New Year Goals (not resolutions)

2020 is here, and with the arrival of the new year many people will set out with the best of intentions and look to set themselves one or more New Year’s resolutions. Over the last few weeks of 2019 my wife asked me (on more than one occasion) what my New Year’s resolution was going to be. Now, I’m not really one for resolutions and I think that my response of “I don’t have any” was a little frustrating for her. 

I think that my lack of enthusiasm for New Year’s resolutions is the fact that many them, if adhered to, call for sweeping, wholesale and/or big bang changes to the way that the person setting the resolution lives their life. Given that I have been working in an Agile environment for the last eight years, I have become accustomed to working towards small incremental improvements. Yes, in an Agile delivery there is often a long term aim that is being work towards, but the team will look to regularly deliver a small working part of the whole solution that provides value, before delivering the next part. This could be seen as using stepping stones to traverse across a river, whereas trying to jump across the river in one go is more than likely going to result in failure (and getting wet).

In years gone by I have seen those around me set New Years’s resolutions, which are either broken or fail to be achieved. This is often due to the large scale nature of the resolution, with many resolutions only being kept or worked towards for a number of days or weeks. The fitness app Strava has collected data on this and used it to calculate a ‘Quitters Day’. Strava, suggested that in 2019 ‘Quitters Day’ was on 12th January, with the 19th January penciled in for 2020. 

I believe that the biggest issue that results in the failure of a New Year’s resolution is the word being used to describe the change in behaviour that is being planned. The word ‘resolution’ means to do or not do something. This allows for the resolution being set to become very general or woolly. Many of the common New Year’s resolutions that individuals set themselves, i.e. to lose weight or to stop smoking, commit to a change in their lifestyle which will need to be maintained over a longer period of time in order for the resolution to be successful.

If progress towards the resolution does not happen quickly, if it plateaus, and/or if the right incentives do not remain in place, it is easy for the individual to fall back into old habits. This behaviour is often also seen in Agile transformations, when the long-term benefits of the transformation are not seen quickly enough by the organisation, resulting in senior leaders ‘reverting to type’ and returning to those ways of working that they feel most comfortable with.

The problem being encountered by both those setting New Year’s resolutions, or those undertaking an Agile transformation, is that the thing(s) that they are aiming to achieve is/are not specific enough, or, will take a long time to see positive progress. With this in mind (and with the ‘encouragement’ of my wife) I decided that I would look to set shorter term goals, which were specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bound (SMART). From a point of not having any New Year’s resolutions, I suddenly found myself with four New Year goals, with three being work related and one for home.

For my home related goal I want to maximise the time that I have available with my family for fun and memory building activities. In order to increase the amount of family time that we have together, I need to ensure that both the regular and ad hoc jobs are completed within a timely manner. To help with the prioritisation of household tasks, I convinced my wife to allow me to have a Kanban board in the kitchen. This allows her, as Product Owner, to prioritise the tasks that are most important for completion on an evening and at the weekend. In addition to prioritising the tasks that we have to complete at home, we both suggested a break from technology on a Sunday afternoon, allowing us time together to play a game or watch a film with our young children.

The first work related goal that I wanted to set myself is one that I am actually undertaking now – publishing blog posts more regularly. Unfortunately, this goal is not SMART enough. In order to become SMARTer, I need the ‘regularly’ part of the goal to be more measurable, which can be done be creating a timeframe for the publication of each post. In am ideal world I would like to publish something every week, but this is not realistic. I am therefore setting myself the goal of publishing a minimum of one blog post a month. 

The second goal that I had in mind relates to the book that I started to write last year – ‘The FOCUSED Daily Stand-Up’. This was something that I started with intention to continually iterate and publish updates throughout 2019, however, I struggled to find the time through the later part of the year resulting in limited progress. I think that the main reason that I was able to update the book during those early months was due to being scheduled to present on the same topic at Agile in Leeds and the Hainton Agile Meet-up. In preparation for these Agile meet-ups, I was preparing and practicing my presentation, which allowed me to continually make notes on the upcoming chapters of the book. Once I had completed the presentations, other things took priority and the proposed book updates when on the back-burner. 

Although I would like to present again on this subject, I don’t believe that scheduling a talk will help me to complete the book. It may help to provide a short-term impetus to complete one or two more chapters, but is likely to lack the longevity required for completion. My goal of publishing further iterations of ‘The FOCUSED Daily Stand-Up’ needs to be realistic and time bound. With that in mind I think that delivering a book update every two months should be achievable. Should I be able to deliver more, I will be very happy (as I hope that those who have purchased my book will also be). 

The final work related goal that I have set myself for 2020 is to prepare and deliver an external training course.  As an Agile Coach I have had to prepare and deliver a number of internal sessions in order to assist individual and organisations on their Agile journey. Most recently I prepared and delivered an ‘Introduction to Product Ownership’ that involved the creation of fun and creative exercises in order to highlight the role, responsibilities and thought processes required by a Product Owner. I enjoyed the creation and preparation of the activities so much I now want to explore to opportunity for doing this externally.

This is the goal that I am struggling to ensure is SMART. The main reason for this is there are aspects of running a training course that are out of my hands, or that require a certain amount of exploration before it can become a reality. For example, in addition to preparing the training material, I need to find a suitable venue and further investigate the logistical elements of running such an event. With this in mind I am am going to amend my goal to ‘investigate the possibility of running a training course by the end of January’. Once I understand the viability of running a course along with all the elements that would to prepare, I can then make a decision and set the next incremental step towards my longer term goal.

Setting goals is not something that needs to be restricted to an individual level. On returning to the office last week I also ran a ‘New Year’ retrospective with the team. The aim of this retrospective is to identify what goals the team would like to set themselves in order to improve compared to the previous year. This team is still in their infancy and is at the beginning of their Agile journey. When I set them the challenge of creating goals for the team, I was first met with a stunned silence and looks or horror as I threw out whiteboard pens. But boy did they step up and identify a number of excellent ideas that would, if they keep them, ensure their continuation on their path to Agility. Their suggestions included :-

  • Reduce context switching
  • Communicate better, not more
  • Test early
  • Increase test driven development (TDD)
  • Increase pair programming
  • Simplify the code through refactoring
  • Be more courageous

As each goal was identified, the team discussed the detail, impact and benefits of the goal. Some of the goals are measurable by the fact that they have not been undertaken in the past, for example, TDD and pair programming, while others like being more courageous, needed to have more context. For the team, this included the understanding that they are empowered to say no when being asked to context switch, or, asking for help in the daily stand-up. These goals are now going to form part of the team’s working agreements for 2020, against which they will hold themselves and each other to account. They can also be reviewed through future retrospectives, with specific measures being put in place if/when required.  

So when you are setting you New Year’s resolution next year, objectives as part of your PDR process or any long term aim, I would highly recommend that you look to break that larger goal into small pieces. Then, look to define what the first measurable step towards that aim is and set a realistic time frame for achieving it. As that first step nears completion so the next step can be fully defined, and so on. Remember to celebrate the success as you work towards your goal, as well as learning from your failures. 

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