Getting Actions Done to Make Change Happen

| by Ben Linders Follow 29 Followers on Jul 09, 2015. Estimated reading time: 4 minutes |

Even with best intentions it can be challenging for people to follow up on actions that they agreed to do. They can start to doubt if they can do the actions and become afraid to fail. Several authors have recognized this and came up with suggestions for dealing with it and making change happen.

Seth Godin explores in his post quieting the lizard brain why it can be difficult to do what we say we’re going to do:

The resistance is the voice in the back of our head telling us to back off, be careful, go slow, compromise. The resistance is writer’s block and putting jitters and every project that ever shipped late because people couldn’t stay on the same page long enough to get something out the door.

In his blog post abandoning perfection Godin explains how focusing on perfection can block us in getting things done:

Perfect is the ideal defense mechanism, the work of Pressfield’s Resistance, the lizard brain giving you an out. Perfect lets you stall, ask more questions, do more reviews, dumb it down, safe it up and generally avoid doing anything that might fail (or anything important).

His suggestion is:

Truly perfect is becoming friendly with your imperfections on the way to doing something remarkable.

Guillaume Duquesnay wrote a blog post about how to defeat the Plouf, based on a presentation that he gave at the XP day Benelux 2014. He starts by explaining the situation that they were in:

My story started a while back, probably in 2008. I was in a team were every initiative felt down, every " we should " leading to nothing. A lot of frustration went from that. We had an expression : " to make Plouf ", "Plouf " being the French onomatopoeia for the sound of something falling into water.I was coaching that team, these were my early days of coaching, and this team was in a vicious circle of frustration and cynicism covering passivity.

He goes on to say:

I had the idea to reverse the perspective. I am an old time Getting Things Done practitioner, where when a first task never gets done it may be because there’s something to be done before. It’s not really the first first task, or something is blocking it so removing the obstacle is the real first task. With so many first actions making " Plouf ", I decided to seek for a first first action. The obstacle is the way, right ? then " fight the Plouf " was this task.

Duquesnay explains how "fighting the Plouf" helps teams to get actions done:

When you start saying " a hidden enemy is against me ", you stop feeling guilty. Not doing is not your fault, being blocked is not your fault, not on an easy task neither on a complex one. Plus, it leads you to a forcefully proactive and forward thinking.

It gives you a way of objectively analysing your own weaknesses, still without guilt. If some thinking entity would want to block you, how would it do ? It’s a powerful coaching question made fun.

David Allen, inventor of Getting Things Done, suggested in an interview with about 4 Lessons From a Man Who Knows How to ’Get Things Done’ that people should recognize and eliminate negative self-talk:

Down the road, as adults, it can be difficult for us to turn off the negative voice in our minds that has internalized this constant criticism. This leads to self-doubt and our tendency to beat ourselves up over even the smallest of perceived failures.

Allen argues, and I agree, that recognizing (and taking charge of) this negative feedback is critical to both personal and professional success. Sure, you still need to be disciplined. A new age, "Everyone’s a winner" mentality isn’t any better for your business than negative self-talk. But if you can learn to harness the way you speak to yourself and transform the messages you send and receive into something positive, you’ll find that learning to reframe your thoughts in this way can be a real game changer.

In the InfoQ article why we fail to change Pawel Brodzinski explores why change initiatives are failing and what you can do to make change sustainable and successful:

Commonly, a specific practice or a method is eventually rejected because it goes against the organization’s principles and values. In other words, a new approach simply goes too beyond the existing organizational culture.

You need to have a thorough understanding of the practices and methods that you want to adopt says Brodzinski. He suggests two approaches for getting changes done in organizations:

(...) Instead of blindly applying whatever is the new black these days, ask questions. Why is this practice a part of a method? What do we try to accomplish using this technique? Are there any other tools that are more relevant in our context yet yield similar outcome? Treat it as a thought experiment.

(...) run a small-scale, safe-to-fail experiment. Pick one team that is willing to tweak how they work. See how a new method works. It will help you to understand the method as well as its fit to the organizational context.

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A model for how to cause change by Ralf Westphal

FYI: BJ Fogg's Behavior Model:

"Put hot triggers in the way of motivated people."

Re: A model for how to cause change by Ben Linders

Thanks Ralf for the addition.

I recognize the combination of motivation, ability and trigger. Retrospectives can be a trigger to change, but as the behavior model shows you need more to make change happen.

Re: A model for how to cause change by Ralf Westphal

I wouldn't see retrospectives as triggers. Rather they provide opportunity to build up motivation. That's where you say, "Ok, this change needs to happen. Let's do it...!"

You use the retro to identify deficits, agree on a behavior change, and identify triggers.

Deficit: The source repo does not really show developmen flow and makes rolling back in time hard.
Behavior change: Commit much more often to the repo.
Trigger: Whenever a new test was written, commit. Whenever a test went green, commit.

As long as development is test-oriented (even test-first or TDD), this should provide ample triggers over a day.

Re: A model for how to cause change by Ben Linders

My experience is that the problem is there before the retrospective, and often there is also some motivation and drive in the people to do something about it. The retrospective bring people together to share their insights and decide together what to do and how to do it. It makes things visible and thus enables action.

What I mean is that retrospectives trigger change which helps teams to improve. But that's maybe another kind of trigger than mentioned in the model.

Of course hearing that others also recognize the problem and want to solve it motivates people. Retrospectives enable continuous team building, making teams stronger and increasing the value that they deliver.

Re: A model for how to cause change by Ralf Westphal

Yes, there are 2 behaviors to consider:

For many a retrospektive itself is a new behavior. That needs its own trigger, e.g. "It's Friday 2pm."

But then the retro is the place to decide about other new behaviors - and what their triggers might be, like ("Code review", "Every morning right after the daily standup") or ("Commit to repo", "Every time a test color changes").

It's for any new (!) behavior that a trigger is needed. It must be very, very easy to remember to do whatever is new.

And also: the new behavior should be small/lightweight ("tiny habit",, [1], [2]). At first maybe just 15 minutes of code review in pairs. Or just 30 minutes of retrospective. Or whatever. Doing the new stuff should be a no brainer. There should be no room for excuses.

To have a crystal clear trigger and to know exactly what then to do and to make it easy to do it through small size cannot be overestimated in forming new habits. People are no super heroes ;-) They usually can only change a bit at a time.


Re: A model for how to cause change by Ben Linders

Thanks Ralf!

Did you that Yves Hanoulle also talks about habits in organizational change? Here's an interview titled the habit of improving that I did with him.

Re: A model for how to cause change by Ralf Westphal

Didn't know. Thx for the link. Good read.

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