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Change management in software development: try Atomic Habits
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Change management in software development: try “Atomic Habits”

Establishing new habits and inducing change can prove arduous, whether within my professional teams or in my personal development. Caught up in the whirlwind of my daily routine, my efforts to adopt new working methods or achieve my personal growth goals can easily get lost. I've realized how difficult it is to improve daily in the workplace. Staying in the comfort of what you've mastered is much more intuitive.

I realized that to adopt a continuous growth and improvement pattern, I needed a system that would make this transition easy and attractive. The book Atomic Habits got me thinking about how to implement gradual change in my life, personally and professionally. I'd like to share with you the perspective I gained from this reading about my career in software development. 

Atomic Habits by James Clear to improve software development

The importance of identity in change management

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear suggests that habit change is not just a question of routines but also identity. He suggests that successful change depends not on an individual's willpower but on adopting a new self-perception. And therefore, if we want to achieve significant change, we must start by changing our perception of ourselves. Most people try to bring about change by focusing on achieving a goal. The alternative is to form an idea of the person we want to be and use this vision as an intrinsic motivation.

For example, one of my career goals is to communicate my ideas clearly and concisely. However, I've never considered myself a gifted teacher or a good communicator. To develop and strengthen this new identity, I started by acting in line with what I wanted to become by taking small actions, such as writing this article. By taking initiatives that strengthen and build my identity, I create a positive feedback loop on this vision of myself and make incorporating habits in this direction more natural.

Every time you train, you're a sportsperson. 

Every time you encourage your colleagues, you're a leader.

I'd like to share a quote from James Clear, which I liked and which sums up the idea:

« The more pride you have in a particular aspect of your identity, the more motivated you will be to maintain the habits associated with it ».

Set up systems to create new habits

While self-perception is important, Clear argues that we need a winning and attractive system to make progress toward our goals. A "system" refers to the processes and routines we implement to support our habits and achieve our goals and the environment in which we find ourselves.

« We don’t rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our system. »

I'd like to briefly introduce you to the four laws of habit change, which the author of Atomic Habits has brought to you.

  • Make it obvious
  • Make it attractive
  • Make it easy
  • Make it satisfying

Make it obvious

If you want to integrate a habit into your life, you must make it obvious and easy to remember. You want to create intentional "cues" that remind the brain of the habit you're trying to establish. Setting a specific time and place helps us stick to it. Or leave the book you want to read on your pillow. James Clear mentions trying to sandwich the new habit between others already established to create a chain of naturally occurring habits.

For example, I needed to work on rigorously setting aside time to write this article. To help me, I decided to work on my article when I arrived at work for 30 minutes immediately after making my coffee. By repeating these actions one after the other, the two habits (drinking my coffee in the morning and writing) became associated. I no longer needed to think about them and do them actively. 

Make it attractive 

The idea is simple: the more attractive an action is, the easier it is to get moving to do it. James Clear puts forward the concept of the "dopamine-driven feedback loop". He suggests associating the new habit with something you already enjoy doing, a tactic he calls "habit stacking".

For example, I like to listen to music while I work and sit on the sofas at my office. I associate my time working on my article with when I can listen to music and relax on the sofas. 

Make it easy

Every action requires a certain amount of energy: it's the law of nature. Reducing the effort needed for an action makes it more accessible and, therefore, more attractive. Atomic Habits recommends minimizing the obstacles that may prevent you from making it a habit.

He also recommends the "two-minute" method for starting a new habit. The idea is to reduce the new habit to a task you can accomplish in two minutes or less. Once the habit is established, you can gradually extend it.

Take, for example, a routine at Nexapp that I love: Learning Hours. Every week, we take an hour to learn about various topics. What helps people participate is that no preparation is required. So there's no extra effort involved other than attending the meeting.

Make it satisfying

The idea is that we naturally tend to repeat behaviours that give us immediate satisfaction and avoid unsatisfying habits. Adopting and maintaining a habit must be rewarding and aligned with the person you want to become. For example, running and rewarding yourself with ice cream is not aligned with your long-term vision. On the other hand, going for a run and rewarding yourself with a hot bath afterwards is.

Also, sharing our progress with a group with a common goal can create a sense of community and satisfaction. Measuring our progress and making it visible are ways of feeling satisfied and encouraging us to achieve our habits.

What's the link with software development?

We've explored how to make change more accessible and more sustainable. The above concepts also apply to our work and the software solutions we implement. We can use these principles to help us create code that is easy to change and can evolve and build teams that continuously improve. Here's a small example to illustrate the point:

Goal | Get feedback quickly to deliver the right software solution.

Habits | Make small pull requests.

Systems

Make it obvious | Separate user stories into small vertical slices (see SPIDR method, for example) before starting development.

Make it attractive | Taking on smaller tasks means you're not stuck too long on something you don't like. This allows you to intersperse a task you enjoy between tasks you're less keen on. Also, smaller tasks make code reviews quicker and more enjoyable for everyone and allow you to get feedback quickly.

Make it easy | Take the time to make the automatic continuous deployment process easy and efficient so that no effort is required to add changes.  

Make it satisfying | Make our progress visible and celebrate our successes regularly with the team. 

Having the discipline to implement and sustain change is not easy for most of us, let alone for work teams. We can use these principles to help teams embrace change by focusing our efforts on building a strong group identity that encourages habits and actions. The emphasis should be on creating processes and structures that promote the desired behaviours.

 

References

Clear, James. 2018. Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. New York, New York, Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

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