d certainly expect to be able to have a say!
In fact, the problem is less about who has ultimate say and more about Francis feeling engaged with long-term goals at all. For someone who only a year ago had never had a concrete plan for his future (apart from his band hopefully getting suddenly, effortlessly famous), it’s amazing to see him feel engaged with any long-term aspiration. Now it’s all written down on the board Francis can have a lot more input into what we are doing than he used to. It’s nice for me to have a bit less of that responsibility too.
How often do you review the upcoming items for sprint? Is it a well formed list of things that need to get done?
Backlog refinement – we struggle with this. Our main problem is that we just run out of tasks. We did used to schedule one meeting per sprint to do this, but Francis found it even more boring than Sprint Planning. For now I have taken the bulk of it into my own hands as Francis doesn’t mind me suggesting tasks for him and it’s a lot less stress for both of us.
Just in the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying an approach borrowed from Tiago Forte’s P.A.R.A. method. Instead of a backlog column, I’ve made a couple of columns called ‘Projects’ and ‘Areas of Responsibility’. Projects are goals of any size, but they must have a point where they’ll be finished. Areas of responsibility, on the other hand, have ongoing standards that need to be constantly maintained.
In these columns, I’ve written the main focus for each life category, so I can tell at a glance what our priorities are at the moment. This also makes it easier to generate tasks. I have a weekly call with a friend who has been my informal productivity coach over the last few years. During that call I’ll go down the list of projects and areas and write post-its for what their next steps are. This works well for me, but may be more than Francis wants to do. I may see if we can adapt it for him though. If anyone has any ideas for how we can capture tasks more easily, we could do with your help!
Other than that, we still have one ‘Backlog’ column holding the goals we wrote down in each category at the start of the year, and also a ‘Wishlist’ section to hold ideas we want to get to at some point in our lives.
Have you needed to define "Done" for the items you're working on?
I did originally think of adding a ‘definition of done’, but couldn’t think of one that’s general enough to cover all the different types of tasks involved in living life.
have however written a ‘definition of ready’ – our rules are that a task needs to be fewer than 20 points (Francis: although, as an aside, certain tasks are worth more for sheer magnitude. For instance, successfully resuscitating someone while I’m volunteering with the ambulance service is worth 50), concrete enough to visualise, and easy enough to manage if it came out of the blue. We don’t refer to it much but I think writing this down early on did help us to internalise how to break down tasks a bit better.
Sally, do you get frustrated with people where you work when they struggle to work within Scrum? After all, you've implemented Scrum in the most complex area known - at home.
To be honest, I’ve never thought of it like that. I do often have a lot of ideas for our processes at work, but it’s always going to be more difficult with a bigger team. When it’s just two of you, it barely takes a moment to agree to try something new. But even so, I think there’s room for people to be less worried about appearing professional (at least within the safety of the squad) and more free to be silly and suggest playful modifications to our ways of working.
For instance, Francis and I get a three-point bonus for counting up the day’s story-points with a plastic magic wand, for no reason at all. We also get a point for high-fiving after we do our daily scrum. These things are completely pointless, but psychologically they make the whole thing a lot more engaging. I’d love to see more of that spirit at work and less concern for being seen as childish.
Tell me more about the gamification aspect of how you've organised your world. What things do you do and how does this benefit you? What has worked and what hasn't?
One of the first things we realised about using Scrum to organise our life was that we needed some way of handling the tasks which happen every day, or every week.
Writing a new post-it note every time would have quickly bored us to tears, so we came up with the idea of regular tasks. We used to subdivide these by how regular they were. So we wrote on a task whether it was daily, sporadic (every two, three or four days), weekly, fortnightly, monthly, quarterly, annually, and placed them on the board grouped by these timings. However, recently we decided that was overly-complicated and instead, for everything other than the ‘daily’ tasks, we’re just grouping by category in a big backlog. The ‘dailies’ stay in our ‘today/doing’ column, and go directly back and forth between there and the ‘done today’ section.
Later on we decided we also wanted a way for some ‘non-regular’ tasks to repeat as well. For instance, if we have a ‘Strip wallpaper’ task, we’re only going to be able to do a little each day, but one day it will be completely finished. For these kinds of tasks we draw a little circular arrow symbol on the post-it note, like a recycling symbol.
The other reason to repeat a non-reg is because it’s a task which actually has multiple parts to it, but we don’t need to (or don’t have the energy to) break down that task any further. So for instance, if I had a ‘Get bike serviced’ task, I already know how I’m going to do that, so I don’t need separate post-its for the different steps. (This is definitely a compromise between having everything perfectly laid out for us and spending too much time planning. If we find Francis is struggling to start a task because of lack of clarity about what steps are involved, we can always break it down more then.)
Bonus Points & Combos
Pretty soon after starting with Scrum, Francis noted how much it’s like playing a video game. The points in particular feed into that, and we began to see the scope for adding a few more points-based features. The most obvious of these was bonuses - so for certain combinations of tasks, we get extra points. The first was the ‘laundry hatrick’ - if we put a load of laundry on, hang one up, and put one away, all in the same day, then we get a plus three.
This is a new experiment (you’ll notice a lot of these are sleep-related - we struggle with getting into a good routine!). The idea is simply that for every day that I get to bed by 11pm, I add one more point to the tally, and so the task is worth an ever-increasing amount. However, if I break my streak, it’s back to zero again. I’m worried this one could badly unbalance the rest of the board if I get a really long streak, but I have to get there first before that becomes a problem.
Francis: I’m thinking of adding a streak system where jumping from one task to another without a break is worth more. Combo points yo! Early stages yet.
This focuses on the amount of sleep I get, rather than my bed-time. If I manage 8 hours or more the number of points its worth goes up dramatically. I put a pin underneath the number of hours of sleep I got last night.
Francis has a similar task, but in his case he earns thirteen points for getting to bed by midnight, and then the points decrease by three for every fifteen minutes he’s late to bed. So it goes down until he gets one point for getting to bed by 1am, and minus two points if he gets to bed later than 1:15am. This is one of the only times we use negative reinforcement and even losing just two points sometimes feels harsh. Use subtraction with care!
We began to have so many blue (house and garden category) regulars that there wasn’t much room for anything else on the board. At least half of them were about keeping the kitchen clean - taking the bins out, doing the dishes, wiping down the sides, and so on.
Finally, we made all of these kitchen tasks into two post-it notes: one daily ‘dishwasher’ task (to either stack it or empty it), and one daily ‘kitchen duty’ tasks. This was our first abstract task, there as a placeholder for the specific task based on day. (For those wondering, we worked out how much this task should be worth by taking an average point value of all the tasks it was replacing. Yes, we are that unnecessarily nerdy about this.)
I must admit that our kitchen rota has not seen much use in quite a while unfortunately. Perhaps the solution might be some kind of kitchen-duty streak…
Even after consolidating all the kitchen duties into two post-its, there were still far too many blue regulars. They were for other cleaning tasks, like sweeping, hoovering, dusting, everything and anything. Eventually we replaced all of these with a ‘non-specific tidy’ task, which is worth two points.
We needed these multiplier modifiers when the NST (non-specific tidy) task came in. Since that’s worth two points, and sweeping the whole living room might feel like it should be worth about eight points, we can simply put the NST post-it in ‘Done’ with a ‘times four’ post-it pinned on top of it.
Instead of having an ‘In Progress’ section with only one thing in it at a time, we use a ‘Doing Today’ section. In fact we have one each, right next to each other. The numbers down the side are the hours in the day - I find it useful to put tasks next to when they might be done, but Francis doesn’t use this. At the end of each Daily Scrum we move our daily regulars back from ‘Done’ and pick up any other tasks we need to do that day.
As I’m often out at work when I need to remember what it was I was planning to do at lunch-time, I get Francis to send me a photo. It’s slightly awkward and a down-side of using a physical board, but it’s not as much of a problem as it would be if we had a digital board that we never remembered to look at.
One thing I like about them being post-it notes though is that I can take a small pile of them with me up to my desk upstairs when I’m working on life admin, and I can arrange them into a to-do list right next to my computer.
As I’ve said, we’re struggling to come up with a way of keeping and filling a backlog that works for us. This is our most recent solution - we have one A3 page per week, and we store the tasks we’re going to do on the correct day. We’ve been doing this already for any tasks which are time-bound, but the new idea is to assign tasks without a deadline to a particular day. I’m hopeful this could work very well as we will have to choose what tasks to do next in the context of what is already scheduled.
I am quite proud of the big red arrow, which I made yesterday from some cardboard and paper - as we’re going to have four weeks at once on the board, it’s crucial for Francis to be able to easily see where he is among the days so that he doesn’t feel lost.
Francis: Or get distracted for looking for which day we’re on.
This was or previous idea for how to manage our backlogs. We would have all the tasks for the sprint in category-columns. Within each column we would list the tasks in that category according to priority. The real stroke of insight from Francis was that then we could space out the tasks vertically so that only one post-it would be at the top at once - so only one post-it note per row. This would force us to prioritise both within each category and across all of them, eliminating doubt about what task to pick up next.
However, this turned out to be a lot of work to implement. First of all, it needs a lot of tasks to be written in advance, which takes a large block of upfront-time in our planning sessions; and then the prioritising of them all took even more time. It also took up a lot of board-space. It also was not flexible enough when tasks came up mid-sprint (which they do quite a lot, sorry Steve!). And if Francis was reluctant to do one of the tasks, it would block all the other ones after it as well.
It was a very nice feeling to walk into a stationery shop knowing that we would actually use what I bought. I saw some plastic stickers that look like jewels and got them before I knew exactly how we could use them in our system.
I think we’ve ended up with a great idea - we each decide one task each day that is the ‘jewel task’ and gets a sticker. This is the one thing that we really have to get done that day. If it doesn’t get done, it halves the value of whatever other tasks we do.
I’ve only failed once to get my jewel tasks done since we started this, and it was because I thought I could do more than one. Francis was exasperated, as he is much more realistic about managing only one most-important task in a day. I learned my lesson though, because it hurt to lose so many points!
This is only a little modification, because it’s common for Scrum teams to have a ‘burn-down chart’ (a graph showing the days in the sprint and the points left to do, hopefully matching at the end). Francis declared that a burn-down chart is boring, and that a burn-up chart would be much better. As I was in an Agile mindset I grabbed a nearby cereal box and came up with this glorious minimum viable product (in my mind it’s a beautiful thermometer), which is still serving us well today.
What would you like to ask of our readers? How can they follow your progress?
- Please subscribe to our brand-new YouTube channel, which we are launching with three other adults with ADHD.
- Are there any questions you would particularly like us to answer about having or living with ADHD?
- If anyone would like to get in contact with us, they can email email@example.com. I’m also on Twitter @Salstar24, but I don’t use it that much.
- The best place to chat is on the Agile ADHD Slack workspace. It’s still very small so it would be great to see more people in there.
Thank you very much for reading, and please do get in touch if you’re interested in trying this yourself. :)
I'm glad that you spent the time reading this inspiring article. If you're interested in learning more about Scrum? - Professional Scrum Master course in Leeds, UK - November 2018 with more coming in 2019. Get in touch and lets talk!