How a culture of “Atomic Habits” can nurture an Agile mindset

As human beings, we always look for mental connections to tie together our knowledge clusters and try to make sense out of it. We want to look at the wider horizon of what we study and learn, and try to apply it to our day-to-day. At least, this is what I like to do.

Often, I try to find connections between social sciences and Agile

If you think about it, Agile isn’t just focusing only on software improvements and development lifecycles, it’s all about people and how they welcome change.

For a while, I wanted to read the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, where he provides an easy methodology to break bad habits and develop good ones.

I found the topic very interesting for self-improvement practices but I was also wondering if it could help me with my day-to-day job as well.

Finding ways to improve or implement good habits has definitely a huge impact both on personal and work life.

Especially in a work environment where there is an ongoing Agile Transformation, the implementation of small steps (good habits) to break bad habits and reach the “final” goal (business agility) can lead to a cycle of continuous improvement.

The relationship that I see between “Atomic Habits” and Business agility can be explained through the following concepts.

A system of good habits = A system of continuous improvement

Usually, when we want to change something in our life, we set goals. According to James, achieving a goal is only a momentary change”. 

An obvious example could be a messy room. One day, you decide to clean and organize it the best that you can. This is just momentary change, but if you maintain the habit of not being organized in the first place, you will end up in the same situation again and again. Why?

Because “you never changed the system behind it. You treated a symptom without addressing the cause”, as James says. 

If you want to improve, you can’t just cut the corners, you will need to change the entire system that led to those outcomes

And in Agile, the system is looking at continuous improvement, inspection, and adaptation every time a problem arises. 

Agile forces you to look in the mirror and see what are the malfunctions your business is experiencing, and finally find ways to fix the root cause. It’s the system-process that counts, not the “end-goals”.

Only by implementing an uninterrupted loop of continuous improvement and looking constantly at the mirror you can really change things and reach “business agility”. 

In summary, “atomic habits are part of a larger system”. 

Repetitive good habits are like “building blocks”, one after the other, they create better systems to achieve better results.

Good habits have roots and need to be cultivated, the same applies to Agile

Start small and be patient! This is what every Agile coach would suggest if you are just about to start an Agile transformation

This is the feedback loop behind all human behavior: try, fail, learn, try differently”, James says.

By trying different routes, failing, learning, we develop good habits as well as improvements, whether they are small or big, it doesn’t matter… What matters is that they need to be cultivated day after day. Only by cultivating them, they can make us break through the other side and unleash our potential as people or companies. 

If a company doesn’t have the will to cultivate “agility” like a delicate flower, the flower will slowly die.

Habits create freedom, similarly Agile makes space for creativity

I know that most people find routines and habits boring. Sometimes I think that too.

People who have good habits save a lot of time. This is not making them less free. On the contrary, if you set automatic habits and make things less complex than what they actually are, you’ll have free mental space for many more interesting things.

As an example, James points out personal finances: “Without good financial habits, you will always be struggling for the next dollar”.

This is so mind-blowing! Ok, let’s not be carried away and come back to the connection with Agile here…

Isn’t Agile creating a set of automatic good habits that free up capacity and space for creativity?

Let’s take the example of the daily scrum, the repetitiveness reduces the complexity, and so on for all the other ceremonies who have a very specific focus and allow the team to not waste time and effort.

Habit stacking — the plan to reprogram yourself or your business

James dedicated a chapter of the book to the Diderot effect

Diderot was quite poor, he was gifted with a luxurious scarlet robe and all of a sudden all of his possessions seemed out of place and he felt the urge to redecorate everything. One purchase led to another and another one…

Does this sound familiar to you?

No behavior happens in isolation. Each action becomes a cue that triggers the next behavior”, James points out.

And this is entirely true, in real life and at work.

Why is this relevant? Because through existing habits we can build upon new ones. This methodology is called by James “Habit stacking”. It’s a pairing exercise and it has its own formula:

Extract from Atomic Habits by James Clear

Example: “Meditation. After I pour my cup of coffee each morning, I will meditate for one minute.”

Basically we are tying together an old habit with a new good one. Once you do the first connection, you can go ahead and “create larger stacks by chaining small habits together.”

This is what the chain looks like:

Extract from Atomic Habits by James Clear

And the secret lies here: analyze what you know and make small improvements to your routine. You’ll see that, little by little, the impact you make will be significant.

This is what Agile does. It’s not a system of revolutionary change, but it’s a slow and steady evolution.

If you just compare yesterday’s snapshot to today’s one, you might notice almost no difference, but after a while, if you look at the beginning of your journey, you’ll see a positive and huge contrast, and that you or your company are not the same anymore.

I hope that you liked the comparison between Agile and “Atomic Habits”. 

If changing old habits at work or in your personal life has crossed your mind multiple times, will you be willing to implement a system of atomic habits?

2 thoughts on “How a culture of “Atomic Habits” can nurture an Agile mindset

  1. This is sooo true “A system of good habits = A system of continuous improvement”

    Liked by 1 person

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