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Habit-hood of Processes

The conundrum that project managers have faced for time immemorial is how to bridge the planning-execution gap concerning the project process.

Various frameworks as ITIL, COBIT, PMP define what a process is and what processes can be implemented through the various stages of a project, but no framework defines how to implement these processes or helps to answer a more pressing practical question of how to influence & steer the team to adhere to these processes. Often such tact is left to the project manager’s discretion.

In my pleasant experience (pun intended!) as a project manager across various projects, I realized I’m engrossed more often than not herding the team into adhering to the processes. A Developer sometimes wants to develop the code without consulting advice from architect & testing teams or wants to explore and test new code without iterations being recorded or documented. Similarly, the testing team likes to work in silos completely apathetic to the business value of the code or solution in testing. Most of the team members are consistently not able to adhere to the best practices of development, testing, and reviews. The architects, team leads and PM’s often land up picking the pieces of this chaos to stitch together the flawless product/ solution that the customer is expecting. Mind you, at this point, there are already clearly called out processes and best practices in place for team members to follow.

This got me thinking only if there was a better way to entrench these processes into the team members like….like Habits! I started enumerating in my mind, WHY such manipulation of human character can be beneficial. I could come up with the below list:

  • The project that follows a process like habits will require less monitoring effort. The generic processes defined during project initiation and planning phase along with team generally formulate the what-to-do guide for various execution scenarios and these processes imbibed as habits can help the project team become less person dependent (process consultant, project manager) and more process dependent.
  • In a relatively larger or long-duration project, it is can be difficult to keep track if the team is implementing required technical discussions, brainstorming & review sessions to vet any significant change with all stakeholders within the project. It is a very important but rather time-consuming step that can sometimes be conveniently ignored by team members. Processes forged as habits can help provide placeholders for such activities.

With such strong benefits in mind, I then had to figure out HOW to influence the status-quo and build desired habits. I recollected my experiences with various team members across teams and organized my thoughts into 4 generalized steps that can help Project Managers to influence the team to better adopt the processes. Below steps have helped me better manage my projects –  

#1 Identify and leverage personal habits traits in team members

It can sometimes be difficult for PM’s to tend after every internal team meetings or review discussion, and hence they delegate responsibilities and ownerships. A more beneficial style of delegation can be leveraging the existing personal habit traits while identifying process owners.

Tech-savvy team members can be the best fit for conducting, driving technical forum sessions and associated processes. A fastidious team member can share the workload for peer reviews. This will inculcate a feeling of responsibility and authority within the team members. While leveraging these habit traits of team members, validate closely the quality of the work generated by the process owners, guide and mentor the process owners for better results, for these cogwheels once set in motion can yield long-lasting beneficial impact in larger and long duration projects.

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#2 Change existing habits using the Habit Loop 

Charles Duhigg in his book, Power of Habit elucidates the simple concept of the Habit loop.

A simple neurological loop at the core of every habit, a loop that consists of three parts: A cue, a routine, and a reward. 

PM Oct14

Not all, but few teams or team members can have an existing habit loop with respect to work habits and it can be helpful to change habits as per convenience retaining the same cue and reward. For example, customer presentations/demos may increase anxiety in otherwise confident and knowledgeable team members. The cue in such a case is customer meeting, the routine is the involuntary anxiousness and reward(result) is botched up presentation/meetings. In such a case team member can be coached to consciously change the routine while retaining the same cue and reward as far as possible, for instance, prepare ready notes of discussion points, and prepare for the demo with peers. Similarly, punctuality within team members can be a challenge. The reminder or start time of a meeting can be a cue for team members to follow the last minute preparation routine for the meeting followed by delay to arrive on time for the meeting leading to reward(result) of delayed, dragged and unorganized meetings. In such a case, the routine can be carefully coaxed to be changed. I know of a colleague Project Manager, who after being frustrated to deal with delayed everyday meetings introduced the concept of sponsored tea and snacks by anyone who is late to meeting beyond 2 mins uninformed. The interesting concept had perks of sponsored tea & snacks for everyone to agree but the risk of committing to discipline as well. While this routine and habit took some time to be accepted religiously, it has by far been the best informal routine developed in my workplace to inculcate discipline and is celebrated equally with fervour by both Project Manager and the team members.

#3 Create new cues

Now that we are familiar with the Habit Loop and how it can be changed, it looks like a viable idea to generate one’s own cues for the team members. The cue should be such that it involuntarily guides the brain to perform a particular habit. Although, it would take some time and discipline for the cue to be registered as a habit instigator.

I moulded existing best practices and processes into a simple 10 step process along with all team members for evaluating, developing and deploying any new requirement with respect to a particular project. I started calling out the cue of 10 step process to register in the mind of team members and few weeks it stuck. After that, everyone in the team knew to follow 10 step process before calling a task completed. Similarly, agile framework guides to have 15 min daily meeting and agenda limited to answering 3 simple questions from each team member: What I did yesterday? What do I plan to do today? and what are the dependencies/ roadblocks?. With a little discipline, 3 question model can be an important cue for agile team meetings to plan their daily work.

#4 Recognize and reward new habits

Recognition certainly instils enthusiasm, high productivity and strengthens the team bonding. Most PM’s do recognize the good and diligent work done by team members and teams as a whole, but it can be even more beneficial for PM’s to recognize and reward new habits, small milestones, and personal work achievements.

Evaluating psychologically, we identified personal habit traits, created and mended existing habits loops in team members and if they come through and you further appreciate and reward this effort, this would set up a runway for habits to soar high and guide work ethics.

Recognition and appreciation of a team member can set a new standard of excellence for others to imbibe from. Personalized appreciation notes for exact action, behaviour or overcoming a personal work habit can guide team members for future success as well, as they would better understand their own qualities and shortcomings.

I have in my experience found these simple habit hooded processes easier to preach and follow. Such small changes in behaviour might seem minor and time-consuming to bridge the planning execution gap, but small changes can add up to guide impactful positive changes that can reap long term benefits in the workplace.

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