8 min read

Taking Agile to the next level

Taking Agile to the next level

It's a dreary Saturday morning. I'm scrolling Apple News while I'm drinking my coffee. I see this:

Lessons From a 20-Person Polycule. Horrible link embed courtesy of nytimes.com.

Of course, I'm clicking that link. You probably did too. NYTimes know what they're doing. There's so much curiosity here. Sex stuff aside, there's a lot to think about when it comes to relationships, emotions, and boundaries. And it just so happens to be topical for me this week.

So I'm reading, and the author is entertaining and educating me, getting at many points you'd expect. Then I'm hit with this quote:

My husband and I are very, very different, which is our strength. He’s a frat bro who loves sports, and I’m a radical alien witch academic nerd. …We learned a strategy from the Multiamory podcast called ‘agile scrum,’ which was adapted from business-meeting models. We utilized that format. We did that for a year and a half, at least once a month, sometimes six to 10 hours of hard poly-processing.

Lots to unpack here, but...there's an Agile frat bro in Massachusetts living his best life, hard poly-processing weekly. The TL;DR on that was that she wanted to open the relationship, but he struggled with it. They learned about Agile on a podcast called Multiamory, adopted it, and found themselves and each other within the polycule dynamic (the bigger group of 20 people that the NYT article is about). Poly-processing, I assume (I Googled and found lots of info about chemical processing), is essentially having a discussion to unpack all of the issues and emotions that arise when you're in a polyamorous relationship. I can imagine how challenging it can be. Of course, some sort of framework to keep yourself sane and on target with your relationship(s) makes sense!

It's all fascinating. But is it Agile, or as they call it "agile scum"? Let's continue the rabbit hole. Google helped me to unpack my curiosity, and you're now on this journey with me. I had to know more, and I promise to go somewhere with this in this post. I had to know: Is this really a thing for people? And what does it really have to do with Agile? Thankfully, Julia Pugachevsky at Business Insider wrote about it:

Members of a 20-person polycule used a business strategy called ‘agile scrum’ to resolve their relationship issues. Here’s how it works.
Members of a 20-person polycule said business techniques improved their polyamorous relationship — “hard poly-processing” for 10 hours at a time.

This is a great article--it summarizes the NYT articles and educates on Agile. I have to imagine the author had the same WTF reaction I had and dug into this. It's really well done. This gem of a quote sums it all up:

The first mention I could find of this online is in a 2016 Medium post by writer Alanna Irving, who described how she used agile scrum in her relationship. "We were inspired by another couple we knew who started running 'relationship sprints' because they weren't sure they wanted to stay together," Irving wrote in the blog, which was later referenced in the Multiamory podcast. "After each sprint, they assessed if they wanted to continue."

So many links. The spiral continues. The Medium post (Wow, 2.2 claps!) by self-explained process nerd Alanna Irving is where it all started! In her post, the author explains why she adapted a part of the Scrum process to meet the needs of her (monogamous) relationship. Essentially, she and her partner use Agile at work, so they have a shared vocabulary or a baseline understanding of how the process can help adapt and meet changing needs. They adapted parts of Agile by setting up monthly meetings they call Relationship Retrospectives.

Side note: why are all these articles calling this "agile scrum" when the creator clearly explains that this is a meeting agenda? "Relationship Retros" is such a solid name and concept.

It's essentially a monthly sprint process and a six-step meeting agenda designed to help identify things within your relationship that are on your mind and want to discuss, clear, and take action with your partner(s). Like Agile, it feels rigid. Personally, I can't imagine not addressing an issue until we have a scheduled time to do it. At the same time, I like the structure and questions they provide to help have positive conversations about difficult topics that bring out a variety of emotions. This is better than Agile. This is actually human-centered.

Of course, I didn't stop there. I had to listen to the podcast. The coffee pot is almost empty, and maybe it should be lunchtime, but I'm in a rabbit hole. The host's opener says it all, I am so engaged.

On this episode we are discussing a unique method for comm in your relationship that is inpired by software people...and stuff"

The hosts then get into Agile, its history, the Agile manifesto, and how it applies to relationships. They zeroed in on one of the principles from the Agile manifesto, "Responding to change over following a plan," and how that applies to polyamory. It's all a fascinating take, and it's well-researched. They recognize (at the very end) that they aren't using the right terminology and that it doesn't matter. And they're right. It doesn't matter what you call this because it works. And that, my friends, is how I've talked about building, managing, and documenting processes for years.

The Multiamory take on Agile

The podcast conversation was really interesting for me. I kept some notes I wanted to share in this post to give you the TL; DR on the episode, with a bit of my perspective on this. There's a ton of opportunity for humor here, and this is my personal take. It's not disrespectful. It's curious and fun to explore with a sense of humor. I do not judge anyone's lifestyle, relationships, knowledge, podcasting quality, process knowledge, etc. I respect it, and I feel enriched by it, and I also find humor in it.

So, based on this episode of the Multiamory podcast, here are my notes on how Agile shows up in polyamorous relationships:

  • Set aside 3-4 hours every month for your Relationship Retrospective. That's a long, emotionally charged meeting. I'd plan some fun or decompression time around that, but who has that kind of time?
  • Find a way of keeping notes together as a couple, maybe even make a Scrum Notebook! Dedeker and Jase (two of the hosts) have a shared Google doc where they add discussion topics over the month. This feels like a shared space where issues go to fester in broad daylight.
  • Scrum is broken down into 6 steps! (But you can't hear them til you get through a long ad about joining a Multiamory Patreon. And Bombas socks. I didn't see that one coming.)
    • Step 1: Review previous actions. Look at your notes from your last meeting, talk about actions you were going to take, and follow up on them.
    • Step 2: Review the past month, one person at a time. You can talk about arguments, nice dates, stuff about your personal life, like your job. Generally, what happened over the past month? If there is an issue, you'll hold off on digging in. Get it all on the table. (Side note: Jase and Dedeker are a long-distance couple. I'd love to recommend Trello or Figma.)
    • Step 3: Agree on your agenda. You look at both of your lists (what you just stated) and agree on what you want to discuss or debrief and what future things you need to talk about (like scheduling your next polycule "meetup", or a date night with one of your partners? Scheduling is tough as as the articles mention.). Think about time-boxing because these topics can get big! In fact, they say maybe you need 4 hours. 4 hours! This sounds so taxing to me. Especially when I find the hosts doing this over Zoom. Also, they never mention the third host being a part of the meeting. So that makes me wonder...are they doing these retros individually with each partner? Forget the emotionally draining aspect of this. Think about the time, the inefficiency!
    • Step 4: The discussion phase is when you dig in, and according to the podcasters, it's really about showing up as an active listener and trying to seek understanding. Dedeker has found with all of her partners (Yup, sounds like she's spending a lot of time in retros. Imagine how much your engineers would complain!) that the discussion phase can cover a range of emotions, from crying to laughing. She says it sounds weird. I think Dedeker's definition of weird might be skewed. Of course, this is a tough conversation to navigate--there will be a range of emotions when talking about everything you did, said, and thought about over the past month, particularly when more than one person is involved! (OMG is there a correlation between polyamory and teams? No, no, I am not going there.) That's when Jase references the questions Alanna developed and shared in her Medium post to help facilitate the conversation. The questions are spot on. It's fascinating because it aligns with a project that Greg and I are working on at Same Team Partners. It proves what I've always thought: Communication, collaboration, and culture are everything--and getting to the heart of issues and resolving them requires mutual understanding, boundaries, and practice. Also, it doesn't matter what you practice, how you do it, or what you call it, as long as it works for you. (I still hate calling everything Agile, but I digress.)
    • Step 5: Action points. As Dedeker says, "Step five of scrumming" is where you capture action items, name an achievable things, or tangible steps you take in the time it takes to get to the next meeting. This is where you commit to progress over the next sprint in your chaotic, changing, growing relationship. Hot take: If your relationship were an organization, I'd likely recommend that all of these siloed retros not truly serve you and your partners. Step out of your silos, my friends, and uncover the real issues. Your polycule could be infected worse than you can see.
    • Step 6: Appreciation round. This is the part where you end on a high note and express your gratitude. Like any retrospective, it's easy to focus only on the issues. You always need to celebrate the wins, so high five on that new add to the polycule, celebrate being able to find a date night, and be sure to pat each other on the back for being able to find 4 hours to focus on your relationship as a busy adult.
  • Finally, our hosts discuss the outcomes of the meetings and how the process can be misunderstood. They focus on communication. Not everything is sequestered in a meeting, but they find relief in knowing they have an intentional space to work through things. Yay, that's what retrospectives are for! More importantly, they find that knowing they have that space allows them to spend quality time together without focusing on issues. I'm still not sold on this aspect. I can picture myself biting my tongue clear off during quality time if something I wrote in our shared Google doc--that I know you saw--wasn't important enough to discuss right now. But, hey, that's me. Actual Agile doesn't work for me either. That also doesn't mean that I can't bend this process to work for me (I won't, in this case).

Listening to the podcast, and hearing more about the real life application of the Relationship Retrospective was interesting, enlightening, and thought-provoking. Why? At the end of the day, my journey of magnificent, curious links shows that we're all complex creatures, fumbling through life trying to connect with one another and build and maintain relationships. It's not easy, and it never will be, but having a framework for uncovering and resolving issues together is key.

When you assume positive intent and focus on open communication, things get easier, whether you're dealing with one human or twenty humans at work or in the bedroom. We all want to be understood, but we often forget how complex we are. This was a good reminder.