In his declaration that “Agile is Dead (Long Live Agility)” Dave Thomas(one of the creators of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development ) shares the essence of effective project design.
1. Find out where you are
2. Take a small step towards your goal
3. Adjust your understanding based on what you learned
When faced with two or more alternatives that deliver roughly the same value, take the path that makes future change easier.Dave Thomas
This framework is useful in all sorts of contexts beyond software development but starts to feel like instructions on How to Draw and Owl.
How do you actually use this framework within your projects so that they move you forward creatively and professionally?
This is where the six principles of effective project design fit in. If you have been following along in this series, you’ll start to recognize where each principle fills in the gap between Thomas’s 4 steps.
A reminder of the principles of effective project design.
1. Always connect your projects to an intention
2. Projects need objective outcomes (preferably with a deliverable)
3. Keep your projects small and flexible
4. Prioritize action over planning
5. Do not be afraid to change your actions, timeframes, or outcomes
6. Use consistent reflection and review during the project.
Where the principles fit into Thomas’s framework.
Find out where you are
- Principle 1. Always connect your projects to an intention
- Principle 2. Projects need objective outcomes (preferably with a deliverable)
- Principle 6. Use consistent reflection and review during the project.
Take a small step towards your goal
- Principle 3. Keep your projects small and flexible
- Principle 4. Prioritize action over planning
Adjust your understanding based on what you learned
- Principle 5. Do not be afraid to change your actions, timeframes, or outcomes
- Principle 6. Use consistent reflection and review during the project.
The first four principles are discussed earlier in this series but now we get to a pivotal part of the entire project design process (this is why principle 6 is included twice).
Project reflection is the key to keeping your projects agile and moving forward in alignment with your intentions.
In this article, I will offer a simple, straightforward starting point so you can begin to include reflection as part of your project design and implementation process.
Before we delve in, it is important to understand something foundational about project design.
Over-attachment is poison to project agility
It is very easy to become over-attached to various elements of a project. It might be an attachment to a plan, a deadline, a process, an outcome, or a tool you are using. If you find yourself frustrated and resentful while thinking “things should have gone this way or that”, recognize it as a form of over-attachment. If you feel defensive about changing elements in your project despite all evidence indicating that it is necessary, recognize it as over-attachment.
Attachment leads to rigidness and fragility which is counter to learning and agility. It manifests in resistance, defensiveness, sunk cost fallacies, and stagnation. All which you want to avoid.
For the stubborn (I include myself in this category), this can be difficult. We are taught that any path forward requires single-minded focus and persistence.
Keep your head down and keep pushing until you succeed. If things are not working, push harder. If you fail then you were either not focused enough, not persistent enough, or you do not have what it takes.Too many coaches, mentors, parents, authority figures
This is a terrible way to approach your projects. Persistence and focus have a place, but you do not want to apply them in service of over-attachment.
This is where principle 5 becomes important.
Principle 5 – Do not be afraid to change your actions, timeframes, or outcomes
Remember that every element of your project is subject to change. This includes deadlines, actions needed, outcomes, and even whether to continue with the project. Fight the urge to become overly attached to how things “should be” and focus on how they actually are. This makes it much easier to maintain a learning mindset so that you can explore what is working or not working without the bias of attachment.
How do you recognize your attachments while also maximizing your learning? You pause, observe and reflect.
Pause, Observe, Reflect – The How of Project Reflections.
Start your reflection by pausing. This means, stop working on the project even if it is still in progress.
The frequency of these pauses will vary but usually fall into one of three categories.
Ad-hoc reflections are valuable when your project is stagnant or off the rails. If your project feels overwhelming, broken, or disconnected, then pause and start the reflection process. Do not wait until the end of the project or for a scheduled time to address urgent problems.
The best way to cultivate a habit of reflection is to schedule it in a consistent way. For larger projects, I recommend at least a weekly reflection. Daily reflections can also be enormously powerful and set you up for an effective next day. The key is to experiment and explore. Certain projects may require more reflective guidance while others will not.
End-of-project reflections (often called retrospectives) are your opportunity to learn, transition into your next project, and celebrate what you have done. They can be a bit more comprehensive and involved but I recommend you keep things simple when you first start.
Once you pause it is time to observe. Observe what you have completed, what is unfinished, your energy levels, and your excitement about the project.
Try and observe without attachment or self-judgment. Our intention is to collect information and learn, not create anxiety about failing.
This is a great opportunity to observe any metrics you have been tracking.
A note of caution on metrics: I have intentionally avoided discussing metrics in depth throughout this whole series because they can become overly complicated and counterproductive depending on your intentions and project types. There is a tendency to become attached to lag indicators (metrics that signify results you have no control over like followers, number of sales, Instagram likes, etc.). Use metrics when appropriate but try and focus on “Lead Indicators” (things you have control over like “actions finished”).
There is no singular correct way to reflect on your projects so approach the process with openness and a willingness to explore.
In my experience, it is much better to start small and allow your process to grow as is useful. Do not create a formal “Standard Operating Procedure” with 23 steps and a 104-question checklist.
Instead, start your reflections with a few simple steps.
Step one – Reflect on your direction.
- What intention is the project aligned with?
- What is the objective outcome of the project?
- Do either need adjusting?
Step Two – Reflect on where you are.
- What went well or is going well so far? How might you build on this to achieve your objective?
- What feels like it did not go well? What might you do differently to achieve your objective?
- What have you learned? What might you do to use what you learned to achieve your objective?
Step Three – Reflect on where you are going
- What adjustments can you make to your project to improve it based on your answers?
- What is the most valuable first action you can do after finishing this reflection?
Finding your most valuable first action is the ultimate purpose of this entire process. You are not taking the time for the sake of reflection or for the sake of project record keeping. You are reflecting to provide informed guidance for your actions.
Sometimes your next action will be predictable, and your project will keep moving in a similar direction. Other times your most valuable first action will be something you could not have planned for when your project started. Both results are excellent progress and signify that you are moving your project forward in alignment with your intentions.
Note- If you need a refresher on how to break down projects into meaningful actions, I recommend my earlier article on how to get from a large overwhelming project to small meaningful action.
Step Four – Begin your most valuable first action.
Congratulations! You completed a reflection! Now, get back to work!
Be consistent, be flexible, be patient.
The above structure is just a starting point. Do not hesitate to eliminate, add, or alter things depending on what becomes useful or relevant as you design and implement your projects. Your reflection practice will become stronger and more personalized over time. The more consistently you go through the process the more intuitive and useful it will become.
Your call to action
Try out the reflection process. Take a project you are working on, no matter its state of completion, and go through a reflection process.
References, Resources and Influences
Babauta, L. (2019, February 4). The Practice of Letting Go. Zen Habits. https://zenhabits.net/letting-go/
Thomas, D. (2016, January 17). YOW! 2015—Dave Thomas—Agile is Dead (Long Live Agility) #YOW. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqz8ND-N1hc