• Bella Trenkova

Lean&Agile at Home

Updated: Jun 6, 2019

My previous post discussed my growth and my journey into integrating my work, personal and family lives into one whole that is better than the sum of its parts. In this article, I am sharing how things I learned managing Agile projects at work helped me organize my hectic personal and family schedule into a smoother flow (Stay tuned for my next post in the series exploring the opposite – how my lessons learned from raising children helped me in my management career).





Note: There is a certain underlying assumption that the reader is already familiar with the Agile terms and concepts below. Definitions are omitted to shorten the narrative, but hopefully, the context is sufficient to bring the point across.

Working software is the primary measure of success


Always keep an eye on the big picture. If you are a parent – raising children that are happy, independent, and productive members of society (especially when they reach the milestone of getting their first job) is the ultimate goal. Everything else is only means to an end.

And regardless of whether you are a parent or not – you can’t pour from an empty cup. A happy, healthy, fulfilled self is the basic definition of personal success.


Visualize the flow


I fell in love with Kanban for managing fast-paced operations at work. Life IS indeed a major, fast-paced operation – why not put it on a Kanban too. I found a great free SaaS tool – it comes with a mobile app too. I throw everything on there – from “Research HubZone Certification Requirements”, and “Register for re:Invent”, to “Spray the lawn weeds”. My fridge door is a mini-Kanban too: “Mom: get milk; Son: take the trash to the curb; Daughter: unload the dishwasher. Backlog: give the cat the flea meds on 10/1”.


Limit the Work in Progress


Once I loaded everything on the Kanban, it became a little too obvious that I am overcommitting myself and as a result, some tasks stayed “In Progress” for too long. I have to admit, I still don’t have firm WIP limits, but I am getting better. For tomorrow evening, I have to choose only between “Visit my son’s new dorm” or “Go to the AWS Meet-up”. Sadly, I had to de-scope “Wine tasting at the club” and defer “Circle back with Alec”. I am still keeping the first 2 up in the air, which takes me to the next point:


Defer Commitment


The last couple of times the Meetup got canceled or rescheduled – I want to keep my options open and I will make my commitment at the last possible moment before jeopardizing the opportunity.

Check out my The Last-Minute Manager post exploring this in more depth.


Fail Fast


When my oldest was in high school he couldn’t decide what career he wanted to pursue and hence what undergrad schools and majors to target. He was torn between MD/human sciences, political sciences and math/computer science. As a good mom, I tried to stay out of his decision, but support his process of self-finding. We decided to do a “spike” – a summer internship at an NIH lab. The outcome was terrific – in about two months he found out that he absolutely hated the lab environment and he did not want to pursue a medical degree. With a minimal time and money investment (compared to a pricey pre-med program and a subsequent major switch) he eliminated one of the decision tree branches and narrowed down the schools, he wanted to pursue. He ultimately picked his major in his sophomore year, and ever since he’s been very happy with his decision, making a thriving career out of it.


Run an open, decentralized organization


In our instinct to protect our children and in our desire to help them succeed and make it as far (and as fast) as possible in life, parents these days can be a little overbearing – making all decisions and choices for their children, packing their schedules with planned activities, making education and career choices for them, picking friends for them. Strict top-down management, tight task control, and centralized decision making are giving way in the workplace to business agility, organizational openness and freedom to innovate*. Why not implement the same policies at home – set the boundaries, give our children the choices, make them feel the accountability, allow them to learn from their mistakes, and watch them take over the world? One of my most favorite recent reads on the subject is this article about Maye Musk’s approach to parenting. The results speak of themselves.

(*Open Organization, Jim Whitehurst, Red Hat CEO – a very inspiring compilation of essays by authors working for some of the most prosperous organizations today.)


Map Your Value Stream


We all have our views of what makes us happy and what we value the most – family, professional fulfillment, health, financial stability, spirituality, travel, knowledge/learning (not in any particular order). But have you cross-checked recently your calendar? Is your time allocated proportionately to the things you value the most? Do you spend enough of your time on the things that truly matter to you? Agility taught me to prioritize frequently and always keep my eyes on the end goal – what adds the most value to my life.


Eliminate Waste


Always be on the lookout for anything that does not contribute positively to your goals and value map (above). This goes for everything – from what we spend our money on, to TV and social media time, to toxic relationships, to old clothes we keep in the closet “just in case”. Purging periodically makes us lean, light and effective. It opens up room for new experiences and growth. I am forever grateful to my mentor for gifting me the book Throw Out Fifty Things – check it out!


Reduce Batch Size


How do you eat a whale?
One bite at a time!

Every time you stand in front of the next big challenge, break it down onto its chewable parts. You want to pursue an onerous certification – commit yourself to study only 1 chapter a day. You lead a big project – plan it one sprint at a time. You raise kids while leading a big project while pursuing an onerous certification – take it one day at a time.


Focusing on one increment at a time, changes our perspective making the task look a lot smaller and achievable. Celebrating the small victories gives us the sense of accomplishment and further self-motivates us to stay on track.


Continuous Improvement


Introspectives and feedback loops are just as important and applicable in real life. Take the time for an honest look back into your day or your week. Pat yourself on the back for all little things you did better than last week, and take a note of what can get even better – “I was a good girl and stayed within my nutritional targets most of the days, but I broke down on Tue with that chocolate bar. Note to self – don’t go grocery shopping when hungry – leads to bad decisions made by the stomach, not by the brain.” Or: “We had a great time with the kids at the pumpkin patch where they learned a little bit more about where the food comes from, but I unnecessary snapped at them when they were a little impatient while I was answering my email. Note to self: live in the moment and enjoy the family time. Work can wait a few hours on the weekend. “


The trick is to avoid the self-blame and self-guilt. Just as in a Scrum retrospective, the objective is to find a solution to a problem, not a party at fault. We need to stay kind and gentle with ourselves and replace any regrets with positive goals. Which story sounds better and more likely to elicit your action: “I need to lose 15 lbs because the old clothes don’t fit and I don’t like what I see in the mirror” vs “I’d love to get back into yoga and power-walks – I remember that feeling of being reenergized and uplifted right after the exercise. I just need to commit myself to that first class”. Then, tell yourself that story and immediately add it your personal Kanban.


I hope at least some of the tips and examples resonated with you and you’ll give them a try. Remember – commit to small changes, be persistent with your flow, introspect frequently and adapt as needed. I’d love to hear your tips or challenges implementing the above – make sure you post in the comments below.


If you enjoyed this, check out my other post about taking my parenting lessons learned from home to the workplace to improve my leadership style.


/Fine print: all references to characters and daily activities are actual and true. Life is stranger than fiction – why waste time making up stuff.
Bella Trenkova
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