Cut old habits to maintain momentum and urgency

Healthy habits are critical for all successful product development teams. Much of the content you’ll read from product pundits (like yours truly) covers the variety of (sometimes contradictory) habits we think you should adopt. I think the importance of breaking (and avoiding new) bad habits is under appreciated. This effort is much more important than forming healthy habits because, without the bad getting in the way, you can make the rest up with common sense and a dedication to self-improvement. I believe that, while adopting good routines and practices is valuable, high-performing teams succeed because they successfully avoid settling into a rhythm, always making decisions with intentionality rather than delegating to autopilot.

First, let’s establish why habits can be positive: by adopting a routine, you are standardising how you deal with a problem. This can be a great way to break down something big or to simplify the decision-making required to get something done.

For example:

A recurring theme in the examples above is that when something becomes a habit, it becomes almost automatic. Completing tasks within a routine comes with much less cognitive load than completing a job outside of a routine. This is great when you just need to get something done without overthinking whether you should do it or how you should do it. Unfortunately, the most critical decisions faced by product and engineering leaders are whether you should do something and how you should do it. This is where turning everything into a business-as-usual, standardised, nothing-to-see-here routine starts to work against you.

In the world of building software, there are a lot of decisions that you never want to make while cruising on autopilot. This is where routines can become the enemy because teams make fewer decisions with intentionality by relying too much on established habits. In scrum, for example, teams tend to do great with sprint goals for the first few iterations. When planning their work for the next two weeks, they set a clear goal and only take on work that contributes to it. The problem is, after a few sprints and as the backlog grows, sprint planning becomes too ritualised, and many teams fall into the habit of making decisions about what to work on next based purely on what is at the top of their backlog that can fit into two weeks. Sprint goals are now drafted as summaries of what made it into the sprint, rather than the contents of the sprint being based on the predefined goal. What was a productive ritual (sprint planning) has turned into an unproductive one: this team is no longer goal orientated and is unlikely to achieve great outcomes.

Here’s the rub: every productive habit is at risk of eventually becoming unproductive. This is why teams should entirely avoid the autopilot problem through a radical dedication to intentional decision-making and an allergic resistance to unnecessary (or no longer necessary) processes. Retrospectives are the best preventative for bad habits, but not all retrospectives are created equal. To succeed, someone who is truly dedicated to having frank conversations about how things are going must facilitate them. Self-accountability is the best form of accountability for a team; anything the team can change or can have changed for them should be discussed. This is where teams should scrutinise their rituals and identify bad habits they are falling into.

Here are some more tips for avoiding the autopilot problem:

1 August, 2022

Subscribe for updates

Subscribe for weekly advice covering product strategy, development operations, building teams and more.

Privacy and terms

I care about privacy as much as you do. I will only use your email address to send you this newsletter or to reach out to you directly, and you can unsubscribe at any time. I will not share, sell, or rent your email address to any third party, though I do store it the software I use to dispatch emails.

The information provided on this blog is for informational purposes only and should not be considered investment advice. The content on this blog is not a substitute for professional financial advice. The views and opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other organizations. The author makes no representations as to the accuracy, completeness, currentness, suitability, or validity of any information on this blog and will not be liable for any errors, omissions, or delays in this information or any losses, injuries, or damages arising from its use. The author may hold positions in the companies or products discussed on this blog. Always conduct your own research and consult a financial advisor before making any investment decisions.