How to Use a Bullet Journal to be a Better Scrum Master

10 minutes

Some time ago I mentioned in passing that I was experimenting with a Bullet Journal.  I have had some personal success with it, and several colleagues have asked me to talk them though what I’ve done.  My usual heuristic is that if someone else finds what I am doing interesting, then it’s probably worth a blog post!

Apologies up front right now if you are none of these:

  1. slightly fetishistic about notebooks,
  2. obsessional about finding the perfect to-do list format or medium,
  3. a doodler when you take notes
  4. in a constant slo-mo battle to find the notes you did write…somewhere…

I am all of these things, plus, as a procrastinator at heart, I often use one or more of the above reasons to put of actually doing something.

Bullet Journalling has helped me, but stop reading now if its not your thing.

I won’t be offended, or think badly of you.  In fact, I will envy you.  And you will save yourself 10 minutes of slight bewilderment, as this is a long post (and it will seem even longer if you are not invested 🙂 ).

H.

Still with me?  Great!  Then, let’s get started!

Journalling is the path to salvation

OK, I may be over stating it, but only a little.  Here is some stuff I have written before about journalling, and here too, and just in case I didn’t make my point yet, try this also.  There are probably more, but you get the picture:  I really rate the benefits of journalling for Scrum Masters.

The problem I have found is that if you lack focus at the outset, you will likely lose interest and stop quite quickly.  I have some suggestions for habits which might help, and I will talk about later.  For now, let me explain the following:

  • What do I mean by Journalling?
  • What is a bullet journal?
  • How I (Helen) use it as a Scrum Master
  • Supporting habits that make ALL the difference to success

What Do I Mean by “Journalling”?

Journalling usually makes people think of hand-written prose, hours spent writing, and nearly as many again spent reading when you try and find something a month later.  Also, maybe a little teenage angst, and too much focus on ‘feelings’.  I get it, I really do.  This is STILL what immediately leaps to my mind when I hear the word ‘journal’.

But this is most emphatically NOT that sort of journal.

This is a way to manage your own personal To Do, Doing, Done with the minimum of fuss, and maximum of both effectiveness and productivity.

First things first, if you are interested in the background, this next section is for you, or you can skip it and jump straight ahead to how I use it.

Bullet Journalling – the basics

Developed by Ryder Carroll in response to his personal need to reconcile what he describes as a learning disability with his need to take notes, not forget stuff, and remember what happened in the past.  He iterated over and over until he had something that worked for him.  Then he found out other people were interested and that it worked for them too.  

If you follow this link you will find lots more info on how it came about.

Bullet Journalling (or BuJo for short) is now a ‘thing’.  And a very popular one too.

Just one word of warning before we go any further.   If you Google / Pinterest ‘Bullet Journal’ you will see that some people frankly have too much time on their hands 😉 and make theirs look like mini works of art.

So, just to be absolutely clear here:  This is about function and not about art.  (Although art is lovely if you have the time :))

It is insanely simple, and wonderfully analog.

If you want to know more about the back story, I can’t tell it any better than the man himself.  So here he is for 4 mins, explaining stuff.   (Or if you prefer written content (I know some of you do) try this instead.)

My version of the Bullet Journal for Scrum Masters is based on my experiences of heavily tweaking Ryder’s original ideas to suit me.

I love it.

OK, So Why Do I Use A Bullet Journal?

I doodle a lot.  This means that when I flip through an old notebook, it is as much the collection of doodles that remind me about a meeting as it is about the notes I wrote.  I find I recognise the over-all image of a page as much as the words on it, so I with Bullet Journalling I can use this to my advantage.

You will see in the following photos, that my doodling habit creeps in to the headings.

The other thing you will notice is that I have used a little colour. This again is due to the huge cost/benefit payoff I get from colour recognition when I’m looking for particular things too.

Several studies show that writing is better for thinking, learning and remembering than typing onto any sort of device.

So here is my run down of Bullet Journalling slanted specifically towards Scrum Masters.

Monthly

Monthly is the largest timeframe I work with – anything bigger just seems to clutter up a couple of pages and not return any value in exchange.  I set my monthly ‘spread’ (this is the term Bullet Journallers the world over use to mean usually ‘2 pages’. I am not a huge fan, but include for completeness).

Here is the one I set up for November – admittedly before much got added to it!  They do tend to fill up as the month goes on 🙂

photo-31-10-2016-09-43-23

Left Hand Page

On the left is dates of the month, I divide it up into sprints and put in key events / meetings.  I continue to add tasks and events throughout the month.

You will notice I only do that across half of that page, the other half I use for other stuff – like maybe a team member on holiday, or personal things I need to do (like parents evening, or half term etc.)

For a really long time I kept my work lists and my home lists separate, but I don’t do that any more.  I recognise that I live a blended life – often working or thinking about work in the evening, and sometimes needing to ring the dentist, or place an amazon order during the day for example.  Maintaining 2 lists made more work and I never had the right one with me.

One list works great for me now, and I would recommend it if you recognise yourself in my last sentence!

Right Hand Page

Here I list any tasks that either need to be done in the month, but not on a specific day, or things I might want to do that are bigger.  These would be the ‘stories’ of my life that I need to break into smaller tasks.  No, it’s not as much of a waste of space as it looks in the picture – As I look at this page today, the 23rd November, I am now well over half way down it!

Daily

Here are a couple of ‘daily’ pages in the process of being built – Mondays always have lots more tasks on that other days.  There is a slight difference in the way that I work, depending on how many teams I am working with.

If I am working with just 1 team:

I have a day page that looks like the right hand picture below (labelled Wednesday).

photo-31-10-2016-10-47-46

If I am working with 2 teams:

I have a 2 pages for a single day.  Like the picture below (labelled as Monday), I keep all the tasks on that left-hand page, even if I don’t fill it up.

On the right-hand page I divide it in half, so the top and bottom halves both look like the bottom of the ‘Monday’ picture, above.

So each team would have a half -page on the right hand side with space for ‘standup notes’, and space for ‘notes, ideas & observations’.

photo-31-10-2016-10-13-47  photo-23-11-2016-17-26-13

Regardless of how many teams I have, I start a new page for each day.  This means that when I am looking for something, the whole week is collected together, making things easier to find.


Collections

This is one of the big secrets of Bullet Journal success:  gather similar things together so they are easier to find.  I know, it hardly sounds ground-breaking does it?

photo-31-10-2016-11-39-57These are gathered together in a chunk of the book, not just put on the next available page.

This means (for example) that all my 1:1s with my team are in their own section, and are grouped by person.  A note book lasts for 2, maybe 3 months, depending on the size of the team.

Here are some of the things I build collections for.

1 to 1’s

Not everyone does these with their teams and I don’t always do them with every team. Instead, I am lead by the team culture and preferences.

Where I do them they look a lot like this (I have mocked-up a fake one with Melisa, my usual partner-in-crime to demonstrate):

photo-31-10-2016-11-48-41

You can see that I could prep some bits – I make a note o f any feedback in advance, so I remember to mention it when I next meet the team member.

I also have the section at the bottom that I add anything I need to mention to the team member during our chat.  You can also see that I wrote the responses, and tick them off when we’ve spoken about it.

The top section is always left blank until the actual meeting.  This is where I take EXTREMELY brief notes about the things that Melisa wanted to talk about.

This is more important than you might imagine – I need to understand what is distracting Melisa, or what she sees as the most important things.  Her point of view is unique, and the better I understand it, the less likely I am to be surprised by her choices and personal priorities.

Retros

photo-31-10-2016-20-08-50 photo-01-11-2016-10-30-22

A day or 2 before a team’s retro I review all the standup notes & 1:1 notes etc from the iteration so far, and pull out anything that seems relevant or may have affected the iteration.

It turns out that I often have to have several goes to do this.   Because I am often interrupted, I set up the 3 key tasks as part of the template so I don’t forget anything.

I usually review the metrics for the team and look at the trends.  It’s much less about specifics here and mostly about trends.  Have a look at a post I wrote last year about my favourite metrics for teams.

I also review any outstanding actions left un-completed since last time.


So far, I have mostly covered team-related journal work, but you need to take care of your own to-do lists (personal and work).  You need to capture and ensure you prioritise your own learning (I have written a lot about this topic too, here, and here, and here, and here, and…well you get the picture).

These are the collections I most often use, so make a good starting point for your own.

Community of Interest topics

photo-29-10-2016-15-35-11All the Scrum Masters at NewVoiceMedia get together every week to share ideas, sometimes to do a little training, sometimes to ask for or receive a little help from other Scrum Masters.  This (for reasons long lost in the distant past) is called our ‘Scrum Master Hoe-Down‘.  It is a weekly community of Interest for Scrum Masters.

I tend to record topics I want to raise in the next Hoe Down so I don’t forget.

Usually topics are not time-sensitive, so it is entirely possible for a topic I intend to raise, be ‘bumped’ for a more urgent one.  By keeping a note, I can check I don’t forget to mention it when things quieten down a bit.

We also have a book club, and a sort of self-learning challenge, which has acquired the nick-name of ‘Ice Bucket’.

Reading Lists

As a group of Scrum Masters, we also have a book club – only it’s not just books!  It can be blog posts, podcasts, TED talks, or talks from conferences one of us has attended.

photo-29-10-2016-15-32-57Aside from these, I am forever trading reading lists with my Scrum Master colleagues, others at NewVoiceMedia, friends, and people I meet at conferences.  I used to keep an electronic list, but I never looked at it!  Now I use this:
Just one word of warning – make several pages available for this collection – I always run out!

Conferences, Ideas for talks or blog posts, or anything else you want in one place!

Here are some examples from my year:

photo-29-10-2016-15-36-35   photo-29-10-2016-15-28-46

Now, Some Important Supporting Habits

Journalling is a discipline, and we all slip sometimes.  The way to slip less often is to develop habits that support the behaviour you want.  I have a set of habits that enables and supports behaviour that keeps me organised.  I know I can’t rely on my will power each day to do the work.  Will power is a resource that gets rapidly depleted and so becomes unreliable.

So here are some things I do to support my journalling habit:

Each Month

I set aside 15 minutes at the end of the month….

  1. To create the page for the month
  2. Mark in the sprint(s) for my team(s) – colour coded if more than one.
  3. Add the key events for that month from my Outlook calendar.

Each Week

I set aside 15 minutes either at the end of the old week or the very beginning of the new week….

  1. To set up the pages for each day of the next week so they are ready to use
  2. To review tasks not finished from the previous week.  I either
    1. cross them out (no longer relevant)
    2. migrate them to do in the new week.
    3. delegate them to someone else!
  3. I add in new tasks based on what’s in my outlook calendar.  It’s worth mentioning that I record tasks on the day I ADD them to the list, not the day I intend to do the task – that’s why Monday always looks very busy!

Each Day

I set aside 5 minutes every morning…. (in fact I even wrote a blog post about it)

  1. Read through the outstanding tasks for today, then yesterday, and then the day before to the beginning of the week. This way my mind is refreshed on the things I still have to do. Each one, I re-asses quickly if it is still important.  If not, I simply cross it out as no longer needed.
  2. Action any tasks that will take less than a minute or 2 to do.
  3. Review the notes from yesterday’s standup, and any notes I have already made for this morning’s standup.

All that I need to do now is….

  1. Add tasks to todays list as they come up.
  2. Make notes for tomorrow’s standup if they come up

If you made it to the end…well, thank you for that.  And that makes 2 of us at least :).

Do let me know if you have any thoughts on this

8 thoughts on “How to Use a Bullet Journal to be a Better Scrum Master

  1. I really liked your blog post. I was wondering if I could use BuJo as a SM and Google drive your article. Found some really good inspiration.

  2. Helen, Thank you for your article. I am just getting into Bullet Journaling as a way to improve my own organizational habits and as a way to help me with my sprint planning and other agile like activities. I was wondering if it would make sense to break things down by Sprint from the start rather than by month. Did you experiment with that at all? Also I’m going to try sharing my notebook pages with my work-partner-in-crime via the rocket book app. How much do your “past” pages change as you go through the week / month (aside from migrating tasks forward to the new month)?

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