I was asked to facilitate a lessons learned session for a program team using a retrospective format. After the team had brainstormed, prioritized and discussed most of the challenges they had faced, it became clear to them that there were only a couple of root causes for most of the main pain points they had identified. Neither of those root causes was a true learning but rather they were just simple reminders of good practices to follow for large, complex programs. I then asked them the somewhat rhetorical question: “Remembering now what should have been done then, how will you ensure that this doesn’t happen on a future program?”
A project team I’ve been working with has struggled with judging how many work items they can successfully complete within a sprint. In the retrospective for their last sprint, they identified a number of simple, effective ideas for resolving this chronic concern. Again, I challenged them with the same question: “You’ve come up with a great list of ideas, but how will you ensure that you actually act on those the next time you are sprint planning?”
Both of these experiences reminded me of how difficult it is to break habits.
In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg has written about the three part neurological loop governing habits which was discovered by MIT researchers: a cue, a routine and a reward.
In the project team’s case, the routine has been to accept more work items than they can complete in a sprint even when historical evidence shows this tactic hasn’t worked out well. The cue is that moment in the sprint planning ceremony when the team makes their sprint forecast. It’s hard to say what the reward has been but perhaps it’s the temporary high which comes when we take on a significant challenge as a team.
To break habits, we need to find a way to substitute a different routine for the old one and soliciting the help of a close, trusted colleague might be one way to do this.
The team could designate a single individual to come to the sprint planning ceremony with a stuffed pig or some other visual gag which represents gluttony. Then, when the team is about to forecast how much they will accept in the sprint, that team member could hold up the pig and say “Oink! Oink!” to remind all of them to be a little more conservative. While the team might not bask in the short term glow of having accepted a bloated sprint forecast, they will enjoy the much more rewarding experience during their sprint review when the product owner and other stakeholders congratulate them for improving their predictability.
Breaking habits is hard to do but by identifying cues and implementing good routines to swap in for the old ones, we can prevail.