The Tale of the Sprinting Hippo
Some people call me the ‘The Sprinting Hippo’ and I don’t mind it at all. I coach and play for a softball team during the summers, and, just like the noble hippopotamus that can reach top speeds of 30 mph (it’s true, look it up!), I am much faster than you might assume just by looking at me. I’m not sure how to write out the sound that a hippo might make, but rest assured that I have attempted it several times as an on-field cheer (and it never fails to elicit a laugh – but no one has ever said, “That sounds just like a hippo!”).
My success with sprinting doesn’t end on the softball diamond though, nor does it even end with running. I have found it to be a very effective way to manage the work that my team and I do. If you have a lot of work, or a long way to go, it’s often daunting to try and look at the end as the goal. Instead, I like to think of it as a series of small distances I need to go.
My team subscribes to a method of work management called ‘Scrum’. Scrum has a lot of different principles (which are covered in this very excellent book), but the fundamental tenet that I like most is that you plan your work for relatively short periods of time called sprints. Sprinting at work has dramatically improved our throughput and may be exactly what you need to get through your own large project load.
At its most basic, a sprint is some period of time (we use 2 weeks, but typical sprint lengths range anywhere from 1-4 weeks). At the beginning of each sprint we decide, “What are the most important things on our list to accomplish during this sprint?” We select those items, discuss generally how they should be executed and then go to work. Each member of my team knows what’s expected from them during that time period, knows what success looks like, (Did we finish all of our objectives for the sprint?) and knows where to go next without needing me to guide or direct them. In short, it creates autonomous flow and keeps us having small successes.
Instead of looking at our entire workload as a never-ending pile of features to build, integrations to create and automations to… well, automate, we just look at it as a series of 2-weeks-worth lists of projects to accomplish. Our to-do list decreases down to empty as the sprint comes to an end and who doesn’t love the feeling of accomplishing everything on their list? What’s more, the relative importance of items on our total list changes pretty frequently. By only setting our list for 2 weeks, we have the ability to reprioritize every 2 weeks which keeps us agile and responsive to what our business needs.
Not everyone has the same kind of project list, I get it, but setting sprints for yourself has plenty of applications:
While sprinting as a runner is about going as fast as you can, sprinting for work is more about taking your work in appropriately bite-sized chunks. There’s always more work to do and if you always look at your full list, it’s human nature to get overwhelmed and decide that maybe it’s just better to not get started until tomorrow (or next week or next month). Instead, try choosing the bites you’d like to take, the sprint distance you’re going to run, and then start sprinting.
<Insert triumphant hippo noise here.>
- Completing Important but not Urgent Projects: Sometimes work is hard to predict – you can never really tell when jobs will come to your lot – but that doesn’t mean that your larger business objectives don’t have to be met. Your sprint objectives don’t have to be your entire weeks' workload, just the most important thing for you to accomplish during that period. Choose just one or two such items set them as your sprint objectives for this week. Find time to accomplish those and then re-evaluate at the end of the week.
- Completing Unpleasant Projects: Unpleasant tasks are often the most delayed because, well, they’re unpleasant. Sprint scheduling allows you to add one or two unpleasant tasks to your overall sprint goals which lets you take the sour with the sweet as you get work done. Just as importantly, success tends to beget momentum. Get a few things done on that painful project and the rest of the work will feel that much more possible.
- Chipping Away on Home Projects: Got a big “Honey-Do” list at home? Pick the most important items you can reasonably complete in a weekend and choose that as your ‘Sprint’. You’ll feel less distracted by the entirety of your workload and will have a clear idea of what success looks like.