Scrum at Home – Agile for kids

There was a discussion recently that I participated in where someone asked if you could run Scrum at home for your children. There were a lot of interesting comments and a lot of good observations, generally the consensus was that Scrum was not suitable because most of the tasks for a child are specific to that child. But I shall explore in a bit more detail because I felt that the discussion missed the most crucial question that a coach should always ask.

What problem are you trying to solve?

Now I cannot speak for the people in that discussion so I shall speak based on my own observations and experiences.

Generally in agile we are about finding better ways to give your customer what they really want.  But in the case of Agile for kids the goal isn’t what they produce it is far more about the learning on the journey. I want my children to learn to be self-organising, pro-active, quality conscious, results focused (not done until it is done), to learn to prioritise, to learn to communicate, in some cases cooperation and teamwork.  The tasks/stories are merely tools for that learning.

This is a  variation on the traditional expectation of mastery purpose and autonomy.  If the tasks are household chores then it may be a stretch to hope a teenager will have an implicit desire to master the skill of mowing a lawn, purpose too, may be a hard one to cover on a week to week basis.  Autonomy on the other hand may well be a motivator. There was no real shared vision.

How to motivate?

So if we accept that the motivators that we generally promote don’t apply then we need an alternative.  In my case I chose a reward based system, it feels a little like an easy out, but for my example it worked and this is one area that I would be very keen to hear other ideas.  Kids are difficult to organise, they have a very specific and well honed sense of what is fair – and often it is irrational, this was most definitely an experiment that could go badly wrong.

The constraints and selected framework

I chose a combination of Scrum and KanBan, partly because I know Scrum well but mainly because I felt that the problem lent itself to that solution. The stories would be a combination of household chores and homework tasks.

We chose a 2 week sprint model because most chores have expiry dates and were repetitive, and if I’m honest I took a few liberties with the KanBan board and the tasks.

Mom took on the role of Product Owner, Dad as Scrum Master, and the kids as the team.

We began with a kickoff meeting where we discussed which stories we wanted to be done, this conversation was a mix of the jobs we wanted help with, what we felt the children were capable of and some suggestions from them as to what they felt that they could contribute.  We produced a list of tasks, setting table for dinner, clearing the table and stacking the dishwasher, making beds on a morning, cleaning bedrooms, cleaning other rooms, mowing the lawn etc etc.  Not glamouros but you get the idea. 

For each story we refined it, we discussed a definition of done and we specified acceptance criteria, it was a discussion with all of us: did cleaning a room include dusting, or just tidying and vacuuming?  Taking our the recycling had a specific date, but many of the other tasks had no expiry other than the end of the sprint. 

We then agreed relative size points for the various tasks, one task was fairly easy so got low points another wastime consuming or was undesirable so got more points, we managed to reach an agreement on the relative size of all tasks but agreed that we would re-visit if we felt these were wrong later.

And then on to the reward, we agreed with the kids that we would link pocket money to the board, each story point would equate to an amount of money, pocket money would be paid at the end of the sprint but only and very clearly only for done tasks.  We later modified this to being paid when a card reached the done column, primarily as I wanted to teach the children of the importance of completing stories and of prioritising those nearer to beng done.

With the acceptance criteria agreed we created a board, that had 4 columns (and a separate backlog). Columns were:

ToDo, Doing, Verify and Done.

At the sprint planning we would discuss which tasks the children wanted to take on, and whether they felt they could achieve them all.  Some tasks were clearly specific to one child because of clear ownership or because the task was age or capability specific, but some were joint tasks e.g. cleaning the playroom, and some were for anyone. 

All tasks went in the ToDo column and the kids were encouraged to move cards to doing when they started the task and to verify when they thought they were done. We encouraged them at breakfast to indicate what they would achieve for the day. 

We also encouraged them to write new cards for homework tasks or personal initiatives, although these were not assigned points. Merely to help them visualise their work.

When a card was complete they would move it to Verify and ask the Product owner (Mom) to sign it off, mom would go with them to check against the Acceptance criteria and anything that fell short would be bounced back. I am glossing over the screams of how unfair that was, although perhaps I shouldn’t because of all the things I learnt from this experiment it was how important this particular aspect of it was. Being able to say – “but you agreed this last week” took the wind out of the sails of most of the objections, they still sulked but there was much more acceptance that the parents decision was fair because the rules were agreed with the kids in advance.

So task complete, pocket money paid, happy kids, happy parents, card could be torn up or saved for the next sprint.

At the end of the sprint we reviewed what had been done or not done, and even kept a velocity of sorts. A little competition between the kids. We also held a sort-of retrospective where we discussed what could be improved, although this was a harder concept for the children to understand especially the younger one. We discussed workload, priorities and conflicts – “I did more than my share” some cards were ignored because they felt it wasn’t worth the effort. And so on. 

But we found that the experiment was for the most part a roaring success, the kids even started asking if there were extra jobs they could do.  For joint tasks they used peer pressure to get them all contributing. Rather than having to remind them to do jobs they were reminding us to verify, as I mentioned there was less conflict over what a job entailed.

Problems with the experiment

There were two fundamental problems, the first was the reward mechanism, financial rewards don’t work very well for kids. My 8 year old would see a toy he wanted and when he had completed enough cards for that item, he would stop doing his cards, he didn’t seem to be able to get the concept of saving up for the future. This is something that I think is a reflection of his age, but it made for inconsistent results.

The second was outside interference, at first it was funny but we had a lot of negative feedback, some via the kids. I didn’t understand it, but it was enough to undermine the experiment. The objections were mainly around the reward mechanism.

The third less significant issue was there was a time overhead each sprint and it was not always easy with a busy family schedule to organise this. Although that as always is a question or priorities.

Summary

Overall, I thought it was a great idea, it certainly isn’t Scrum (and I would never claim it was) but it was Scrum-like and the routine worked well for kids. I felt that the kids learnt a lot from it and I certainly learnt a lot. But parenting is hard in general, it is difficult to know whether you are doing the right thing.

I saw them much more self-aware, motivated, it helped communication, and framed boundaries. The kids enjoyed the responsibility and the autonomy. 

But in a lot of ways it was harder for me. As it was a mix of parenting and coaching, I found I needed to overstep my normal bounds of coaching and oddly I felt uncertain of how I should behave.

Ultimately we stopped the experiment, but I still feel it was a valuable learning experience and I would like to repeat it in the future. I would need to re-think the motivation aspect as that was really the weakest part.

However, I would heartily recommend it to anyone with older children, and I’d love to discuss ideas on how better to motivate.

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