Stumbling through Agile
When Brian sat down at his first board meeting, John turned to him and asked (after introducing himself), “So what’s your superpower?” Our esteemed board president seems to think that I’m some sort of Director Fury gathering my team of Educational Avengers. He’s not wrong. The people I approached with the concept of Peace Valley School in hopes of getting some help building the school are all brilliant and have all brought some aspect of the school to life already. “Oh!” said Brian with a chuckle, “I’m a teacher.”
The first meeting for a prospective board member has been interesting to watch on the three occasions we’ve added a member since adopting Agile as our “delivery method” (which roughly translates to creative process in the business world…I think.) It is primarily a time of observation and fascination.
Agile, or scrum, born of software developers and historically only used in that or allegorical development business models, is largely unknown to those of us in the education world. But it is being used more and more in entrepreneurial endeavors and in the nonprofit sector. We started using Agile because we needed a process that could carry the heavy load of creation with the added burden of innovation. We are doing something unique with education, so we don’t have a recipe to follow. Also, Megan and John are really good at it and volunteered to adapt the process to our board’s needs. Their super powers are program and process management, respectively.
I’d like to explain how I’ve experienced our board’s version of Agile (we’ve had to change of few things, but in Agile, change is good), and then move on to how I envision a truer version of Agile being indispensable in Peace Valley’s daily routine.
It all starts with the backlog—it is a mighty excel spreadsheet of all the tasks we need to accomplish to “deliver the product” which really means all the
stuff we need to do to start the school. This list is very long, ever changing, and filled with a wide range of tasks. Usually the “scrum master” owns the backlog, but in this case, I own it and the board president acts as scrum master. Owning the backlog simply means that I am the one who adds tasks and who has a general sense of what I want the school to be like in the end. The school is my dream which thankfully has been refracted by the prism of our fantastic board…but in the end, it is still my concept. This list of tasks spans a little over two years, from our incorporation in May of 2015 until we open our doors on September 5, 2017. It includes forming a board, composing and adopting bylaws, developing board policies, applying for nonprofit status with the IRS, figuring out recruitment and admission, operating and startup budgets, as well as gathering resources, developing curriculum, designing the learning space, figuring out lunchtime, and purchasing a really cool van. Every time any of the stakeholders think of another thing we must do to make education real, it gets added to the back log.
For the sake of brevity (like any of my blog entries are brief), I’ll skip ahead to what the board does with all of those tasks at meetings. In real Agile land, those lucky team members get to meet every day to discuss each individual’s part of the development process. Peace Valley School’s board of trustees is all volunteer, most have day jobs and/or kids, and can only get together once a month. So, the “sprints” are 30 days long instead of 24 hours. The idea here is that if building a school is a marathon, each chunk of school building we participate in is a “sprint.” The humongous goals I just listed are “Epics” in Agile lingo, and some of them will take several months or all two years, the big (but not humongous) goals such as developing a fundraising plan are part of the product backlog, and the itty bitty doable goals that we break the big goals into go into the “sprint backlog.” That is what the board plays with at meetings.
Each board member has a deck of cards that have different levels of difficulty (this includes time, research, and intellectual intensity) some teams use Fibonacci numbers, some use video game powers or characters, at Peace Valley School we use books from Dick and Jane to War and Peace. For each sprint task, a board member, or myself if the task pertains to my expertise, will volunteer to complete a task and note which level of difficulty it is by placing title of the book (Nancy Drew, East of Eden) on the sprint task slip and keeping it. The secretary records these to send out a “to do” reminder later. The level of difficulty is important so that no overzealous member of the team takes on too many monumental tasks. The idea is to only volunteer for tasks you know you can complete. If there are more tasks in this sprint than can be accomplished by the team, we look at the sprint backlog and assign non-essential tasks to the next sprint, then the board adjourns.
During a mid-sprint review over email, we reflect on what we have accomplished, what stumbling blocks, frustrations, or new tasks we’ve discovered in our attempt to accomplish our tasks, and what our next steps will be before our next meeting. We then begin the next meeting by reflecting on tasks and marking them as done on the backlog, or re-working them for the next sprint, including our new approach so that we can complete it this time. Then we start a new sprint. Wash, rinse, repeat. It is an active process that involves all team members equal to the amount that they are willing and able to provide. It also allows for expertise to shine (Amanda handles HR stuff, Brian heads the curriculum committee, Jann handles the money.) There are plenty of recurring tasks (like committee meetings), but there is always a chance for something new or interesting to do.
Now picture this with 12 students of varying ages for our morning meetings! I envision the teacher owning the backlog, which can be pivoted into weekly sprints with daily sprint meetings. Each student has their sprint tasks and can mark them according to their perception of the task. Each student can volunteer for what they think they can or can’t do and then must reflect daily on what road blocks they encountered and what tasks they have closed. Perhaps older students can own their own backlogs, or be scrum master. Treating education as a creative process with the common goal of working together to make the world better is a perfect fit for education. It is collaborative, reflective, and flexible. And once you learn it (which
is so much easier for young people who weren’t programmed into believing a hierarchical or waterfall method is the way to accomplishment) it is not only easy, but very efficient. Our board meetings have become shorter, not longer, as our work becomes more complex, because we are becoming more facile with Agile.
This process is wonderful. I didn’t come close to doing the original process justice. We’ve kept a lot of the core values of Agile: Breaking down large tasks, flexibility, self-organizing teamwork, and efficiency, so I suppose we can still call what we do Agile. My favorite part is that the process expects and supports change, a wonderful concept both in the boardroom and the classroom.