A Scrum Master’s Strategy for Focusing a Scattered Mind
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, this powerful exercise shows you where to spend your energy
A while back, I noticed that my teenage daughter was overwhelmed by everything she had on her plate: moving out on her own for the first time, applying to internships, searching for a part-time job, staying on top of her health, and maintaining her social life. While she has always been very disciplined, all of these activities were competing for her attention, and she was struggling to find the right balance. She wasn’t getting enough sleep, and it began to affect her well-being.
It hurt me to see one of my kids struggling. I wanted to help my daughter without telling her what to do (not that she would have listened — she was becoming an adult, after all). I wanted to teach her how to manage multiple tasks, a skill she would need for the rest of her life.
In my job as a scrum master, I guide teams in understanding their priorities so they can find focus. I thought back on all the exercises and interventions I’ve used in my work, and eventually landed on one that I thought could really help my daughter sort out her scattered thoughts: the WADE Matrix. WADE stands for What, Analog, Digital, and Execute. (It’s also the name of its creator, scrum master Derek Wade.) The WADE Matrix is a visual tool that lets you see everything that’s on your mind, and helps identify where you should focus your time and energy. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it can reveal the steps you should take to get back to clarity.
My daughter has become somewhat used to her dad bringing scrum techniques home, so she was open to trying this exercise when I told her about it. Here’s how it’s done.
To use the WADE Matrix, you’ll need a pen, a stack of Post-its (enough to capture all that’s going on in your mind), and some wall or floor space to stick them all on. We have a big cupboard in our living room that fit the purpose quite well.
WHAT: Gather data
To begin, I asked my daughter to write down everything she had going on in her life — one item per Post-it. This was a great way for her to empty her head. She jotted down things like: “going to the gym,” “quitting current job,” “looking for a new job” and “finding a boyfriend.” The end result was an impressive cloud of Post-its on the cupboard.
ANALOG: Use “relative weighting”
Next, on the left side of the cupboard, I created a vertical axis — essentially, a straight line with arrows on each side. At the bottom of the axis, I wrote “going well,” and at the top, “going bad.” (Note: You can write “not going so well” if you prefer, but I’m Dutch and therefore blunt by design.)
I asked my daughter to arrange her Post-its vertically based on these two opposites. Things in her life that were going well should be placed at the bottom, while things that were going poorly should be situated at the top. Everything else could go somewhere in between. She didn’t have to create a perfect representation of her life — I simply wanted her to see where the items sat relative to one another. In my job, this process is called relative weighting, and it helps people make better decisions.
Next, I created a horizontal axis at the bottom of the cupboard. On the very left, I wrote “can control,” and on the right, I wrote “can’t control.” I then told my daughter to align the Post-its horizontally, based on the level of control she had over the issues. Each Post-it’s vertical position was to remain unchanged during this exercise.
After moving the first few Post-its to the left, my daughter started to realize what was happening. “I see,” she mumbled. “What’s on the left are things I can take care of myself.”
Finally, I took the entire area and divided it into a 2x2 grid. I then categorized the four quadrants like this:
Now it was time for the final step.
Execute: Take action
Looking at the chart, my daughter immediately relaxed. She understood what the quadrants meant. The “go fix” box was filled with the things she should devote her time and energy to. There weren’t a huge number of items in that quadrant, at least compared to the number of anxieties swirling through her mind at the beginning of the exercise. This settled her quite a bit.
Next, we looked at the “accept or ask for help” quadrant, filled with things that were going poorly, and outside her realm of control. For each item, she had to make a decision: She could either accept the reality of it and let it go, or seek help. One Post-it in that quadrant contained her worry about what other people thought of her. When she realized that she had no control over this, a burden seemed to lift. She told me that she wanted to let this one go, and focus on feeling good about herself. I was touched when she shared this revelation with me.
The lower two quadrants were filled with things that were going well in her life. It was good for her to see how much was working. For the areas in which she had some control (like her friendships), she committed to keeping up her routines. For those that were out of her reach, she could simply feel grateful.
As a father, I was happy to see my daughter feeling relaxed again. I plan to share the WADE Matrix whenever someone close to me tells me their life is starting to feel unmanageable. It’s freeing to view the contents of your mind right in front of you. You can see what’s in your hands, and even more powerfully, what isn’t.