It was January 2021.
Toby Sinclair and I were having a chat. Toby is an ICF accredited coach and has walked a similar coaching path to the one I'm on. He was recommending that I read the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. It sounded pretty damn good, so I put it on the list!
However, if your reading list is anything like mine, what happened next won't be surprising!
Better late than never I guess!
My reading list is bonkers! But thank goodness for Audiobooks! With a 10 hour drive ahead of me, it seemed like the ideal time to listen to the book. In the end, I listened twice 😅 . It was such an insightful listen! I hadn't thought about habits in that way before and much of the advice was actionable. It also got me thinking about how this applies to teams.
So let's get into it.
What are Atomic Habits?
A behaviour that has been repeated so often it now happens automatically.
An Atomic Habit then is "A regular practise or routine that is not only small and easy to do but also the source of incredible power; a component of the system of compound growth.". James shares the example of an Edward Thorndike experiment, that placed cats inside a black box. The only way out was to press a lever. The cats that escaped were repeatedly put in the box and after a few "visits"(!) their escape time dropped dramatically.
This lead to insight into how habits are formed.
The Anatomy of habits.
It's all about feedback loops.
Habits break down as follows:
Cue - The trigger to act (I'm in a dark box with a lever).
Craving - The desire to change state (I want to be out of this box and free!).
Response – The action that causes the state change. (Let me press this lever!).
Reward – The new state that causes feelings of satisfaction. (Freedom!).
How does this help us?
The 3 levels of habits.
Habits shape your identity.
They operate at 3 levels:
Outcomes - What you get.
Processes - What you do.
Identity - What you believe.
In other words, focus on who you want to become rather than on achieving a specific goal.
The 4 Laws of Behaviour Change.
Bend the anatomy to your advantage to build new habits!
This is done in 4 ways:
Make it obvious.
Make it attractive.
Make it easy.
Make it satisfying.
As James says "Laws 1 - 3 increase the odds a behaviour will be repeated this time and the fourth law increases the odds a behaviour will be repeated next time.".
Inversion of the 4 Laws.
What about breaking bad habits? Invert the laws!
This gives us:
Make it invisible.
Make it unattractive.
Make it difficult.
Make it unsatisfying.
The book advises that these aren't exhaustive for every but behaviour but they're pretty close.
What this means for your team.
"You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems".
The classic example of small incremental improvements is the British Cycling Team. Instead of making goals the object of agile transitions, focus on describing how your ideal team behaves and construct an implementation plan that targets one thing at a time. It could be conflict, creating better stories, testing throughout the sprint, anything.
Making changes based on habits (what team do we believe we are?) rather than goal-based (we'll be great once we've implemented 'by the book' Scrum), we increase the odds of making lasting change.
We just need to stay the course!