Applying agile and lean techniques in personal life

15 minutes reading time

The main idea – agile and lean life

Here is the main idea of agile and lean life. One of the toughest career challenges you can set for yourself in life is starting, growing and managing a new business. Living a start-up life is no piece of cake.

The challenge of the same difficulty or even much harder is living a life. We all have to deal with disappointments, obstacles, fears and life tests; alongside all the positive things, of course. That is why thousands of books have been written on both topics.

At the first glance it may seem that the art of living and the knowledge of how to start a business are totally different subjects; but that’s a wrong perception. There are many parallels and similarities between business and personal life.

Furthermore, many business techniques are used in our personal lives as the best practices for enhancing productivity and probability of achieving goals – principles like setting a vision, mission, goals, budgeting and performing a SWOT analysis.

It makes sense somehow. No matter how impersonal it may sound, one’s life can be managed as a company.

We all have to provide value to the (job) market, compete, cooperate, bond, create, manage budgets, develop competences, market ourselves, make decisions and be responsible to the stakeholders and the environment. We all are just a biological system functioning in a specific environment, a larger eco-system, and so is every organization.

At this point we come to a big surprise. Techniques and principles of how to build a business are many steps ahead from techniques and principles of how to build and live a life in today’s complex world. But setting goals in personal life does not work anymore, as writing a business plan rarely leads to success when building a new business.Tech changes

Interesting? More about the new age and why traditional techniques don’t work anymore

Since the usefulness of the traditional “MBA” business approaches in today’s start-up world has decrease dramatically, the silent knowhow revolution took place with the so called “lean start-up” philosophy combined with “agile” management techniques.

Both principles have been developed in the most turbulent, complex and industries based on advanced knowledge such as Internet, software and telecommunications.

Agile and lean principles are becoming the best answer to contemporary business environment paradigms and trends. They are the most advanced and bulletproof techniques for starting a business.

I have personally seen hundreds of startups fail using traditional techniques, and dozens of startups succeed just because they were “agile and lean”. To be fair, “agile and lean” has to be mixed with some traditional management techniques in order to really work well, especially when the business is becoming more and more mature.

Leveraging knowledge from both worlds, traditional and new, is the winning combination in business.

Let’s now move from the business area to our personal lives. As I have seen many start-ups fail, this means I have seen hundreds of ambitious people struggling to achieve their goals using only the traditional planning and life managing techniques.

It’s more than obvious that the world has become too complex and unpredictable to set 5-year goals with a linearly planned path for how to achieve them.

Since there are successful start-ups, there are also people who are really thriving in today’s world. The secret usually lies in their character. They are very flexible, adaptable and know how to deal with uncertainty by nature.

They optimize their mindset not only for efficiency, but also for adaptability or flexibility if you will. But not many people have such a character. Especially those people who are organized, ambitious and caring, usually lack being relaxed and flexible.

The solution for such a case is not changing the character, because that’s a nearly impossible thing to do, but rather changing life management techniques. Like they are being upgraded in the business start-up world.

The solution is to apply agile and lean techniques in your personal life.

Agile and lean life

The theory behind agile development and lean startup

There’s hardly a startup entrepreneur today who hasn’t heard about the method of lean startup and agile development.

Lean startup is a method that Steve Blank and Eric Ries started developing at the University of Stanford more than a decade ago as an answer to the fact that more than 75 % of companies fail.

They fail despite having a well-prepared business plan and consistently following the then recommended startup entrepreneurship process, from innovating, getting investors and building an executive team, to finishing up a shiny product and entering the market with the goal of highest possible sales.

The main problem of the process of building a company based on a business plan is that the entrepreneur only gets feedback at the very end of the whole process, after already investing bigger time and financial resources.

And most startup companies fail because nobody wants to buy their products (there is no market). So the basic foundation of lean and agile entrepreneurship is how to transfer market risk to the very beginning of the process of launching a company.

This gives the entrepreneur the opportunity to get market feedback about actual potential customers before an expensive and shiny product is built and financial, time and creative resources are spent. Such a move strongly decreases business risk in many cases, which consequently also decreases the chances of company failure.

In agile and lean entrepreneurship, the emphasis isn’t on planning but on experimentation; instead of the entrepreneur’s intuition, immediate feedback from potential customers is in the foreground; and what’s crucial is gradual cyclical product development in active collaboration with the market.

The methodology of lean and agile companies, together with expressions such as “pivot”, “minimum viable product”, “constant improvement” and “sprint”, is used more and more, both in new startup companies and established companies but also in the best business schools in the world.

Agile development

Agile thinking has its roots in software development, which makes sense since the information technology industry is extremely complex, focused on knowledge, uncertain and changing fast.

Before agile principles, there was waterfall development model, which is the same approach as business planning. You made a technical specification of the software, coded it, improved it and gave it to the users.

But what if the software specifications were based on the wrong assumptions of how users want to use the software? That happened very often with “waterfall” development, therefore an alternative was needed. Agile development was born out of the big need for a different management approach in such a rapidly changing industry.

The fundamentals of agile development are based on the philosophy to deliver small increments of useful software to the customer in the least time possible.

The key agile tools and principles are:

  • Adaptive planning
  • Early delivery
  • Continuous improvement
  • Flexible response to change
  • Efficient face-to-face communication
  • Quality focus
  • Simplicity etc.

Agile management is designed to efficiently execute a specific task – to do things the right way. The problem (what kind of need the software needs to fulfill) is known and with agile development we have the tools and techniques to build the best solution.

Agile Lean
Doing things right and executing perfectly with keeping necessary flexibility Doing the right things and eliminating all the waste that has no value

Lean startup

Lean comes into play additionally, as a complemental to agile when the real problem or need is unknown as well. Lean gives us the tools to eliminate all the waste – everything that doesn’t add value for the customer (or any other stakeholder).

It has its roots in the manufacturing industry, more exactly originating from the Toyota Production System in the 1950s. Back then the lean production system revolutionized the manufacturing industry and core management principles.

When the IT industry was becoming more and more complex, unpredictable and uncertain, key lean manufacturing principles had been used and developed further in the Internet start-up world.

The lean startup movement was born with the set of techniques and methodologies that replaced business planning and other out-of-date management principles taught at different MBA schools.

They especially replaced it in situations where a new product had to be developed in very uncertain circumstances. Today many successful start-ups like Dropbox, Groupon and others have been built based on this new set of knowledge.

Lean is designed to conquer uncertainty and eliminate everything that doesn’t bring value.

Key lean principles are:

  • Data before rhetoric
  • Testing before execution
  • Continuous learning and improving
  • Optimizing the whole, not the parts
  • Measuring the right things
  • A minimum viable product
  • pivot based on data and so on.

Kaizen rules for teams

Practical applications of agile and lean techniques in personal life

Even if you are not interested in starting your own business, it’s an eye-opening situation, if you think about using the best business techniques in your personal life. Let’s go straight to practical examples to see the real value of this unique idea.

In the “old days”, building a business was a very linear process, since the changes in the business environment during the industrial and post-industrial age were also very linear.

A budding entrepreneur had an idea, wrote a business plan, rented an office and hired a secretary, built a prototype, raised some funds, built the product, improved the product several times based on his own assumptions, made marketing materials and presented his product to the market.

Since the demand for new products on the market was bigger than the supply, things worked out in most cases.

But not anymore. Today markets are extremely saturated, complex and demanding. It’s very hard to predict what the markets will want next. If an entrepreneur tries to build a business based exclusively on his untested assumptions and a big ego (I have such a unique idea), and there is a lack of deep market understanding, things rarely work out as planned.

The majority of the entrepreneurs who follow the same linear “business planning” path, sooner or later find out that there are no customers for their product. Either their product is too similar to other products already on the market or there is no real need for the product.

Even perfect execution doesn’t save the business. It leads to even bigger disappointments, because of all the hard work. A hasty execution usually means hard work with no results. Nobody should be doing hard work instead of smart work today.

That is the most important principle of the lean startup philosophy: The biggest waste of time, money, energy, skills, passion and life is building or doing something that has no value – for us or others. That is true for every business and for every human being.

The solution is really simple, but at the same time extremely hard, especially because of our egos and a lack of adequate tools. The simple solution is to add one more phase before each execution phase – the search phase.

In business it means asking before selling, learning before confirming and searching before executing. First you understand, then you execute. We can apply the same principle to every area of our personal lives. It gives us flexibility and a possibility to find out what really works for us.

In the search phase, using the MVP concept, you just try, experiment, observe, reflect and learn about yourself and the world. The most important thing is to have no fixed ideas and no expectations at all in this phase.

Your only job is to test the assumptions you’ve written down, correct them, and try different things to find out what suits you best. Your only job is to learn about yourself and the world. No goals. No measurement of progress. Just learning and playing.

When you find your fit, you keep it in your life, when not you pivot to something new. At the end of the day, you must find your best fits and have your dream life composed like a beautiful mosaic – perfect diet, best exercise, best-fitting career, investments best suited to your character, perfect partner etc.

That is the main idea, how you can apply agile and lean methodologies in your personal life. Let’ look at several very practical examples now:

Dont Be Zombie

1. Don’t be a zombie

The opposite of a successful startup company is either a failed company or, even worse, a zombie company. A zombie company is a company that somehow doesn’t go out of business but on the other hand, it also doesn’t achieve success or rapid growth.

Consequently, a zombie company becomes an incredible waste of resources and human energy as well as a source of great dissatisfaction among founders, other people, and all stakeholders and partners of the company. The purpose of lean and agile methods is for entrepreneurs to prevent their company from becoming a zombie of any kind.

In much the same way, the worst thing that can happen in your personal life is that you become a “zombie”. You don’t live, you just exist. Sadly, this happens to more people than you’d expect.

Average health, average job, average relationships etc., all this leads to a zombie life. In life, you deserve a dream job, incredible relationships and optimal health, not the average. If you don’t want to become a zombie in life, you can help yourself out with the fundamental principles of building lean and agile companies.

The first important lesson is to never settle for average and become a zombie, because you’ll only become a center of negative energy and throw away the precious seconds of your life while additionally negatively influencing everyone around you.

You must never become a zombie. Instead, set a life vision and then persistently follow it!


2. Start with a vision and the question “why

Unsuccessful and average companies usually start with the questions “what” and “how”. So: what will we make and how will we make it; but behind it is usually only the motive of profit. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not enough. But companies often forget to answer the key question, which is: why will we do it.

The most successful companies in the world always start with “why”, as Simon Sinek says in his book Start with why.

It’s an emotional component that enables significantly better innovation, overcoming obstacles more easily, attracting the best employees and having incomparably better communication with the clients, because it’s honest and comes straight from the heart. People are happy to follow other people and companies that have a strong mission in life.

A company also needs a clear vision. The vision is not as connected to solutions (actual products) as it is to the problems that a company wishes to solve for its clients and to the contribution to the chosen industry.

It’s essential for the company to design its own products based on market feedback and not on untested hypotheses and entrepreneurs’ beliefs about what the market supposedly needs.

When it comes to this, it’s of course crucial for the company to remain loyal to the founders’ emotional vision about the problem they wish to solve in this world, and why and how they wish to change the chosen industry (and maybe even the world) to the better.

If the question “why” offers everyday motivation for fighting and overcoming obstacles on an incredibly complex market, then the vision ensures that the company keeps the right direction of development and growth.

It’s no different in your personal life. No matter what you’re trying to achieve or experience in your personal life, you first have to ask yourself why. Why do you really want to be rich, why do you want a dream partner or a dream job, be in good shape, travel all over the world or anything else?

If you don’t have an emotionally thrilling answer to the question why, you have few chances to achieve your set goals. Only an emotional charge can lead you across all obstacles, through everyday work and to the right people who will help you achieve your life goals.

To achieve success in life, set a clear vision for what you wish to experience and achieve, but mostly have a strong “why”.

Kaizen Rules

3. Following the Kaizen philosophy

Kaizen is a Japanese word that means positive change. It’s a foundation of lean and agile methods, namely with the philosophy that you have to constantly introduce improvements in all business functions.

Constantly acquire new knowledge, introduce modern business methods, increase the speed of innovation, optimize processes etc., all this falls under the wings of the Kaizen philosophy.

It’s no different in your personal life. There are two different mindsets that an individual can have: the first one is the growth mindset and the second one is the fixed mindset. One of the most frequent differences between successful and unsuccessful individuals lies exactly in these two different mindsets.

The fixed mindset assumes that things in an individual’s life are fixed, from intelligence and talents to actual situations they find themselves in. The growth mindset, on the other hand, assumes that an individual can improve in everything and that nearly nothing in life is fixed (except maybe height and other similar things).

In short, constant personal improvement leads to progress and success in various areas of life. You reap what you sow is the basic rule of personal and business success.

Would you like to know more:

The Kaizen lesson from the business world is that you need to constantly personally grow and invest into yourself, because you’re the best and potentially the most lucrative investment.

Kaizen Work Together

4. Your environment and your relationships

Beside your mindset, the two most important factors of success and personal happiness are the environment you work in and your relationships.

A lesson from startup entrepreneurship is that a company with an average or a bad team on a good market (right market environment) usually has more chances of success than an incredible team does on a small market that’s in decline (bad market environment).

But when an incredible team creates a product for the right market, something magical happens – an incredible startup company comes to life. This formula is the holy grail of success for every startup company, the combination of the right market and the right team.

The same goes for our personal lives. Choosing the right environment and surrounding ourselves with the right people is also incredibly important for our personal lives. If we’re the most capable and smartest ones in the room, we’re in the wrong room.

We also have to hang out with people who support us, encourage us and push us over the boundaries of our comfort zone. At the same time, we reciprocate and help others with personal growth, development and goal achievements.

If you have the feeling that you aren’t surrounded by the right people, the first sensible step is finding a personal mentor. Then you slowly analyze every relationship and implement changes if necessary.

Beside people, it’s the same with your environments. A person can be successful in their personal life a lot easier if they’re on markets that grow and are promising than if they’re on markets in decline.

We find it easier to succeed in a company that has healthy foundations, encouraging culture and bright future than if we’re just satisfied with the first job we get, even if it isn’t suitable.

But it is a demanding leap of thought, because instead of things and people that happen to us in life or are right there, we have to proactively find environments, opportunities and people who are the right fit for us.

Environments where we shine, happily contribute value, create and advance. The main advantage of the 21st century is that we can put our lives together like a puzzle, choosing those pieces that personally fit us best out of a bunch of different possibilities; we only have to be brave and systematic enough when making decisions.

Thoroughly consider the environment you want to work in and what kind of an environment fits you best. It’s incredibly important for your success. Carefully choose the right industry, the right business environments and the right people. Nobody succeeds alone in life.

Kanban Board

5. Kanban

As much as a third of our brain neurons is dedicated to the perception of visual elements. We all know the saying that a picture says more than a thousand words.

This is something successful companies that follow lean and agile principles are taking advantage of with work visualization. The concept is called Kanban.

Kanban is the Japanese word for a sign or a board. The main idea is to use post-it notes in the office or any other working space to clearly visualize the course and status of work.

A simplified way of achieving this is by writing down a task on every post-it note, then moving the note from the “to-do” to “in-progress” and “done” zones depending on the work process. This way, the team always has a clear overview of the tasks that still need to be done, are in progress or have already been completed.

Using visualization is also incredibly important in your personal life.

Besides using the Kanban board in the home environment to visualize the tasks of every family member, you can also use such a board to visually present family or personal goals – from where you want to travel to the desired car (brand, color etc.) or apartment and house.

With such a visualization, your goals and the most important tasks that wait for you in the next sprint will always be right before your eyes.

Your brain absolutely adores pictures, sketches and other visual installations. So visualize your goals, list of tasks and other organizational elements of your personal life as systematically and exactly as possible.

Regret Minimization Framework

6. Sprint, morning meeting and reflection

Three important foundations of agile development (SCRUM methodology) at the operative level are sprint, short morning meeting and reflection after the sprint.

Sprint are all the tasks that will be done in a certain set time period (usually in two to four weeks), presented on the Kanban board; the short morning meeting, which mustn’t last more than 15 minutes, is for calibrating the team; and reflection means systematically striving for constant improvement.

At the morning meeting, each team member answers three short questions, namely:

  • What have they done the day before,
  • what they are planning to do this day,
  • and whether there are any obstacles.

The meeting is done standing up and shouldn’t last more than 15 minutes. It’s best if it happens in the same place and at the same time every working day.

You can use the exact same philosophy in your personal life. You clearly visualize the sprint in a specific time period on your personal Kanban board, and you take 15 minutes every morning for daily calibration and focusing on your most important tasks and goals.

And after every sprint, you ask yourself what went well and you should continue doing, and what you have to change in your life and work so that you’ll be even more successful in the future. This way, you are guaranteed to exceptionally increase your personal productivity and success.

Would you like to learn more:


Knowing and applying the Agile and Lean principles to your personal life is much better than receiving money or winning the lottery. ;)

Because it’s a way to self-actualization through having it all – enough assets, good relations, perfect health and, on top of it, making the World a better place for all of us.

I suggest you read The AgileLeanLife Manifesto next,

to learn more about the topic.

About the author

Consulting and management coaching

Blaž Kos has managed venture capital investments over the past 12 years and participated in the development of the start-up ecosystem in the region. Today, he advises companies on growth strategies, process optimization, the introduction of lean agile methods and the digitalization of business. In addition to the Slovenian blog, he also writes an English blog, which was selected among the 50 best bloggers in the world in the category of personal and business growth.
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