In 2012, I decided to take ownership of my health. I subscribed to a fitness program at Centre EPIC in Montreal. In 2 years, I lost 88 lbs (40 kg). The centre’s program helped a lot, and I literally had to walk some extra miles to get to this result.
At that time, I was the manager of a front-end development team working in an Agile environment. It is years later only, while explaining my adventure into fitness to some of my peers, that I understood there were similarities between Agile and my weight loss. I was able to conclude there are at least 6 parallels between Agile and the way I was able to accomplish this personal achievement.
1. The mindset is paramount
In Agile as in weight loss, everything depends on having the right mindset. Of course, you’ll find some processes, but in both cases they are useless if one doesn’t find the right mindset.
The mindset in weight loss
At the start of the program, we were 18 members. At the end, we were 8. It means that 10 people were not really ready to change their lifestyle to be in better health and shape. Only those who had the right growth mindset (as opposed to a fixed mindset) completed the 9 month program.
Those who left the program, after putting in so many efforts, paid a lot of money to go back to their old habits without getting any of the benefits that were within their reach. If the required physical efforts are difficult, sometimes the required mental efforts are much more of a pain.
The mindset in Agile
Very often, organizations “do” Agile without going through the pain of changing their old cultural habits which are well entrenched and hard to break. Those are traditionally the organizations that will state that “Agile doesn’t work”, and quickly go back to a lifestyle in which they were comfortable. Agile doesn’t work, really? Or weren’t you ready to change in order to succeed? Because Agile, by definition, is the capacity to adapt according to needs that are in perpetual change.
It is now a consensus that applying Agile processes without making radical changes in the organization’s culture brings none of the benefits of Agile, but will create a level of cynicism as developers will observe that “even when it changes, nothing really changes”.
2. Motivation is essential, but discipline will make the difference
Everywhere I go, I put a maximum of efforts to understand the intrinsic motivations of my peers. Intrinsic motivation, which is a combination of mastery, autonomy and purpose, is essential for me if I want to to be fulfilled in my work. It was the same when it came to weight loss.
Motivation can spectacularly kick-start any professional or individual ambition. It is motivation that’s responsible for me being so active on LinkedIn when it comes to the Agile mindset and organizational culture. However, it only became possible because I set a proper routine for myself.
Motivation and discipline in weight loss
A friend of mine told me this a few times : “Olivier, I see what you’re doing and it’s a big motivator! I will also lose weight, just like you!”
After hearing it for the third time in a few days, I told him “Dude, stop being motivated and do it already!”. To this day, he has lost 100 lbs (45 kg).
Motivation is essential, just like the foot that pushes the accelerator pedal. It gives the initial push. However, just like driving, routine and discipline will keep you going forward, just like you need to apply the right pressure on the pedal, for a long time. I soon figured that if I didn’t have recurring and precise time slots to workout, I would end up with excuses not to do so. My solution was to simply create 4 immutable time slots entirely dedicated to working out. No need to ask myself anything, or wonder if I should go or not: i’m going on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. End of the line. As soon as I’d meddle with the routine, I had to work again on my motivation, so I tried not to.
Motivation and discipline in Agile
In some Agile frameworks such a Scrum, discipline in ceremonies are help making it a success. That’s why we call them “rituals” sometimes, by the way. The stand-up happens daily, same place, same time, whether everyone is there or not. This routine greatly helps removing ambiguities, as we don’t have to ask “At what time is it today? Where is it today? Who’s coming?”.
It is even better if planning session, reviews and retrospectives can be set upfront, at recurring days and times. The less the team has to wonder about time and location, the more it will be engaged in ceremonies, which will become a reflex.
3. People over processes
The first value of the Agile manifesto, and also the one I prefer. As softwares are developed by people, we have to (and some find this quite unfortunate) consider people first, and processes second. It goes the same way for weight loss.
People and processes in weight loss
I was invited to give lectures twice after my weight loss. My audience was composed of new participants who just subscribed to the same fitness program, since those conferences are part of the package deal.
I had to tell them the unfortunate news: there is no miracle approach to losing weight. You got to eat more healthy, and be physically active. You can’t go around that. However, there is no magic formula that applies to everyone (even Canada’s Food Guide isn’t a “one size fits all” solution). People are different, and have different needs. You got to work with experts, try things, keep what works and improve on what doesn’t for an efficient and long term weight loss.
People and processes in Agile
It is exactly the same. Some companies try to sell efficient processes. It must be hard, as there’s going to be people using these processes. What works for a team might not work for the team next door.
So, since I’m a little lazy, I could almost copy the paragraph I used in the previous section :
There is no magic formula that applies to everyone. People are different, and have different needs. You got to work with experts, try things, keep what works and improve on what doesn’t for an efficient and long term product development.
4. Taking action items in order to improve
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein
“You can’t dig a different hole by digging the same one deeper.” – Edward De Bono
Taking action items in weight loss
In my life, I tend to use what works for best for me. If I like a certain sports routine which makes a difference, I’ll stick to it. Sometimes, I might slightly depart from it for a change, but I’ll go back to it. However, if it’s obvious that my routine has no effect or impact, I’ll change it.
A time comes in weight loss when you reach a plateau. Your body tells you “Oh no, I’m losing so much weight, I must be in danger. I’m going to stop burning those calories and keep them, just in case”. A good way to break this plateau is by trolling your body, by eating differently and trying different physical activities. To this end, one must inspect oneself regularly to find ways to break straight lines and stability.
In short : quick, regular changes, and a way to measure the impact of those changes. If it works, continue. If it doesn’t, just stop.
Taking action items in Agile
If you ask me, retrospectives are the Agile ceremony that bring the most value. A time period reserved to inspect each other as a team, and contemplate what works for us and what doesn’t, so we can take concrete action items in order to improve. Continuous improvement. Isn’t that great?
There are plenty of metrics we can look at to know if the team stagnates or experiences problems, and identify potential sources of improvement. Failure to leveraging retrospective is the biggest mistake an Agile team could make. Otherwise, why bother trying to be agile?
5. First and foremost, measure impact
Numbers. Who doesn’t like the numbers that allow us to measure progress and see the results for which we’ve put so many efforts?
Measuring impact in weight loss
When I started my transformation, I was measuring everything: activity length, calories burned, weight, BMI (Body Mass Index), etc. All these metrics had a lot of value to me. However, none of them were really tangible. Even the weight that I lost wasn’t tangible. It’s a number. I couldn’t correlate it with the impact on my body.
I understood the impact on my body the first time I was able to wear my belt by using a different hole than before. And when I started wearing t-shirts that were one, two and three sizes smaller.
All other metrics were useful to measure… whatever measurable think that didn’t mean much. There wasn’t necessarily a causal link. At best, I could see some pattern emerge and try something new. But the impact on my body was the only measure that had real value to me. This is how all the efforts invested were taking anchor in reality.
Measuring impact in Agile
If there’s one thing one learns to do when becoming a Scrum Master is to gather metrics. Velocity, happiness index, burndown chart, team maturity, you name it.
Teams, Scrum Master, management, everyone seem to love measuring all that can be measured, because it gives us the impression that we’re in control. A lot of metrics are used to identify emerging patterns and generate discussions and opportunities for improvement.
However, in reality, many metrics bring little value to most people. Velocity, for instance, can be used by teams to measure stability in delivery, and make projections. It doesn’t say anything about the impact on the client, or about the real value that needs to be measured to have a satisfied client.
Taking only weight in account when in a fitness program is a mistake. Comparing your weight to someone else’s makes no sense. A person who weighs 220 lbs (100 kg) might be in much better shape than someone weighing 180 lbs (80 kg). It goes the same way with velocity. If it’s the only thing measured, it makes no sense by itself, and comparing teams by their respective velocities hints to an important lack of vision, and that the organization is focusing on the wrong objective.
6. Sustainable pace
Wanting to do too many things at once, biting more than one can chew, working hard at all costs. The negative and adverse effects of this approach are well known, and they apply in both context of fitness and Agile.
Sustainable pace in weight loss
It’s a well known fact that a fast and drastic weight loss (unless it comes from surgery) can cause create a situation where the weight will be regained just as quickly, if one doesn’t keep the lifestyle that encouraged the loss. Extreme diets along with intense physical efforts will definitely help you lose weight, but if ever you stop, the body will get out of its emergency state and will go “I’ll accumulate all the calories in case it happens again”.
In the long run, the human body needs its calories as much as it needs rest. Trying too hard is not only unhealthy, it’s also dangerous. The important is to keep a sustainable pace, and doing sports at a constant frequency that can adapt to our changing lifestyle. Healthy eating without necessarily doing without every food we love. A loss of 2 lbs (a little less than 1 kg) per week is ideal, a big maximum.
Sustainable pace in Agile
For the exact same reasons than above, wanting to do too much hurts in the long term. A team that commits to too much work in a Scrum iteration, for exemple, probably won’t be able to deliver everything without doing overtime. If this happens, not only does it create a precedent, but it makes metrics lie, and will increase expectations towards the team’s productivity. If it keeps going for too long, the team will end up exhausted.
A good team must keep the necessary focus on maintaining a sustainable pace so to stay out of a permanent state of emergency.
Owner of Primos Populi, partner and coach at Moabi. As a former manager, I prefer to use a “people first, the rest will follow” kind of approach. My favorite topics are organizational culture, safe work environments, and lowering the center of gravity of the decision making process. I cultivate people’s awesomeness.