Friday, January 30, 2009

Discipline == Habit

From Wikipedia:

Habits are habituated routines of behavior that are repeated regularly, tend to occur subconsciously, without directly thinking consciously about them.

Self-discipline refers to the training that one gives one's self to accomplish a certain task or to adopt a particular pattern of behaviour, even though one would really rather be doing something else. For example, denying oneself of an extravagant pleasure in order to accomplish a more demanding charitable deed. Thus, self-discipline is the assertion of willpower over more base desires, and is usually understood to be a synonym of 'self control'. Self-discipline is to some extent a substitute for motivation, when one uses reason to determine a best course of action that opposes one's desires.


Agile is a low ceremony process which, according to the Agile Manifesto, favors individuals and interaction over process and tools. So in agile we try to use the least amount of process to achieve a certain goal; usually the success of the project. The good thing about high process environments is that you don't really have to worry about what to do, you don't even need to grasp the big picture. Just follow the process and the stated rules. Training and ramp-up time are low. Sounds good? In theory it does, however, in reality many cases fall between rules and are therefore not covered by them. Ever talked to a overwhelmed person in a call center because your situation was not in the handbook? Often, I feel that they could help but won't as they are not authorized to make the call. Agile approaches this problem by moving authority from higher up -- the rule writers -- to the individuals actually doing the work. Command and control becomes leadership and cooperation. This autonomy comes with a price; (Self-)Discipline. People in charge need to be able to put trust into those empowered individuals. With discipline comes a certain behavior. That behavior and its outcome builds trust over time. Like in Spiderman when uncle Ben told Peter Parker: 'With power comes responsibility'.

So far so good. This will work great for as long as you stay in the comfort zone. What happens if unexpected events cause chaos and distress? A classical social behavior is that you yearn for something proven and trustworthy. Usually, it is the habit that worked (at least you think) in the past. In no time we forget about our responsibility towards discipline, we are driven consciously or more likely subconsciously by our habits and run with them once more. Worse, this often causes the situation to become even more dire and the vicious cycle is started.
How can this be avoided? In a typical software project, there are three ways that change can be enacted.
  1. A pool of talented employees go out on their own and secretly implement the new process (they know management doesn't like them to step up).
  2. Management orders that a new process is being used. (command and control)
  3. Both of the former combined -- employees and management want to improve together (leadership and collaboration)
The first two options have a very slim change to succeed, albeit the first one is somewhat better off. Usually good people stick to their conviction and let management talk. However, there is only so much pressure they can take. (You can change the company or you can change the company -- get my drift)

As for the management ordered approach, I see two possible outcomes:
A) Management is curious about agile and sees a potential silver bullet in it, so it decides to 'do' agile and then will flip to next silver bullet once the first clouds appear.
B) Management is convinced about agile and therefore would not only mandate, but facilitate the successful roll-out with trainings, on site consultants and other resources. This brings us the last option of the three.

In the third case management and the employees have the same strong believes and are not willing to give up easily. Open communication and cooperation between those two parties allows for frequent adjustments. In case of shifts in fundamental assumptions, it even allows for changes to the underlying core process . Those adjustments, another agile principle, reacting to change over following a plan, make it possible to keep up with a discipline. Also, disciplines are not cast in stone, they are not dogmas. Feel free to adjust a discipline. However, those changes should have a strong cause and be revisited after an agreed period of time to assess their effectiveness. Often a change is only temporary until another problem has been mitigated.
Over time, with continuous repetition, a discipline will be morphed into a habit. Don't expect this to happen quickly, it most likely will take month if not years. Once you have been lucky enough to experience this for real, you will be transformed for life. Suddenly you have a clear vision and understanding you never imagined possible. There is no going back.

It is all about drinking the KoolAid once! That's what turns a discipline into a habit.


Jason Yip said...

This reminds me of this:

WDET said...

Very well written article. As an employee and small time business developer, I can completely relate.


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