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The Habit of Improving

by Ben Linders on Dec 13, 2013 |

Agile is about a mindset and a contiguous improvement of everything said Yves Hanoulle at the XP Days Benelux 2013 conference. He facilitated a session about the power of habit, in which he discussed how people can create or change habits in their life.

InfoQ did an interview with Yves about the habits that people have and what you can do to get into the habit of improving.

InfoQ: You stated that teams need to get into the habit of improving. Why?

Yves: I believe that no process is optimal for every situation. When a team is doing great in the the current situation, if the way the team works does not change,  it will not be great for the future situations.

In the long run, a "bad" team that will get into the habit of improving will beat any team that does not have such a habits.

InfoQ: Do teams actually have habits? Or organizations? Or is it the team members, the people themselves who have habits?

Yves: In the book the power of habit, Charles Duhigg says that +40% of our actions are habits.

Charles also says: “individuals have habits groups have routines.“
I have personally seen organizations were people still behave following an undocumented routine that was started years ago, by the founder who is long dead.

Now that is not necessary bad. I think we can even say that these routines are what make companies unique. People go to a MacDonalds or a Starbuck because of these routines. The routines makes the product that I buy in Belgium similar to one in the USA.
And of course it are the people that do the habits and when they leave these companies, they have probably taken some habits with them.

InfoQ: How can changing habits help to develop an agile mindset?

Yves: Their is a nice example in the book about how a CEO has turned around the mindset of a company, by focusing on safety habits. Your question makes me really think of Karate Kid: you know the famous part of Wax On, Wax Off.

Basically what his trainer made him do, was focus on habit, making sure that his movements are becoming a habit. And the mindset of improving all the time and focus and dedication came with it. That is a good start with any team.

InfoQ: In you talk you mentioned the golden rule of habit change. Can you tell us more about that?

Yves: Yes, although I want to insist that people buy Charles book to learn the details. He can explain it so much more then I do.

To understand the golden rule of habit changing, it’s important to understand the details of habits.

A habit exists out of
- a trigger, (In the book called a clue)
- a routine (not to be confused with a routine of a team)
- a reward.

Most people when they want to change a habit, they want to replace the full system. The golden rule of habit change, says it’s much better to only replace the routine. Like replace smoking with chewing gum. (Or nicotine patches).

InfoQ: What are the habits of successful organizations?

Yves: Oh, I think this depends from company to company.
It already depends on what you call a successful company, what I call successful might not be what your readers call successful. I personally like what Toyota does, and for me, Toyota has really created a culture of habit changing, or a habit of changing habits. And the truly agile teams I worked with, had that same habit. The book contains examples of how Starbucks has created it’s habits.

InfoQ: Why do these habits make them successful?

Yves: Habits make people and companies successful because they are predictable and repeatable.

One of the advantage of a habit, is that our brains need to think less. There is a reason that in EHBO or fire drills they focus on habits. The want to teach us how to react in times of stress. It are these precious extra seconds that make the difference between life and dead of people.

The fact that a Starbucks coffee is similar anywhere you go, makes it easy when you go to a foreign city or country. Now this does not mean that the people in a Starbuck are not allowed to think, no just like in Toyota, they are thought to change their own process.

InfoQ: In an earlier interview with InfoQ about the agile and lean mindset you talked about pair coaching. Is that also an effective way to change habits?

Yves: First I want to say, I have many tools in my toolbox and they are not always applicable every time. That said, PairCoaching helps me a lot to change myself.

I have taken up the habit of doing all training with a pair. For example when I give my personal agility workshop in another country, I ask the organizers if they know someone who wants to teach it with me. I prepare the training with that person. And we do it together, with all the challenges for me, of delivering with someone I might have never been giving this with.

The reward my students and me get, is that this keeps me on my toes. Every training is different and fresh. Yes we have a structure that we can fall back on if needed.

InfoQ: Do you have a personal examples of organizations and habit changes?

Yves: For me changing habits in an organization starts with visual management. By making situations and habits visible, people in an organization think about these things in a different way and they start changing their habits. For example I use big hourglasses (sand timers) with my teams. One way is to time box meetings and talks; Next to that I put them visible in meeting rooms. What I propose to teams is, whenever you feel bored, you can just turn around an hourglass of your desired time, and when that time is up, we will discuss as a team if we want to continue to talk about this topic. This gives people back the responsibility to their time.

They already have the clue: feeling bored. They had the habit of not paying attention anymore. and complaining after the fact. The reward is probably related to complaining to everyone.

In one organization, they ordered a set of these hourglasses for every meeting room. The best feedback: the CEO came to thank me personally as their board meetings now only take half the time and they have better discussions.

InfoQ: Which other techniques can you recommend if teams want to change their habits?

Yves: The best trick I learned from the book is: a small change can have a huge impact. Look at the current habits, try to understand them and see if you can change them, find a common ground for a small habit change, and gradually teach people the habit of changing habits.

This is why attacking low-hanging fruit can be a good way to start.
As a coach I personally try to make people make small changes, let them feel they have more control then they realize. And gradually they change their whole life, like my walking desk, made me first move more in a day, then had me started to run and before I knew it I was running a 5 KM race…. 

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