A growing number of attorneys are turning to a set of project management and process improvement techniques commonly known as “Agile.”
As you might expect from the name, going Agile certainly helps businesses be more nimble and responsive to their customers. However, Agile also has been shown to pay huge dividends in improved productivity, increased teamwork and worker engagement, and higher quality products and services.
Agile is more a philosophy than a methodology. Although the term “Agile” was coined fairly recently, many of its teachings are grounded in age-old wisdom about individual productivity and group dynamics.
While it would be impossible to give a full explanation of these methods in these brief pages, there are several techniques that are common to Agile practices that are easy to adopt but that can pay immediate dividends in productivity, client satisfaction, and the overall health of your practice. I’ll discuss three of them that you can start using today.
Technique #1: Make Your Work (and Your Workflow) Visible.
The simplest way to start experiencing an Agile methodology is to just grab a pack of sticky notes and clear a patch of your wall (windows work too). Make three stickys for your column headers and then write out a separate sticky for each task you can reasonably hope to accomplish today. Those notes go in your “to-do” column with the most important task on top and the least important on the bottom. As you begin work on a task, move it over to the “doing” column (ideally you’ll do them one-by-one, but at least keep it to 2-3). Then as you complete the tasks move them to done. It’s that simple. Then review your completed tasks at the end of the day, maybe populate your “to-do” column with a few things you hope to accomplish tomorrow, and then do it again tomorrow.
Technique #2: Trade in tasks for stories
Agile practitioners most commonly use a set of open-ended sentences known as a “User Story” to describe problems that need solving. In short, a User Story is a snapshot of a particular customer need and the reasons behind that need. User stories follow a simple format:
As a _______________, I need to be able to _______________________, so that I can __________________.
Each blank represents information that you need to capture based on the best information you have about the customer.
Once you’ve developed these high level stories you can use them to inform the work you do in your practice. Family law, for example, a lawyer might replace a task (or set of tasks) having to do with filing temporary orders at the beginning of the dissolution with one or more user stories describing what problems she is trying to solve for her client. The measure of “done,” then, becomes not whether the work was completed but whether the problems have been solved.
Technique #3: Be Retrospective
Where the first three rituals are mainly about planning and doing the work, the Retrospective is about the process for doing the work. It typically follows a three-question format, and everyone on the team is expected to participate (though they are equally powerful for the solo practitioner). The questions are simple:
- What went well that we should keep doing?
- What didn’t go well that we should stop doing?
- What should we try that is different?
The answers to these questions (and the act of addressing them) provide the basis for continuous improvement (a/k/a the Lean concept of Kaizen). By getting into the habit of conducting a periodic retrospective, you and your team are forced to acknowledge both your strengths and your shortcomings. Better yet, it allows you to come up with a plan to capitalize on the former and reduce the latter.