An Agile Approach to Your Job Search: Create Your Agile Mindset

Last week, I gave a talk at WIND (Wednesday is Networking Day), here in the Boston area. It was titled An Agile Approach to Your Job Search. I decided that based on the response to that talk, I would do a series of blog posts for candidates about how to look for a job.

Hiring managers, you can turn this around and look at it the other way.

For those of you who don't know what “agile” is, think of it like this: instead of waiting until the end of the project to finish everything, you work in small chunks, finishing valuable (to the customer) work and getting feedback often. In a job search, you, the candidate are your own customer, so you decide what's valuable. That’s liberating and difficult, all at the same time. Liberating, because you make the decisions. Difficult, because you make all the decisions.

However, because you work in short timeboxes—one week iterations—you will have the opportunity to see your work as you proceed, obtain feedback, and make changes as you need. An agile approach may not be able to decrease your job search time, but it won’t lengthen it.

Here’s what you need to do. First, claim some blank wall, where you will be working. Yes, looking for a job is a full-time job, so you need a location where you can work. That means you need access to a phone, a computer, a printer, a desk. And now, a wall. You need wall space of minimum size 36 inches (91.4 cm) high by 24 inches (61 cm) wide). Or, you can use a whiteboard, or a piece of flipchart paper. You will be creating your personal board that looks like this, your Personal Agile Board:

Personal Agile Board

There are only three columns on this board. Your “Todo” column will have all of your todos for one week. Your “In progress” column will have all of your work that you have started during that week. And your “Done” column will have all of the work that you completed during the week.

Why One Week?

Some of you may be familiar with agile already, and are wondering why I’m insisting on one-week iterations for your job search. One week iterations are helpful for a number of reasons: they maintain your focus, they allow for faster change, they help you see your progress, they help you see when you are stuck, they help you see when you need help from the outside, they help you see when you are taking on too much or too little, and they help you see what to measure.

The biggest reason to use a one-week iteration is that looking for a job is a huge project. The best way to succeed with a big project is to break it down into small chunks of work that you can accomplish. The more small chunks you accomplish, the more you feel motivated to do. The bigger the chunk, the harder it is, and the less motivated you are. That’s why you’re going to use a one-week iteration—to keep your motivation high and to help you see your next steps.

Create your Todos

So, you have your board. Now, you have to create your todo list.

Your todo list is called a backlog in agile terminology. You can think of it as a todo list. Your first step is to write everything on your todo list onto stickies, one to a sticky. So, if you need to write your resume, have a photo taken for LinkedIn, call your old boss for a reference, you would have three stickies, that look like this:

First three yellow stickies
First three yellow stickies

You have three todos. They are all quite important. In fact, you could say they are all #1 priority. But they can’t be. You need to decide which one to do first.

Rank Your Todos

Here is where the fact that you have your todos on stickies or cards is really helpful. Take all the stickies. Line them up in some order, even if you think that order is wrong, on the wall. Now, step back. Maybe you made “Call John for reference” #1. Is that okay? If so, leave it there. Maybe you made “Take LinkedIn photo” #2. Is that okay? If not, exchange the sticky underneath it with that one. This is called a bubble sort. The items will bubble up and down to the correct places, because you will keep comparing them to each other.

Limit the Week’s Work

At some point, you realize you have way too many items for one week. Go back and take a look at all your todos. Now, think about your five days in one week. Are you still working a day job and looking for a job part time? Are you devoting all your energy to finding a job? You will be able to accomplish different numbers of todos based on your available time.

Consider doing two things: making your todos small enough to complete in less than a day and breaking any dependencies between todos.

Make Your Todos Small Enough to Complete in One Day or Less

If you’ve read my project management writing, you know I’m a huge fan of inch-pebbles, one- or two-day tasks that are either done or not done. In a job search, I’m a fan of even smaller tasks. I like tasks that are no longer than two-hour chunks. That’s because you often find yourself with an hour or two between phone screens or interviews, and you want to use that time wisely. You have just enough time to research a company or a hiring manager. Or, just enough time to read a white paper. Or just enough time to prep for an audition. But you don’t have a day or two to complete a large task.

When I see a todo such as “Write resume,” on someone’s list, I get worried. “Write resume” is really several todos: Write first draft, get the resume reviewed by several trusted colleagues, edit it again, have more review, edit it again, have more review, maybe more edits. You might even decide to have multiple resumes.

When you break “Write resume” into “Write resume draft 1” and “Get resume draft 1 reviewed,” I can be pretty sure both of those todos will be complete in one iteration. Can another round be complete in one iteration? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on what else is on your todo list and how important it is. Is that first draft of your resume good enough to send out? If it is, maybe you don’t need another draft for a while.

Break Dependencies Between Todos

There’s a natural dependency between writing the resume and the resume review. That’s fine. But I recently met someone who had a whole series of todos around a job fair: research the companies, decide if you will participate in the job fair, know your introduction, maybe even more todos. And, you can decouple those preparatory todos from each other. You may have a quick research todo to make the decision, and a longer research todo to prepare for the job fair. Based on your research for the jobs you see, you might have different introductions, emphasizing different aspects of your experience for different potential employers.

Remember that agile is iterative, and that even though we haven’t addressed the iterative part yet, you don’t have to finish everything in the first week. You have to finish enough so you’ve made progress.

But I like to track my todos in spreadsheets

Please, do me a favor. I know you like spreadsheets. For the first four weeks of your job search, if you decide to try this agile approach, do not use a spreadsheet. Use a board and stickies or index card. Humor me. There is something about the tactile approach of the stickies and the cards that help you make decisions better. Trust me for four weeks. After that, you can decide what to do. Really.

Where You Are

By now, you have a board, with a ranked list of todos. You think you have a week’s list of work. Now, let’s start making agile work for your job search. (You'll have to wait for the next installment.)

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