Bad Habits and Lean-Agile Transformation

November 3, 2016 — Posted by Guy Beaver

We like patterns at Net Objectives and in software architecture, we view them as solutions to reoccurring problems.  Habits are patterns too—behavior patterns that are practiced in response to some context, process, or event and these can become ingrained and involuntary in organizations that follow process (which is most organizations).

Example organizational habits might be:


“Sometime in middle of the current fiscal year, we start our annual planning for next year’s software projects.”


“When I’m done writing my code, I check it in to our revision control system.”   

In order to transform organizational behaviors to operate within new boundaries (such as guardrails) it is important to understand current habits and desired habits. 

What habits does your organization practice and why?  How do you keep good habits and change bad ones?

Start by determining your organization’s habits at all levels—enterprise, program, team and individual.  What are the outcomes of these habits?  Do they foster alignment to a common vision?  Do they limit work in process and enhance collaboration?  Do they make your delivery organization more predictable?  Do they increase visibility of workflow to allow learning?  If the answers are “no” then what is reinforcing these bad habits, and how do you change or replace them?  For any organizational transformation to take root and grow, habits must be identified and changed, at all levels.  Key areas where habits must change are:

Strategy—what planning disciplines are in place and with what frequency are they practiced?   Does annual planning allow too much work to start and conflict with discipline around only working on highest priority work?  Is strategy a visible driver of day-to-day work or is it obscured by more urgent (but potentially less important) drivers?

Key Performance Indicators—what measurement disciplines are in place?  Are they aligned with strategic goals and desired outcomes?

FundingHow is work funded?  Do the way projects are funded create conflict with the ability to create long-lived teams that practice good habits around sustainable quality? 

Alignment—what habits are practiced regarding what work is prioritized and how it flows through the organization?  What disciplines enforce alignment and validate that today’s work is the most important work? Do individuals, teams, programs start their day reviewing priorities?  What are the goals for the day?  Are teams empowered to meet goals?

Quality—What quality habits are practiced?  Are tests written to specify what is to be built before code is written?  Are tests automated and checked in with code?

Failure—What habits are practiced when failure is discovered?  Is failure punished or is it celebrated?  Is it folded into a discipline of continuous learning? 

The key to changing or replacing bad habits* is to first recognize when a bad habit is occurring, which should be used to trigger a substitute habit or behavior change. How can we institute this from the top down?  Where do we start?  How do we institute learning such that it becomes a disciplined habit, and improvement is continuous?

The primary success factor is leadership.  Leaders in the organization have to commit to changing habits.  Without this commitment, no sustainable change will take place.  Once leaders are onboard and committed to owning the success of the transformation, an assessment of existing disciplines is critical, and a plan can be formulated to address new habits to form, and old habits to change—all in the context and domain of the organization.

Training and coaching habit changes all should include basic change patterns:  Look for triggers, identify current behaviors/actions, and then replace with the desired behaviors and actions.  Here are the original examples above, except now cast as new habits:


Current habit/discipline: Annual planning

New habit/discipline: When we create an annual plan, we will also create a rolling quarterly plan in order to better prioritize our work and increase organizational focus.


Current habit: Check code into revision control system

New habit/discipline: When I check in code, if I haven’t written a test, I will write and automate a test and check it in too, in order to raise quality and build up a suite of regression tests.

So, what habits are practiced in your organization and what is your plan to transform them?


*There are many good references regarding habits and how to change them, including: 

“Zen Habits” by Leo Babauta

"The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg

“The Coaching Habit” byMichael Bungay Stanier  

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About the author | Guy Beaver

Guy Beaver was VP of Enterprise Engagements and a Senior Consultant. He is a seasoned technology executive known for building Lean organizations that are driven by business priorities. With 30+ years experience in Financial Services, Aerospace, Health Care and eCommerce, his technology accomplishments include managing enterprise web development and delivery for world class transaction systems (16 Million users), large data center transitions, and SaaS operational excellence utilizing Lean IT practices. He is skilled at organizational change and is the co-author of Lean-Agile Software Development: Achieving Enterprise Agility.


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