Agile coaching

How Agile teams can build healthy habits

17 October 2023 • 8 min read


It’s sprint planning. After 2 hours of refining and discussing tickets in front of walls of text you're feeling tired and overloaded. But there’s one final thing you have to do before the sprint begins. Can we commit to the sprint? You look at all the items in the sprint backlog and all the actions you agreed to in the retrospective, your head still spinning from all the discussions you’ve had and frankly all you want to do is get on with the “real work”. It’s an ambitious sprint and you just want to say yes so you can begin.

But the noble desire to just get on with it can create issues and problems later in the sprint. It’s important to consider your routines and habits to ensure you can deliver exactly what needs to be delivered with minimal stress, confusion, and pain. In this post we’ll take a look at some of the habit forming routines and techniques that will help you through a particularly challenging sprint.



Image: Jukan Tateishi (via Unsplash)


Have a Keystone Habit

Make your bed every morning” is a popular and often cited piece of advice offered by Admiral William H. McRaven. Anyone who remembers this kind of admonishment as an adolescent might be keen to overlook it, but it can be powerful. It should be seen as a ‘keystone habit’ which is key to developing other rituals and embedding new behaviours. 


Think about it: it’s the first moment in the day when you make an active choice. By choosing it you’ve demonstrated precisely the sort of willpower needed to make a positive change. That’s not trite - change, after all, starts with small decisions, not huge ones. The importance of willpower in habit formation is something noted elsewhere by Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit.


The daily scrum is the best example of a team keystone habit. Many teams choose to do their daily scrum first thing. They create an environment where the team habitually comes together to talk about their plan for the day of work ahead. By sharing any blockers that might prevent the team from achieving their sprint goal problems can be surfaced quickly, mitigating the potential damage they could do to a project. So, to adopt McRavens advice in an Agile environment: “Participate in the daily scrum every morning.” Whether or not you make your bed as well is up to you.


Habit stacking: doing everything at the right time


Author James Clear explains how synaptic pruning in the brain helps us as adults retain habits we’ve learnt through life. This means that to form new habits we need to link them to habits that already exist. This is a ritual he calls Habit Stacking. Whenever we do an existing habit it can trigger us to remember to form a new one.


One way you could use this thinking in your team is to connect any new behaviours you agree as a team to habits you are already doing. A team we were working with recently would turn up to planning without having read about the items that were going to be discussed. As a result, we set up a diary event 30 minutes before the meeting started to block out time so each member could read the list of items to be discussed.


Rewards: celebrate success


In a 1954 study,  psychologist James Olds and neuroscientist Peter Milner developed an experiment where rats were able to trigger a dopamine release in their own brain and would do so over life sustaining habits like eating and drinking. Dopamine is released when we engage in pleasurable activities. The key to successfully forming a new habit is to get that dopamine high  when you’ve completed a habit successfully.


To help teams form habits, think of what rewards could help the team members feel a rush of dopamine. Celebrating success, giving gratitude, and even buying treats like a free lunch or thoughtful gifts can help reinforce positive behaviour. The closer to the habit the better the feedback loop - and, ultimately, the more likely it is to form. We’ve helped a team by allowing an extra treat snack after every story that meets the Definition of Ready being added to the sprint backlog on the first few planning sessions. Another idea is to always celebrate at the end of a meeting those moments of success. If you act as a model for this sort of behaviour you’ll begin to see your colleagues do the same.



Read next: The secret to building great stuff? Talk little but often.


Minimise resistance: create the right environment and make things easy 

Another book that deserves your attention: “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. (Here’s a video in which Pressfield explains the key ideas.) In it, Pressfield wants to let us into a secret about writing: “It’s not the writing part that’s hard,” he says. “What’s hard is sitting down to write. What’s keeping us from sitting down is resistance


While it can sometimes be easy to start a new habit, sticking with it through thick and thin is where we often come unstuck. The strategy here is to make it as easy as possible to complete your task. Don’t give yourself the chance to ignore it today. 


For example, if the habit your agile team is trying to build is to assess your Definition of Ready before you commit to a piece of work, make it as easy as possible to do. One approach might be to embed the checklist into your backlog items; this would mean you don’t need to go anywhere else to check it.


Be consistent


According to a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes people 66 days of consistency to embed a habit change. (Although it should be noted that this can, in reality, range from 18 days to 254). Despite that, most of us expect to see progress and results much faster. That’s one of the reasons why we give it up if we don’t see a difference quickly. However, taking small steps every single day builds up over the course of a year to be something much larger - just like compounding interest. Consistency is an essential part of your strategy. “You need to pick a task that is meaningful enough to make a difference, but simple enough that you can get it done, simple enough to be sustainable. James Clear says. “All we need is dedication to small, manageable tasks. Mastery follows consistency.” 


So, if you’re staring at the actions your team committed to implementing in last sprint retro and you’re wondering why they haven’t yet solved your problems, perhaps it’s because it’s too soon to know. Keep going with it. You might not see the results of your efforts in 1 sprints’ time so add a reminder to your team calendar to review progress after 2 sprints, and again after 5 sprints.



Read next: KPIs and metrics: 8 ways to stop measuring the things that don’t matter


Visualise progress

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld explained a useful habit forming technique to Brad Isaac: Create a visual. Seinfeld had a huge calendar on a prominent wall and marked a big red cross every day he sat down to write. After days and weeks, it’s motivating to see evidence of your consistency. Your only mission then is to simply make sure you don’t break the chain. 


“It works because it isn't the one-shot pushes that get us where we want to go, it is the consistent daily action that builds extraordinary outcomes,” Seinfeld said. “You may have heard ‘inch by inch anything's a cinch.’ Inch by inch does work if you can move an inch every day.” 


There three reasons this works: 


  1. The power of visualisation - visualising information increases your awareness, which increases your accountability and the likelihood of you acting on that information
  2. Breaking down a big idea and a big commitment into really small steps makes it less daunting and feel more achievable
  3. Because small steps every single day build up over a year to be something much much larger.


In an Agile setting, a really good visual tool is a ‘Sprint Burndown’. Here you are able to see items being delivered every day, rather than waiting until the final days of the sprint to push items over the line. Bring the visual up in the Daily Scrum. Ask which items are going to help the team move the item to done earliest. Ask what needs to be done to get just one item over the line today. 


Over time, the team will learn to break the items in the backlog into things that can be small enough to be delivered in a day. They’ll become better acquainted with all the things necessary to move items to a completed state - it will, in short, become habitual.


Create ‘Habit contracts’ to hold yourself accountable


As Daniel Goldstein shows in a TED Talk, Odysseus tying himself to the mast underlines a point that has endured beyond the Classical era: that commitment contracts are the best way of ensuring a habit is acted on. Okay, maybe this is somewhat facetious - but research shows that having a commitment referee doubles your chance of success. If you want to really go all out, putting a cost at stake if you break the commitment tripes your chances.


You might have seen this work in office environments where a swear jar helps maintains professionalism, but in Agile teams it is also important that the team hold each other to account on the sprint. The Scrum Master is key to the team’s habit contracts. They should ensure the team agrees to the ways they should behave by helping them draw up a team charter and acting as a referee when the team agrees to the sprint goal. 

So, are you ready?


Now that we've learnt about the psychological techniques we can use to instil great habits, we can return to the question: should the team commit to the ambitious sprint? 


Perhaps the team should rephrase the question. Are the team willing to put in £10 each as a bet that they will successfully deliver the sprint and deliver on their retro actions? Let us know if you want us to referee your agile teams and help your staff create healthy habits that will help them succeed.


Adam Hall and Kelly Cook are Agile Coaches at AND Digital.



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