This session is an experiment.
It’s my first time doing a workshop at a conference so thanks to everyone who came along to help make it a success/failure.
It’s actually iteration three of the workshop, previously it has been run at The National Audit Office for the Government Digital Services Cross Government Agile Community of Practice Group and for the London Limited WIP Society.
Based on positive feedback from these I submitted it to Agile Cambridge.
The seed of this workshop comes from way back in 2000-2001 when I was first introduced to Agile Methods by Karl Scotland when we were working together at the BBC. He told me this great Kent Beck quote:
“I’m not a great programmer, I’m just a good programmer with great habits"
I found this heartening as I was an okay programmer aspiring to be a good one. I still am. You can see from my Stack Overflow and Github that I’m no Ninja or Rock Star.
A couple of years ago that this quote took on a greater significance for me. My friend and colleague Dave Spanton (AKA @megastoat) introduced me to the Charles Duhigg book ‘The Power of Habit’ It’s a wonderful book. It takes you on a journey from the neuroscience behind how habits work and scales up to how they work at an organisational and societal level.
At the heart of the book is The Habit Loop, a model of how cues prompt routines that we automatically perform in order to get a reward. There is a lot more to it than that and I recommend reading the book for the full story.
The story in the book that really chimed with me, and which is the reason this workshop came about is that of Paul O’Neil - CEO of Alcoa Steel from 1987 to 2000. During this period he oversaw a five fold increase in the net revenues of the company.
He did this by focusing on a fundamental common purpose - zero fatality employee safety - and then inculcating habits to enable the organisation to achieve that goal.
By starting with this focus, he affected change throughout the organisation. In order for Alcoa to be a safe place to work, there needed to be an understanding of how injuries were happening. You had to study the manufacturing process and see what was wrong with it. You needed to understand how things were going wrong and fix them.
This meant that to become safe, Alcoa had to become “the best, most streamlined aluminium company on earth”.
This resonates with me in the world of software. In order to make software that is safe to put into production you need to understand what is wrong in the writing of software that causes it to fail.
One way of doing this is TDD. I carry around with me a mental habit loop for TDD:
Cue: Change Required to the Code - Routine: Write a Failing Test - Reward: Better Software
This is good but it’s of limited use on its own. The real value of habits in an organisation come when they are used across the organisation to enable a common purpose.
As Paul O’Neil put it
“If we bring our injury rates down…it will be because the individuals at this company have agreed to be part of something important. They’ve devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence"
It is this Systemic View of Habits which gives them their real value.
In my own work I have on more than one occasion been asked by a Pointy Haired boss:
“Who is the best performer in your team"
I answer this by quoting John Seddon:
If there is best performer in the team then “The reason will almost certainly be method – what the person does, how he or she spends his or her time. It is the leader’s job to identify the reasons and adapt the method accordingly; it is part of the system. In all organisational tasks, the major causes of variation in performance are beyond the attributes of individuals”
Habits give us a way to adapt the method to help the organisation achieve its purpose.
Seddon has a Mantra which I find very useful: Purpose, Measures, Methods.
You can relate Purpose to Reward, by doing what we do in our routine habits we are helping the organisation towards its goal.
The Routine itself is the Method.
The Cue can come from our measures. Queue lengths, Monitoring, Diagnostics, Metrics, these give us prompts to which we can respond with routines that help us to the reward of achieving our purpose.
Lean Agile Habits
Na:onal Audit Oﬃce
London Limited WIP Society
I’m just a
Change required to
Write a Failing
The Habit Loop
a Failing Test
CEO Alcoa Steel
Photo: ATsh Nazir
Change required to
Write a Failing
A TDD Habit Loop
“The reason will almost certainly
be method – what the person
does, how he or she spends his or
“It is the leader’s job to iden:fy
the reasons and adapt the method
accordingly; it is part of the
In all organisa:onal tasks, the
major causes of varia:on in
performance are beyond the
a]ributes of individuals”
In groups come up with some habits
that you think could help your
organisa:on achieve its purpose