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Agile/Scrum, Process Management, Project Management

My project is someone else’s process and why Agile worked well

I have recently had to organise a funeral and, setting aside the shock and grief of the bereavement, one of my early thoughts was that I would need someone to ‘project manage’ everything for me. A conversation with a colleague suggested that the Funeral Director would effectively be the Project Manager. In the same conversation we discussed whether ‘agile’ or ‘waterfall’ would be the most appropriate approach.

In this post, I want to share my experience of why ‘agile’ was really effective and appropriate.

1) Timescales are short
The project lifecycle was less than 3 weeks, so there’s simply no time for ‘detailed planning’ and lots of project documentation. I pondered what level of planning I would need and to what extent the plan would need to be written down. In the end, I had an Excel spreadsheet with 3 sheets:

– people (listing everyone I needed to inform and invite to the funeral and I colour-coded green if they were ‘attending’)
– tasks (a simple list of the things I knew needed to be done and, again, I colour-coded in green once they were complete)
– other (a place to make a note of other conversations, decisions, phone numbers, future actions etc.)

How it all fits into place time-wise is very much dependent on defining the date for the funeral and that’s where my second point comes into play.

2) There’s a need for high stakeholder buy-in
With relatives who would need to travel from outside the UK, together with family whose work commitments imposed some constraints on their availability, finding a suitable date was probably the most difficult challenge. The agile approach of define customer requirements, build something, try it out with customers, get feedback, then iterate until you have a workable option proved to be helpful.

A few phone calls to close relatives established a set of possible dates; these were offered to the Funeral Director to check out with the Crematorium. Two of the dates were available; so back round the relatives to home in on their preferences. Interestingly, in the half-day it took to do that, one of the remaining dates was taken and we ended up with a date that was a good fit for most of us. At this point I realised that my ‘project’ was actually just part of someone else’s ‘process’. (It also occurred to me that there must be some sort of online booking system for crematorium slots and wouldn’t it have been easier if I could have checked those out for myself.)

3) It’s relatively easy to identify the ‘Minimum Viable Product’
A variation on MVP that I like to use is ‘minimum lovable product’ (MLP) and that seems quite appropriate for this project. The question I needed to answer was ‘what would everyone really love?‘ The answers came from a few quick conversations with close family…

– a simple ceremony; nothing dark and gloomy
– no flowers, but donations to a charity that meant something to the deceased
– opening and closing music that celebrated what a wonderful world we live in (Louis Armstrong) and that celebrated a life well lived (Edith Piaf).

This project is so much about the people and not about the process that agile really ticks many of the boxes.

My final observation is that, despite my initial feeling that I needed the Funeral Director to project manage things for me, in practice they don’t see this as a project. For them, it’s a process. There’s a very clear input, output and outcome, for which they have defined processes that they employ multiple times each day.

However, unlike many other service businesses, their processes have a very human touch and every customer interaction is, as Jan Carlsson (CEO of SAS Airlines) said, a ‘moment of truth’.

Their process and customer touch-points were very much in contrast to some of the other processes my project had to interact with, where I was clearly ‘just another transaction’.

So, in summary, if you’ve got a short but important project, agile principles work really well. They make things very people-oriented and enable you to create an end result that has lots of support.

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