Habits and Strategies

As one teacher of philosophy summarized Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”

The best Agile teams adopt similar habits. Sure, there are contextual differences. But after a quarter century of experimentation on Agile teams, patterns have emerged. Certain habits show up over and over again on successful teams.

Morever, sets of these habits tend to hang together into strategies, where they interact to produce larger outcomes. Teams who adopt those sets of habits become more likely to get those larger outcomes.

Three habits in particular seem to be what author Charles Duhigg calls *keystone habits*. Keystone habits are those “small changes or habits that people introduce into their routines that unintentionally carry over into other aspects of their lives.” Duhigg gives the example of making your bed in the morning:

Making your bed every morning is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget. It’s not that a family meal or a tidy bed causes better grades or less frivolous spending. But somehow those initial shifts start chain reactions that help other good habits take hold. (The Power of Habit, 109)

For Agile teams, the three keystone habits seem to be:

  1. Get releasable, working product every sprint.
  2. Hold regular, effective retrospectives.
  3. Organize work as small vertical slices

Teams who habitually do these three things tend to pick up a variety of other healthy team behaviors. So, instead of trying to get every little process detail right, instead of adopting every shiny, new Agile practice, consider whether your team has built strong habits around doing these three things. If one of them is missing or inconsistent, focus there first.

In this week’s Humanizing Work show, Peter and Richard answer a mailbag question, “What do I focus on as a new ScrumMaster?” Part of the answer is about helping your team establish healthy habits like the keystone habits above. Check out the episode here!

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