Photo of Cluttered Polaroids

Decluttering Photographs: A Scrum Mindset

A common Scrum myth is that Scrum teams don’t keep documents. The many sticky notes on the wall of a scrum room can be anxiety-provoking to traditional suit-and-tie folks. Formal documentation is considered to be the hard product of real work. But the truth is two-fold.

First, Scrum teams do keep documents: The product backlog and the sprint backlog, which are two of Scrum’s artifacts, are key documents for a Scrum project. Each has a precise role in moving the scrum team from product conception to shippable increments. Different teams or organizations keep these artifacts in formats that suit them, but the point is that they do.

Second, it is not true that all formal documents are a faithful (or useful) reflection of work. More often than not, it is not clear what they’re for. Team members typically keep documents in the hundreds, outdated files are seldom deleted and clean versions are often mixed up with drafts. As with all clutter, the 80-20 rule applies rather well here: 20% of documents supports 80% of the work effort. So, 80% of formal documentation is in fact clutter.

Adopting Scrum will challenge organizations to focus on nothing other than completing deliverables of highest value to customers. This focus is in fact reflected by the few but super-useful documents that Scrum teams keep. But to move into this state of razor-sharp focus, we need a clutter-free environment. And while there are many forms of clutter on the job, documents are a big one. Why? Because the documents we keep and the way we use them reflect how well we understand our role. Much like a divinatory tool, the collection of documents you keep are very telling of how you do your work. Is there an orderly process as would be reflected by an orderly and well-organized set of a few focused documents? Or is it a firefighting role as would be reflected by a random set of documents contrived into folders?

Decluttering work documents compares rather precisely with decluttering photographs. Both clutter categories bring up very similar levels of emotional and intellectual charge as well as frustration with the sheer volume that needs to be processed and purged. And unlike the ease of throwing out something bulky like a broken chair or a dulled out piece of clothing, decluttering documents and photographs are very daunting tasks whose detail will bring anyone to tears.

Office documents are very much like a typical photo collection by enthusiastic parents: Several hundred photos of Maxi kicking ball, three dozen photos of the tenth birthday cake, one whole album of Auntie over for dinner, and so on. Photos will range from the incognito-fuzzy to the acceptably crisp. All are equal, however, and are kept in bulging pounds of photo albums or hard drives ranging in the terabytes – or both.

You can see the similarity with documents: Several hundred versions of the scorecard, three dozen presentations on the same topic, a few thousand archive files, and so on. ‘Fuzzy’ documents surely make up the majority. They include the many versions with corrections, inputs and errors, and the older versions to name just a few. The ‘crisper’ documents are typically the most recent ones and likely the ones shared with the VP. But these soon become ‘fuzzy’ as new versions are produced. The main issue with documents is knowing exactly what they’re for and how they support value-adding processes; a problem that doesn’t exist in a Scrum framework.

The main thread of comparison between photos and work documents is the degree of psychic severance that must take place in the mind in order to be capable of throwing out the useless lot. In truth, decluttering photographs is one of the hardest categories to tackle and does not happen until one has built a strong decluttering muscle with simpler categories like clothes, shoes, pots, pans and the like. Because photographs fall under the ‘sentimental’ umbrella, it takes much more than simply assessing functionality. Instead, it requires:

  1. An assimilated understanding of how to declutter, which means having built the decluttering muscle with simpler categories of stuff and having the gut to make sharp decluttering decisions,
  2. A willingness to look squarely at the past and contrast it with today, which basically means grieving and all the complex steps that alone involves, and
  3. A decision about what will be taken into the future, which must be actively considered as opposed to simply assuming that it’s what remains after decluttering the unwanted.

Releasing the way we create, share and keep documents is tantamount to releasing the way we work. That’s why decluttering documents is loaded with anxiety about how the future modus operandi will look like. An additional consideration here is to do this before anything is archived because if all the old is just moved into an archive, no one will open it because everyone subconsciously knows of all the mold that’s growing in there. So better not postpone the pain and roll with the punches. Taking a sword at opening each and every single file and processing for keep-dump-or-change, takes a lot of gut and staying power. Our attachment to documents is quite entrenched but it must be severed for the sake of agility.

The result of genuinely decluttering photographs is astonishing. The grieving process can be very intense; not only are issues resolved and dropped but pieces of the past are recalled into the present and the spirit regains integrity. The past is forgiven and the remains of the day are a powerful collection of sharp moments that are very much alive. Photographs are no longer nostalgic snapshots of the past but evidence of an assimilated experience in effect today. And with that, something very special happens: Fewer and fewer photographs are taken as soaking up a moment becomes far more precious than clunking through photographing it. This vulnerability to the passing of time is a key ingredient for living life intelligently.

Can you draw the parallels with documents? We spend most of our days at work. So, let me invite you to start tackling your collection and see how your newfound awareness pours into every other area of your life.


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