Making change a habit is the best way to create an agile mindset

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Mahatma Gandhi

Making change a habit is a powerful way of not just creating but maintaining an agile mindset. In the fast paced world that we occupy an agile mindset has come to be valued over many other attributes of successful companies. Agile is a word that is often used without a true understanding of the mindset that underpins its values.

Mindsets

A mindset is “a set of assumptions, methods, or notations held by one or more people or groups of people that is so established that it creates a powerful incentive within these people or groups to continue to adopt or accept prior behaviors, choices, or tools”. Another way of looking at that is a set of habits which an individual/group perform similar outcomes to. Agile has its origins in software development with the Agile Manifesto which was signed in 2001 and outlines the mindset needed to create successful software. The group that signed the Agile Manifesto stated that they value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

How your brain works

In order to better understand how you create the set of habits that form a mindset it helps to understand how the brain works. There are two distinct systems in your brain used for thinking as described by Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow“.

  • System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious
  • System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious

System 1 is where you spend most of your time and could be described as the autopilot part of your brain. Basically this allows you to do complex things without large amounts of energy and effort. System 2 is what you use when you encounter a problem that System 1 doesn’t recognise and this requires a different deeper type of thought.

Most people spend the majority of their time using the System 1 part of their brain. However like most things System 2 becomes more effective the more you utilise it. If you can take something from System 2 and engrain it in System 1 then you are then able to spend the energy you save on solving new problems. It also becomes the default behaviour for how you respond to this type of situation.

Habits

Another way to describe this type behaviour is a habit, defined as “A settled or regular tendency or practice, esp. one that is hard to give up” or simply something which has been engrained in System 1. They can be created and/or modified and a great description of this process can be found in “The Power of Habit” a book by Charles Duhig. He defines a habit of consisting of the following:

  • A trigger
  • A routine (what you do to respond to the trigger)
  • A reward

The easiest way to change a habit is to understand what the trigger and reward are and to replace the routine in the middle with a newer improved version. There are many triggers that exist in the software development lifecycle such as being stuck on a problem or lack of detail in requirements definition. When you start out most people have different routines for dealing with these type of problems. The ideal place to start to discuss these triggers is in a retrospective. In this environment it is great to understand the differing approaches and choose the most effective one for the group to adopt. The reward for this is the great feeling of shipping quality code on a regular basis.

Change a habit

I have found that to change a habit it is always best to start small and find a habit that will be reasonably straightforward to improve. This allows people to understand the process and see the benefits of the approach. I have also found that small regular conversations are much more effective for changing habits than large infrequent conversations. It takes a while for the habit to form and change and being subtly reminded on a regular basis is great way to reinforce the correct behaviour.

In order to create a mindset for a team you need to gradually change their individual habits to be consistent. This is not an easy or quick task but one that delivers an amazing amount of long term benefit to both the individuals and the company/team that they work for. This is probably the single largest factor in turning people into high performing teams due to the efficiency gains and consistency of outputs. If they have made a habit of hacking habits then they are constantly improving and helping each other to do the same.

Conclusion

It has taken me a few years to create a habit of change at Metro and these are some of the practical things that I did to help that journey. Initially I set a very clear high level goal of releasing software every day. This required a lot of changes and I wanted to ensure people knew what success looked like. I then setup regular retrospectives to create a change dialog. I then gave everyone my word that I would be a willing participant of this journey into change and set a clear commitment to remove impediments. This mainly involved getting the business and stakeholders to change alongside our journey. Once this was setup we started small, started changing and are iterating as there is no such thing as perfect process.

Music to write this code to

Fake Blood has some serious habits around create digging and turning old breaks into amazingly crafted mixes.

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