Practice #2: Break It Down

How do you go about memorizing a poem? When I do it, I usually break it down into individual lines or phrases and memorize each one piece by piece. Then I put it all together as I build up a collection of individual lines that I’ve memorized. I suspect it works that way for a lot of things we learn. First we break it down into manageable chunks and then we master the smaller units one at time.

One of the things that coaches do in sports is analyze a skill that a player demonstrates. As they do so, they break it down into smaller components. It could be a batters swing that is broken down into the component arm movements, shoulder movements, head movements, hip rotation and foot placement. Overall, the player coordinates all of these pieces into a single unit that we see as the resulting swing, but to the experienced coach, they see much more. The coach may notice that part of the motion isn’t being executed properly. Then they call the players attention to the issue and perhaps they ask them to practice just that part of the motion in isolation. When they have mastered the motion in isolation, they bring it all back together again – hopefully with the end result of a home run hit on game day.

The same thing applies in weightlifting. You may find that you are stalled out in trying to make progress on one of your lifts. A coach will look at the way you perform the lift, and break it down into its component parts. Usually there are sticking points or weak areas in most people’s lifts. Typically a coach helps you identify these problem areas and recommends some exercises that isolate and address that weak area. So you practice just the top part of the lift, or perhaps just the lift off the chest – and you do it over and over again until you have mastered just that small portion of the overall exercise. Then you put it all together again to perform what is hopefully a successful lift.

Obviously it’s not hard to find examples of how we break things down into smaller pieces in order to refine or improve them. So how can we do this as a practice for our projects? First we have to understand what all the components are of the exercise we are planning to perform. Let’s take a scrum planning meeting for example. In a typical sprint planing meeting you might break it down into the following parts:

  1. Pre-planning: This includes backlog preparation (Are the stories understandable? are they sized? Have they been prioritized?) Is the product owner ready to discuss and elaborate on the features? Has the planning meeting been scheduled? Is the agenda well defined?
  2. Kicking off the meeting: Are the right people there? Is the agenda understood and mutually agreed upon? Are all the materials (sticky notes, whiteboards, etc.) necessary for facilitating the meeting present?
  3. Reviewing the stories: Is the team asking questions? Is the product owner prepared to answer them? Are open issues and risks being captured from these conversations? Are new stories being created/deleted?
  4. Designing: Is the team prepared with resources to support detailed planning? Are designs/code/tests being proposed? Are requests for additional information being satisfied? Are tasks being captured? Are the tasks getting sized?
  5. Commitment: Is the team able to negotiate stories with the product owner? Are there caveats or exceptions that need to be noted? Areas for further exploration?
  6. Wrap up: are the notes from the meeting posted someplace for reference later in the sprint? Are there any remaining issues or reservations that need to be addressed?

In broad terms, these are all the things that make up a planning meeting. Doing any one of these things poorly may have an adverse impact on the performance of the team later in the sprint. So there is some pressure to get this meeting right. Inevitably, if you are anything like me, you look at this list and wince a bit – you’re probably seeing things that you could improve. Bingo! That’s what we want to practice! Each of these things can be practiced in isolation.

So, unless we can convince ourselves that we run the perfect planning meeting, the perfect stand-up, the perfect retrospective, then we need to be practicing. All of these activities can be broken down into smaller parts – and it’s very likely that we all do some parts better than others. So let’s start practicing!

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