I was very much inspired by a talk by Giff Constable entitled “The Missing Agile Principle” – see references at the end of this post. Giff’s talk is focused on Agile product development but it struck me as being a great way to express an approach to personal goal setting. Furthermore, it’s a way to apply Agile thinking and principles to yourself in your journey through life.

The traditional ‘waterfall’ approach to product development amounts to setting up-front, big goals and then applying Herculean effort over a long period of time. Only when you reach the end of that effort do you discover whether it was worth it. By that time the world may have changed or you find that you totally underestimated the effort or that the goal did not fulfil the promise as originally envisaged.

This sounds a lot like traditional goals setting: Be absolutely clear about your goal before you begin. Formulate a detailed action plan. Plan how and who will help you achieve that goal. Focus on this one goal. Be persistent in achieving that goal.

The literature on happiness in particular has lots to say about such goals. More specifically that such long-term goals, once achieved, often fail to produce the results originally intended.

Agile thinking flips this on its head. Instead of assuming you know exactly how to manifest certain results and that you can formulate and execute a plan to achieve that, Agile focuses on a more scientific method of proving or disproving such ideas as early as possible. It acknowledges uncertainty in the goals themselves as well as the world and the life you aspire too. It’s not until you experience something, or something similar, that you really know if it gives you what you want.

Applying this mental Agile-shift to how we think about personal goal setting and how to achieve them we have:

  • personal goals    become    hypotheses
  • personal plans    become    experiments
  • results                   become    outcomes

So instead of thinking in terms of ‘goals’ and making ‘plans‘ to get the ‘results‘ we want…

Instead think: X, in theory, will provide a given outcome, let me conduct one or more experiments to discover if that is the case.

For example:

  • I think that getting a job as X will make me happy; let me volunteer to do this for 1 day; if that looks promising I could take a week holiday and volunteer to do this for 1 week (or a job that is very similar)
  • I think that working for employer X will be much more satisfying than working for my current employer; let me make contact on LinkedIn with a few people that work there and ask them a few questions
  • I think that moving house to live in area X will be much better than where I live now; let me live in a B&B there for 1 week to experience the area and the commute to work
  • I think that

What’s more, consider that:

  • if the experiment fails what have you lost? you will most certainly have learned a lot and you can feed those insights into your next hypotheses and experiments
  • you can take small, incremental steps; conduct small experiments on the road to greater discovery

It’s also easier sometimes to take a small, experimental and safe step (survivable experiment) than to start on a major road to some far off goal on the horison

This is ‘Personal Agility

Further Reading / Viewing

Giff Constable’s talk entitled “The Missing Agile Principle.


The image below shows the slide of particular interest here – about 6 minutes into the talk.