A Scrummy Cartoonist

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(Editor note: This is a guest article by John Bintz)

Introduction

When I first started making comics, I was working on a single series with a single product type — minicomics that eventually became books. I knew what had to be done in this case: draw comics, print books, make advertising material, go to shows. Simple to-do lists were sufficient to track my day-to-day tasks. This year, I decided to get much more serious about what I produced. I had ideas for new products — a board game based on one of my comics, a new auto-bio comic, other comic merchandise, even mobile apps — yet I still wanted to maintain a good output on my core comic, Dawn’s Dictionary Drama.

lots_of_tasks

 

With all of these ideas in mind, to-do lists weren’t cutting it anymore. Using a linear list of tasks made it too easy to start too many things at once, and too difficult to reorder them if priorities changed. I also needed my tasks to be small enough that I could finish them quickly and make continual forward progress towards completing a project, no matter how complex the final output would be.

At my old job, we had implemented some agile software development processes to improve project workflow. My current job uses a much more rigid framework for scheduling and recording work called Scrum. If you’ve seen the HBO series Silicon Valley (and if you loved Office Space, you really should), you’ve seen some of the basics of Scrum in practice.

At its core, Scrum is about enabling a team to figure out the best way to perform tasks, organized by business value, that move a project toward a releasable product. The team performs the tasks one at a time until the “owner” of the product declares each task done. One team member runs the day-to-day parts of Scrum and ensures the team is not blocked on completing any of their assigned tasks.

But what if your team is one person, and you’re not building software, but art? Can you really produce faster if you trade in your to-do list for a Scrum board? For me, by adhering to some of Scrum’s core philosophies, I have produce more finished work faster, with less stress, and with more freedom to interrupt work when new ideas or timely tasks arrive…or even if I feel like blowing off an evening to play some board games.

The Principles That Matter

There’s a lot to Scrum: daily meetings, retrospectives, timeboxing, user stories…the list goes on. But at its core are the following ideas:

  • Focusing on a single task until it’s done is more efficient than switching between two or more tasks. Multitasking sucks up more time than you think it would save.
  • Defining and writing down what it takes to consider a task completed gives it clarity and a stopping point. Having a clearly-written set of criteria for a task to be “done” allows you to easily come back to it long after you’ve defined it.
  • You only do as much work as necessary to meet the task’s criteria. Don’t overwork!
  • Completing a task produces a tangible output that you can show to someone. Even research produces output, such as documentation or a list of more tasks to perform.

By following these basic principles, you’ll work through and write down what’s needed to finish a single task. When it’s time to do start working, you know exactly what you need to do to complete that task. You finish it as quickly as possible, not working on anything else (ideally!), until your output matches the criteria you defined earlier. You mark it done and you move on to the next. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Jargon Time!

There’s some terms in Scrum that you’ll need to know, especially if you decide to read more or if you want to use the tool I use for organizing work, Pivotal Tracker(If Pivotal Tracker is too complicated for your task management, try Trello.)

In the Scrum world, they’re not called tasks, they’re called User Stories. A User Story encapsulates a feature you want your product to have. Here’s a perennial example that’s in pretty much every book on agile processes:

In order to access the system
As a user with an account
I want to be able to log in to my account

This is a real thing an end user can do on the system. You could do the same with your stories:

In order to attract convention goers' attentions
As a comic creator
I want to have a popup sign for behind back of my table

To be honest, I don’t use this format unless I’m actually developing software with features for end users. 90% of the time, my stories look like this:

Design the popup sign for use at conventions

The most important part of a User Story is the acceptance criteria. For each story, you write out exactly what needs to be completed for that story to be considered done:

Done: I have finished the design for the popup
sign so that it meets the printer's size and file
requirements.

Get in the habit of defining what makes your story complete, even if feel like you’re just repeating the title of the story! It helps you discover if the task can be broken into several smaller tasks. If you find yourself writing the word “and” or including a lot of commas in that criteria, you might be able to break up that story. Here’s one that can be broken apart:

Create new popup sign for comic conventions
=====
Done: I have gotten the size requirements from the printer, designed the sign
to their specifications, and send the file and payment off to the printer.

This could be broken into a bunch of smaller stories:

Get popup sign requirements from the printer
=====
Done: I have gotten the size requirements from the printer. Design popup sign
=====
Done: I’ve designed the sign to the printer’s specifications. Send popup sign and payment to printer
=====
Done: I’ve sent the popup sign file and payment off to the printer.

Now I don’t have to do all of the popup sign tasks at once, and I can slide these in between other tasks and still know what I have to do to complete them.

A milestone in the project (a date on which something is going to happen, or the point where a project itself is done) is called a Release.

backlogA list of stories to finish is called the Backlog. This is a flat list roughly organized like this:

  • If the story is timely, or it need to be done for an upcoming Release, it should move to the top of the Backlog.
  • If a story provides a lot of business value and is part of a far-off Release, it should go next.
  • If a story is going to not provide much value (say, scheduling a bunch of tweets to go live for a series of comics), push it off as far as you can. Let stories that provide more value float to the top of the Backlog for as long as you can.
  • If the story is “nice to have”, put it at the bottom of the Backlog (or the Icebox if you’re using Pivotal Tracker) You’ll get to it eventually. Or not.

In a basic Scrum setup, there are three columns where stories live. One of them is the Backlog, one of them is Current or In Progress, and the final one is Done.

board

When you start work on a story, you move it from the Backlog column to the Current orIn Progress column. Once you’ve finished it, you move it to the Done column. In this setup, nothing ever moves backwards: you can’t un-Done a story, nor can you put something back on your backlog. You either make a new story to fix what was wrong in the now-Done story, or you tear up an in-progress story because it doesn’t make sense anymore. If you started it and it still makes sense to finish it, either finish it now or let it live on In Progress until you get back to it.

Let’s organize!

Here’s the projects I have going on right now:

  • Create a one-shot autobiographical comic
  • Create a Kickstarter campaign for a product related to the autobio comic
  • Fulfill rewards for a completed Kickstarter campaign
  • Prepare advertising materials for comic conventions
  • Plan next Dawn’s Dictionary Drama comic

Let’s look at some of the stories related to those projects in my Backlog:

  • Draw Music Comic 40
  • Draw Music Comic 41
  • Shoot a video for the new KS campaign’s page
  • Create a flyer for the autobio comic/KS for conventions and KS fulfillment
  • Draw Backer Two’s sketch cards
  • Sign Backer Two’s graphic novel
  • Ship Backer Two’s rewards
  • Message backers who have not sent pictures for sketch cards
  • Create a new table banner
  • Print a new table banner

That’s a lot to do! In this list are also a few Releases:

  • Games arrive from The Game Crafter
  • New Kickstarter launches (due August 11)
  • Baltimore Comic-Con (due September 5)
  • Start publishing new Dawn’s Dictionary Drama comic

Let’s say it’s June 22. Given these milestones and stories, I’d initially arrange the Backlog like this:

  • Draw Music Comic 40
  • Shoot a video for the new KS campaign’s page
  • Create a flyer for the autobio comic/KS for conventions and KS fulfillment
  • Create a new table banner
  • Print a new table banner
  • Games arrive from The Game Crafter
  • Message backers who have not sent pictures for sketch cards
  • Draw Music Comic 41
  • New Kickstarter launches (August 11)
  • Draw Backer Two’s sketch cards
  • Sign Backer Two’s graphic novel
  • Ship Backer Two’s rewards
  • Baltimore Comic-Con (September 5)
  • Start publishing new Dawn’s Dictionary Drama comic

That looks good. Now let’s flesh out the criteria for each of these tasks.

  • Draw Music Comic 40

    Done: I’ve drawn, exported, uploaded, and scheduled Music Comic 40 to go live.

  • Shoot a video for the new KS campaign’s page

    Done: I’ve shot 10 minutes of footage, edited the footage down to a minute, and uploaded the video to the campaign page

  • Create a flyer

    Done: I’ve designed a flyer to advertise the comic, printed it out, and trimmed it.

These three tasks have a bunch of “ands” and commas in them. Let’s see if it’s worth breaking them up a little more. Remember, this is subjective! Here’s how I’d do it:

  • Draw Music Comic 40

    Done: I’ve drawn, exported, uploaded, and scheduled Music Comic 40 to go live.

  • Shoot the footage for the new KS campaign’s page

    Done: I’ve shot 10 minutes of footage for the campaign video.

  • Edit the footage for the new KS campaign’s page

    Done: I’ve edited the footage for the campaign video.

  • Upload the completed video for the new KS campaign’s page

    Done: I’ve uploaded the campaign video.

  • Create a flyer

    Done: I’ve designed a flyer to advertise the comic.

  • Print and trim flyer

    Done: I’ve printed and trimmed the flyers.

I might organize these like this:

  • Draw Music Comic 40
  • Shoot the footage for the new KS campaign’s page
  • Create a flyer
  • Print and trim flyer
  • Edit the footage for the new KS campaign’s page

and then slide in some more of the other tasks:

  • Draw Music Comic 40
  • Shoot the footage for the new KS campaign’s page
  • Create a flyer
  • Create a new table banner
  • Print and trim flyer
  • Edit the footage for the new KS campaign’s page
  • Games arrive from The Game Crafter
  • Print a new table banner
  • Message backers who have not sent pictures for sketch cards

OK, now what?

So I have this nice, well-organized backlog of tasks that describe exactly what the output should look like when I’m done with each one. I’ve also organized it so that the high value stories float to the top. What do I do now?

Work the stories! Move one at a time from the Backlog over to In Progress. Only do what’s needed to meet the story’s criteria. When it’s finished, move the task to Done and move the next task from the Backlog to In Progress. If you have to make changes to what’s already in Done, make a new story in your Backlog that covers the changes you need to make, and organize that new story in the Backlog accordingly.

If you strive to perform one task at a time, keeping them small and easily rearranged, and doing the minimum amount of work needed to meet the story’s criteria, you’ll accomplish more tasks faster with less stress. So try chucking the to-do list in the trash and build yourself a backlog instead!

I want to learn more!

Scrum adds in a whole lot more to organizing and breaking down your stories. I haven’t even covered story pointing, which is extremely important to Scrum, and would require an entire blog post all to itself! There’s also all of the team oriented aspects of Scrum, which don’t apply when you’re doing this by yourself. If this method of organizing your work intrigues you, check out some of these resources that go into more detail:

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Thanks for reading!

John Bintz is a certified ScrumMaster, cartoonist, game designer, and computer programmer. He blogs at johnbintz.com and runs two comics: Dawn’s Dictionary Drama and Mid-Life Chorus. Check out Your Life’s Chorus on Kickstarter!

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