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TechnologyAug 16, 2019

Zombies, Running, and Agile: How to Accomplish Your Goals While Keeping Your Brain Happy

James Darling

Recently, I faced the age-old problem of trying to get into the habit of running without quitting a week or two into training. I’ve tried for years to build up a running routine, and it always fell by the wayside when things got busy.

Then I was introduced to the Zombies, Run! app by fellow Credera team members Luke Willson and Carlos Rodriguez, who, apart from their excellent taste in coffee, also enjoy running.

This app isn’t just a run-tracking app. Developed by the British gaming company Six to Start, Zombies, Run! is also a first-person, zombie adventure game. You’re cast as a supply runner for a survivor colony in the midst of the zombie apocalypse. You complete missions, collect supplies, and occasionally have to avoid the zombie hordes, all while running around your neighborhood or community.

The beauty of this app is that it gamifies exercise and breaks it into manageable chunks. Before using Zombies, Run!, I would get either tired or bored about 15 minutes into a run and give up. Now I’m easily completing 30-minute runs while thoroughly enjoying myself.

After a particularly successful run, I realized the same approach to running could also be used with agile. Sweaty, exhausted, and excited, I could see there’s a connection between quickly delivering quality software and outrunning zombies. In fact, we’ve used the connections and tips you are about to read with great success with our client EmployBridge.

break tasks into small pieces

My mother always told me that the only way to eat an elephant was one bite at a time. Apparently, psychological researchers also agree with her. Known as the Zeigarnik Effect, humans experience a drop in productivity and an increase in cognitive dissonance when they fail to complete tasks. Completing many smaller tasks helps to alleviate this dissonance.

In Zombies, Run!, small portions of the story are dished out in six-minute increments. Just when you start to tire or get bored, the plot will advance and you will have to speed up or gather new supplies to try to save the day. You feel good about these small changes because it’s easier to focus on running in six-minute increments than an entire 30-minute session.

When using the agile methodology, we tend to write large user stories. Sometimes our stories can balloon to eight, 13, or 21 points in size. To quote one executive I’ve worked with, we try to boil the entire ocean at one time. Often, it will take several days or even an entire sprint to complete these tasks.

Breaking a large, 13-point story into several one-to two-point stories or tasks that can be completed in a single day can be much more effective. During my time working with our client EmployBridge, we put this into practice. EmployBridge was switching from a five-week to a two-week sprint cycle and was used to completing high-effort stories. In order to accomplish tasks within the reduced timeframe, the entire team had to commit to breaking down any stories larger than eight points. The result was consistently accomplishing our tasks, allowing us to deploy a steady stream of value-adding updates every two weeks.

take goal-setting seriously

In agile, we use sprint goals and project charters to focus the team’s effort. In my experience, these are the first things to go when teams are stressed or under tight timelines. Why sit around thinking about goals when I could be finishing my work?

In Zombies, Run!, each workout is associated with a mission. You can think of these like episodes in the story. In every mission, there’s a concrete goal to accomplish—there’s a lost child in the woods, the survivor colony needs more supplies, or another colony needs to be warned of incoming zombies. Having a specific objective is a much more effective motivator than running for a vague goal of “being healthy.”

When using agile, we need to resist the temptation of treating sprint goals as second class citizens. The sprint goal needs to focus the entire team. All user stories in the sprint must directly contribute to achieving the sprint goal. Sometimes this requires the scrum master to push back on requests that are moderately important but do not contribute to the sprint goal.

Your team will be much more motivated when everyone is bought into a specific goal like “by next Friday, we will add the ability for users to upload and share photo albums” or “by next release, we will improve our operations experience by solving the three most common errors.”

Working with EmployBridge, our team covered a variety of applications. At the beginning of each sprint we had to work out with the product owners and business leaders which applications would be the focus for the next two weeks. With this organized approach, we were able to structure the improvements to EmployBridge’s systems and focus our efforts one goal at a time.

keep detailed records of your progress

After watching Charlie and the Charlie Factory starring Gene Wilder, you may have been annoyed with Veruca’s insistence that she have everything she wants right when she wants it. However, studies show that frequent rewards actually improve productivity.

After every mission in Zombies, Run!, you are given a detailed record of your run, right when you want them. There’s a heat map showing the fastest and slowest portions of your path as well as statistics on your pace by mile and average overall speed. My favorite feature of this screen, however, is the timeline. You can see at what point during your run plot points happened, when you picked up supplies, and when you completed a kilometer (the game developers are British, after all). From this timeline, I actually learned that I start running a little too quickly and would drop off in speed after the 3 km mark.

Keeping track of team progress and getting to metrics quickly is just as important and helpful in agile. Taking the effort to update tickets in Jira or Microsoft VSTS as soon as they are worked on will give better insights into team velocity. Using burndown charts, you can even begin to see patterns in how the team works. Does a team member’s childcare schedule impact how much is done later in the week and can the rest of the team support them? Does the team need to better frontload their week because of the weekly happy hour on Fridays? These types of questions can be answered with disciplined project management.

Working with EmployBridge, we regularly used metrics as a part of our retrospective. Viewing the burndown chart was an objective piece of data we could use to have hard conversations about velocity and pulling back some items from a sprint. The data also helped us diagnose what items tended to take longer than expected and helped us make more accurate sprint plans later on.

zombies and software

Whether running from zombies or writing software, breaking up work, setting and committing to specific goals, and keeping detailed records of your progress will not only help you achieve your goals, but also help you feel good doing it.

Want to learn more about how to implement an agile team in your organization? Contact us at findoutmore@credea.com!