It’s that time of year again, when many of us resolve to start exercising (again), stop smoking (again), lose some weight (again), or get back in touch with people we have lost contact with (again). Give most of us a week, and we’ll return to our old ways.
I learned long ago that New Year’s resolutions are difficult to keep for more than a few days, and I’ve successfully resolved to stop trying to fool myself once a year. Indeed, these annual resolutions are handled by many people in the same manner as typical process improvement initiatives in software companies.
We know intellectually that many of the things we do are not in our best interest. It is not difficult to understand why those excess pounds are a risk, just as it is not difficult to recognize that all the time spent redoing things we thought we had completed can wreak havoc on our schedules. Rationally, it is pretty clear-cut. Emotionally, though, it is another thing altogether. It can be tough to resist diving in for one more chocolate, how many calories can something that small really be? Similarly, why do I need to write down what my completion criteria might be for this activity? It’s pretty clear to me, and I’m sure I can speak to the needs of others on the team.
We gain weight one chocolate at a time, we slip schedule one failed expectation at a time. Our resolution to simply fix things without addressing the emotional response that gets us into trouble is bound to fail.
A quick surf provides all sorts of statistics that New Year’s resolutions fail just as often as process improvement initiatives do. Not surprisingly, statistics provided by personal coaches or process consultants are far more alarming. Even without the statistics, we all recognize the folly of most of our attempts.
What to do? There are a number of very important mechanisms that we need to build into our resolutions or improvement initiatives to help make them stick:
- Be as clear and explicit as possible about the current costs of your behaviors. It is one thing to know that current behaviors are counter-productive, it is an entirely different thing to understand how these behaviors are costing us, both at the present time, and in the long-run. What we need to do is build a sense of urgency, either through monetizing our behaviors, or exposing our long-term costs, or both. Costs can also include our comfort and sustainability, our credibility and ability to deliver on expectations. The more costs the better, and be as explicit and detailed as possible. Break the complacency with a compelling argument for change.
- Visualize what a different future will look like. Just as we made it clear what our current behaviors are costing us, we need to be clear what the benefit to us will be for change. In doing so, it is useful to think of the resolution or initiative as a project, and define specific, quantified success criteria. Make them achievable, build them to align with your vision of a better future, and make them clearly distinct from the status quo. It has to be worth the effort to get there.
- Pick minimal changes with the greatest impact. We have a nasty habit of biting off more than we can chew, and often it is a very few selected changes that can have phenomenal effect. In selecting our changes appropriately, we reduce the disruption to our current behaviors, which in turn reduces the pressure for us to all back into our old habits. We get an easier time in sustaining our changes.
- Understand how you will make the changes work in detail. Go beyond merely stating the goal, break down the changes to the point where you have a clear understanding of exactly what needs to be done. The detailed steps need to be clearly practical, there can’t be any ‘and then a miracle happens’ stage somewhere along the way. The changes you make need to be carefully fostered through to the point where they become your new ingrained habits, replacing the habits that got you to the point where you decided a change was needed. These new habits need to be able to survive the pressures to fall back into our old comfortable (and dysfunctional) ways.
- Use measurements to confirm progress and success. Assuming you did a good job at creating a sense of urgency, you will have some good benchmarks to compare to: your original weight or cholesterol level, the amount of time spent in rework, the number of shipped defects, for example. Continue to lean on measurement to track progress towards your quantified goals, and be sure to keep everyone aware of your progress.
- Celebrate your success, sustain your results. When you have achieved your goals, be certain to celebrate, but not by falling back into your old habits. Don’t celebrate with a big slice of chocolate cake or suggesting that we can relax and get back into code-and-fix, if these were the things you worked so hard to replace. After the celebration, work to sustain the success over time – continue to set new goals, and reinforce the behaviors that got you to this envisioned positive future. Success is often fleeting, and we need to build into our behaviors a mechanism to keep tabs on what we are doing in an ongoing basis. Every New Year’s Eve or project retrospective is simply not frequent enough.
Changing our behaviors is not a one-shot deal. If we make sure we address these mechanisms, we will have a better chance at success. We need to think of this as an ongoing program of refinement, backed by a philosophy of continuous focus on quality. To see it as a once-in-a-while initiative is short-sighted, our bingeing can cause more harm than good.
No chocolates were harmed in the writing of this article. – JB