If you’re a regular in a gym, you know the pattern. The first week of January, there’s an influx of new members. Some are eager and motivated: “This is going to be the year I get fit!” Others are nervous and awkward: “I don’t know if I’m a gym person, but I’d really like to be healthier.”
However these new gym members started, though, by mid-February, most of them will have dropped off. One study showed 80% of people have given up their New Year’s resolutions by the end of January.
It’s not much better at the team or org level. Someone decides, “We’re actually going to try this Agile thing,” or, “We’re going to get our backlog refinement under control.” They start out strong. But a few weeks or a few sprints later, and it’s back to project plans, imposed commitments, and task-oriented work breakdowns.
So how do you make good goals stick?
It’s not willpower. Few of us can stick to a difficult change just by strength of will.
Changes stick when it becomes easier, more natural, to do the new thing than the old thing. And that means setting up systems and building habits.
Let’s look at an example…
One of our clients wanted to shift from a task-oriented backlog that took hours of tedious refinement each week to a value-focused backlog that felt easy and sustainable to manage.
They were tempted to redo the whole backlog to make it look just right. But it was about two years worth of stuff. Some high-value ideas. Lots of things someone added to the list and then forgot about. Rearranging all that stuff might have looked nice for a week or two, but it would have drifted back into the old, unmanageable state.
Instead, they needed systems and habits that would make it easier to do the new thing than the old thing.
The first move was to make space for a better backlog, the equivalent of starting a cooking project with a clean countertop. The product owner did what we call “declaring backlog bankruptcy.” She moved the existing backlog into a separate project. She didn’t delete it. Instead, it became a “things we considered as of date X” project rather than the current backlog. Now, the current backlog was empty.
The next step was to adopt the PO Board model for the new backlog, limiting how many items the backlog would contain at each level of detail. This system would help ensure that the backlog wouldn’t get out of hand with excessive detail in the future.
This set up the key system to support a better backlog. Now, it was time to layer in some habits.
Habit #1: Work right to left on the PO Board every day and don’t fill a column beyond its work-in-progress (WIP) limit.
Habit #2: Coordinate refinement at the Daily Scrum every day instead of batching it into a big meeting.
Because these were both simple, daily habits, they felt manageable to adopt, and it only took a few weeks before they were well established routines. And a healthy backlog took shape and stayed that way, as the new habits reinforced the right outcomes.
This month at our free Humanizing Work Meetup, we’re talking about the various habits we see on successful Agile teams and how they hang together into coherent collections, or strategies, that produce larger outcomes. Want to make it easier to do the right thing than the wrong thing on your team? Join us January 18 at 5pm MST. Sign up here.