Hi, I’m Mike and I’m a procrastinator. Not only am I a procrastinator, but I am also pretty darn good at it. I’ll bet you are too. If you doubt that statement, I invite you to spend 18 minutes watching Tim Urban speak on the subject:
Tim Urban: Inside the mind of a master procrastinator | TED Talk
That was an eye-opener for me! The instant-gratification monkey is alive and well and living rent-free in my brain – as is the panic monster (who is silent this afternoon). And therefore, the monkey grabbed the wheel, and I followed Tim to his blog (Why Procrastinators Procrastinate — Wait But Why), which is the source material behind his talk. I love the metaphor, and I considered regurgitating it here – but I won’t because he did such an awesome job of it.
I am self-aware enough to recognize that I am a kindred spirit to everything Tim presented. The monkey suggested I read his next post. (You didn’t? Allow me to be your monkey: How to Beat Procrastination — Wait But Why) .
Internalizing the Message
Now that we’re all on the same page, I can tell you why we’re here today. I accept Tim’s metaphor as it pertains to individuals. I also accept that the agile world is built out of fractals, so things that are true in the small, are probably also true at scale. I would posit the following: What Tim Urban has so elegantly defined for an individual, I believe applies equally well to a Team.
In his second post, Tim offered the following definition of a Storyline for chronic procrastinators:
“For the Have-To-Dos in my life, I’ll end up waiting until the last minute, panicking, and then either doing less than my best work or shutting down and not doing anything at all. For the Want-To-Dos in my life, let’s be honest—I’ll either start one and quit or more likely, I just won’t ever get around to it.“
Does this sound familiar at all? Have you ever looked at the Sprint Backlog for your team, and wondered, “What the heck are they waiting for?”
I mean, you look at the team, and they’re definitely doing things. Every one of them is busy with something. But when you look at what they’re working on, it’s not the things they should be working on. It’s a common fallacy to think that your team isn’t making progress because they are lazy or disengaged.
Oh, they’re engaged alright.
By the Monkey.
The Agile Team Monkey
If we look at our Agile Team as an organism — then our fractal pattern tells us that the organism can have manifestations of the Rational Decision Maker, the Instant Gratification Monkey, and the Panic Monster! But because this organism is made up of individuals, I suggest we consider that each of those manifestations could take the form of actual people.
So, who is the Monkey in this scenario? The answer will obviously depend on your team, and your organizational culture. But for more than one team I have recently worked with, people took turns playing the role of distractor-in-chief.
Whether it was an individual member of the team deciding to be re-directed on their own, or whether it was a high-ranking manager ‘suggesting’ there was some new unplanned work that needed to take precedent, the effect was the same: the Monkey spun the wheel and the Team is no longer making progress on their rational goal.
The Agile Team Panic Monster
According to Tim’s metaphor, there is one thing the Monkey fears, called the Panic Monster. The Panic Monster is the reason for that spike of activity most procrastinators experience at the eleventh hour as the deadline approaches. The Panic Monster is quiet most of the time but awakens when the possibility of embarrassment or other negative reaction becomes a real danger.
We all have an invisible line in the metaphorical sand that marks the point of last possible action that allows for completion of a task. Our agile organism therefore must have one too. In the old world, I used to think Project Managers were the embodiment of the Panic Monster (sorry PM’s … P.M.? ooh! I just realized they have the same initials!)
At any rate, it is the job of the Panic Monster to be the last line of defense against inaction. When the Panic Monster enters the fray, it stops being fun. So we coaches will capitalize on the appearance of the PM as a reason to talk about what went wrong, and what we could do differently next time.
It doesn’t matter who embodies the manifestation in a given instance. We are coaching teams to avoid the appearance of the Panic Monster… to find a better way of working. To keep the Rational Decision Maker at the helm, while keeping the Instant Gratification Monkey at bay, so the Panic Monster can stay blissfully asleep.
Agile Iterations and Timeboxes
There is a certain wisdom in the structure of an iteration (as in Scrum), because it defines a timebox – that is, a deadline that the team should work toward. A deadline that if they miss it, will result in some level of public recognition that they missed it. It isn’t always embarrassing, but it should at least be uncomfortable. Why? It would awaken the Monster. Without the time pressure of a deadline, there is the possibility that the Monkey could reign unchecked throughout the sprint.
This is why timeboxes, and reviews and retrospectives are so important to fledgling agile teams!
How to Beat Agile Procrastination
In Tim’s second blog, he outlines ways to overcome the effects of procrastination. Sadly, it’s not enough to say, ‘just don’t do it’ to negative things, or ‘just do it’ for desirable outcomes. I actually had a team member who suggested those two ideas as ways to improve future sprints.
What’s the big secret to avoiding the Monkey? Planning. You know, that thing where you actually sit down and make a list of things you need to do? (a … backlog, if you will).
As with any attempt to avoid him, the Monkey is crafty. The Monkey actually loves ToDo lists. Especially lists with big, vague, line items. Things like “Write the next great American novel”, “Organize the house” or “Create our Next-generation Accounts Receivable Package”. The Monkey sees those things, and laughs (quietly, inside, so as to not wake the Panic Monster). These line items are so wide open, there is no way you could ever actually hold yourself accountable to it! It’s like … a really, super vague Epic that a product owner throws at you without any acceptance criteria.
So, the caveat to this remedy is “Effective Planning”. The first step to effective planning is prioritization. It’s not enough to make a list of things you could do. You have to prioritize the list! Pick a clear “first thing”. Make sure that first thing is clearly stated. That you know what the end-game looks like. You know exactly what the point of it is, and the benefit it will bring. You essentially need to “Refine” that most important thing, to break it down into actionable steps, that cuts off the Monkey’s avenue of escape.
You need to take those Epic backlog items, and break them down into more manageable bite-size pieces of valuable work… Let’s call them “stories”, and let’s prioritize those stories so we know which are the most important to do NEXT, and let’s make sure we refine those stories to a level of detail that leaves us with a clear outcome that is so incremental, that the Monkey doesn’t have time to get bored.
Plans are great. And it is often said, “you never stop planning in agile”. It’s a solid first step. But at this point, it’s just a plan, albeit a solid plan. You haven’t actually done anything yet…
Let’s face it, “doing” is the procrastinator’s kryptonite. Actually, “doing the right thing” is their problem. They’re fantastic at doing just about anything else. They can be incredibly busy. Constantly. But never seem to get to the things that matter!
That’s because the path to the doing — even the doing of a small, manageable thing, can be just daunting enough to awaken the monkey. Even getting started isn’t always enough, as it can be easy to be pulled away from the task. To finish, you’ve got to be steadfast and disciplined enough to get the task to a state where it kind-of takes on a life of its own. You get into a state where the completion of the task is so close, that you can almost taste it. You have to want to taste it. And more importantly, the Monkey wants to taste it too. The Monkey wants gratification. After you cross this tipping point, the finish line is now the shortest path to gratification. The taste of accomplishment. The sense that you’ve earned a respite by completing a task. It’s a fantastic feeling!
But that’s hard to do alone. Alone with ourselves. And the Monkey.
Have you ever been there? Working on a thing, and then a momentary interruption happens. The phone rings. An email notification chimes. A chat window starts flashing. You get momentarily stuck trying to remember a parameter list for an API call. A truck drives by. Somebody coughs. You remember that you have to order tickets for that gaming convention next summer. Summer is when the best movies come out. I wonder what movies are coming out next summer! … oh.
If only we had a group of like-minded people who we could be with, who could help us remember to stay focused. Mind you, nobody is perfect. Everyone gets distracted, but we don’t usually get distracted at the same time. So, maybe if we had a TEAM of people, who can take turns nudging each other back on the path, to achieve a solid plan that they all had a hand in making together…
It’s funny, but the more I read Tim’s blogs the more I saw parallels to the structures that frameworks like Scrum and XP have put in place. The events and artifacts of the Scrum framework are all about creating a plan that has the best chance of resisting the Monkey. Roles like the Scrum Master and Product Owner or the idea of Time Boxes are ways of keeping the possibility of waking the Panic Monster – should it become necessary. But perhaps the most insidiously helpful part: the creation of a team of brilliant, but flawed individuals who work together and support each other, does more to overcome procrastination than anything.
I often think back to my very first agile team, when after a day of in-depth sprint planning had ended, the one team member who was arguably the biggest procrastinator of us all, walked up to the scrum board, turned to the room and asked, “Okay. What are we going to do first?”
We all recognize the Instant Gratification Monkey. We all fear the Panic Monster. We all have a Rational Decision Maker. And they all function asynchronously in our own heads. And that’s the key. Because when we join forces, someone is always on-task and able to reengage the folks who have had a momentary lapse. We help each other. We protect each other from our own worst instincts.
Note: We covered this topic on the very first [here’s this agile thing] podcast. Why don’t you give it a listen!
This was also published as an article on Linked In: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/agile-procrastination-michael-marchi