In 1989, Stephen Covey published the book – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. At the time, the book took the business world by storm mostly because it scaled beyond the individual, to the team and the organization.

I was teaching an agile workshop the other day and I used the phrase “Sharpen the Saw” as an example of continuous learning and continuous improvement. I caught myself and I asked the class who had heard of The 7 Habits and this notion of sharpening the saw. Only about a third of the class raised their hands.

Then it hit me that The 7 Habits has a generational nature to it. In my boomer generation it was nearly a universally known model. But now 25 years have passed since it’s publication and many of today’s team members and leaders haven’t been exposed to the thinking framework or model.

That’s the first intent of this post, to (re) expose you to The 7 Habits. The second part of the post is to “map” the habits towards agile teams. I personally think there’s great synergy (pun-intended) between The 7 Habits and the agile methods. But that mapping and the value of it are up to you to determine.

I’m simply pointing you in that direction…

To set a baseline, here are The 7 Habits with brief explanations drawn from the Wikipedia article:

1.     Be Proactive

Talks about the concept of Circle of Influence and Circle of Concern. Work from the center of your influence and constantly work to expanding it. Don't sit and wait in a reactive mode, waiting for problems to happen (Circle of Concern) before taking action.

2.     **Begin with the End in Mind

Envision what you want in the future so you can work and plan towards it.

3.     **Put First Things First

Talks about the difference between Leadership and Management. Leadership in the outside world begins with personal vision and personal leadership. Talks about what is important and what is urgent. Priority should be given in the following order:

  1. Important and Urgent
  2. Important and Not-Urgent
  3. Not Important and Urgent
  4. Not important and Not-Urgent

4.     Think Win-Win

Genuine feelings for mutually beneficial solutions or agreements in your relationships. Value and respect people by understanding a "win" for all is ultimately a better long-term resolution than if only one person in the situation had gotten his way.

5.     Seek First to Understand, then to Be Understood

Use empathic listening to be genuinely influenced by a person, which compels them to reciprocate the listening and take an open mind to being influenced by you. This creates an atmosphere of caring, and positive problem solving.

6.     **Synergize

Combine the strengths of people through positive teamwork, so as to achieve goals that no one could have done alone.

7.     **Sharpen the Saw

Balance and renew your resources, energy, and health to create a sustainable, long-term, effective lifestyle. It primarily emphasizes exercise for physical renewal, prayer (meditation, yoga, etc.) and good reading for mental renewal. It also mentions service to society for spiritual renewal.

** - particularly focused towards the agile methods.

The Agile “application” of – The 7-Habits

1.     Be Proactive

I see a lot of agile teams who get “stuck” in their retrospectives, with 80-90% of the points that come from the retro pointing upwards or outwards. That is, they are someone else’s responsibility to change or improve. The teams feel that they’ve done their job in bringing them up, now it’s someone else’s responsibility to actually fix them.

While there are certainly many things outside of the teams’ sphere of influence, I’d argue that many of the items I see ARE for the team.  They just need to take a more proactive, incremental change approach to things in order to effect improvement.

Another example is with the ScrumMaster. Often teams view the SM role as some sort of administrative assistant to the team. For example, for cross-team dependencies (within the team and across to other teams) they look to the SM to “glue things together”. I instead look to the entire team to be proactive in staying on top of and “managing” all of their dependencies.

2.     Begin With The End In Mind

Ah, this is one of my favorites. The first thing that comes to my mind is the anti-pattern I often see in agile teams where they sprint too quickly. That is, before they know where they’re going. This is one of the reasons I’m so bullish on Release Planning and Chartering for agile projects and teams. These tactics give the team a chance to plot their course at a high-level to assure they’re going in the right direction.

And don’t misunderstand me. I’m not recommending a level of planning or mindset where you don’t make adjustments. Of course you’ll need to make course corrections. But getting a sense for the “general direction” is never a bad idea.

I’ve been emphasizing sprint goals as a fundamental focus for teams in their sprint planning and execution. To me, this again points to beginning with the end in mind. Focus your sprint goal towards your demo. In other words, the entire team should be focusing on “what” will be demonstrated every day of the sprint.

3.     Put First Things First

Well to start with, I think this is the “essence” of every Product Backlog. The notion of prioritization based on efficient sequencing of work and value-based delivery. The key agile tenant is that it’s not a dictatorship (the Product Owner) that decides everything, but it’s more so a “community effort” to decide on how and what to deliver.

The neat thing about agile, or at least agile practiced well, is the level of customer engagement in the iterative process. They’re in every sprint review checking out iterative progress. They get the chance to accept or adjust each deliverable, so there should be no surprises along the way.

And, if they have a new idea or change their mind on what the Minimal Marketable Product looks like, the team gives them the opportunity to change. But remember, this isn’t always additive change. The client will need to consider trade-offs and team-based negotiation. But the goal can shift, as the customer’s needs shift.

4.     Think Win-Win

I sometimes think that traditional command-and-control leadership views their relationship with their software teams as Win-Lose. The leaders role is to apply scope and schedule pressure on the team; trying to get the most in the least amount of time. This was always done in the beginning, when the team knew the least.

Once the team “signed up” to the project commitment, the leader “had them”. They had won and the team lost in the negotiation. Since the team often underestimated, they would have to work overtime to TRY and deliver on their promise. I think this is the land of Ed Yourdon’s Death March term.

Instead of this approach, agile organization’s and teams aspire to create Win-Win partnerships between customers, leaders and teams. They’re in it together during the entire delivery process. So, if the team underestimated, their leaders negotiates scope trade-offs with the clients that still deliver on their high-priority needs. In fact, the leaders have set expectations in the very beginning that there will be discovery, change, and scope variability in the project.

Wow – what a difference this is between the old and the new…

5.     Seek First To Understand, Then To Be Understood

One of my biggest weaknesses is talking too much. It comes from being an agile teacher and change agent, so I’m constantly explaining agility to individuals and groups. And the more resistance I encounter, often the more talking I do. But that’s an excuse of sorts. The good news is that I’m aware of it and the better news is that I’m actively working on it.

This habit compliments the ScrumMaster role and agile coaching to a great degree. Lyssa Adkins emphasizes the need for asking powerful questions in your coaching. One of the most important drives for asking these smart, focused, powerful, open-ended questions is the need to then – shut up and listen. In other words, seeking to understand first.

An important part of this practice is listening deeply. Not simply to what’s said, but to body language and tone. I’ve often found it useful to even listen to what’s unsaid in the conversation because of the insights gained to help our understanding.

Good ScrumMasters, Product Owners, teams, and agile coaches practice this habit.

6.     Synergize

This is one of the essence points of agility – the power of a cross-functional, self-directed team. And I emphasize TEAM in this case. Solid agile teams are continuously trying to amplify their strengths by working together. I often use the term “swarming” to describe a state where multiple team members (developers, testers, business analysts, architects, whoever) work together on a user story to get it DONE as soon as possible.

In this case they’re not optimizing at the individual level, but are optimizing at the team (synergistic) level; knowing that each story will get done faster and better by fostering collaboration.

The synergy even extends to learning and individual skill growth. I often ask teams to look for story candidates in their backlog refinement sessions where someone can pair with anther team member for cross training. While the estimate might be larger, the benefit in team growth and reducing their dependency on Subject Matter Experts often outweighs the cost.

The team also becomes more flexible as a result!

7.     Sharpen The Saw

I often tell a joke in my classes about everyone having an Agile Driver’s License. And on the “fine print” on the back of the license, I tell them that they’ve agreed to continuous improvement as part of their licensed usage of agile approaches. Usually folks smile, but I remember one session where a young lady came up to me after the talk with a very serious look on her face.

She said: Bob, I didn’t get my agile drivers license. Where do I apply for one?

I was literally struck speechless, which is very hard for me.

But in all seriousness, a core tenant of agility is the relentless pursuit of improvement in all areas. The heart of this activity is the retrospective. A lot of teams drop retrospectives because they feel they are boring and don’t effect change or improvement. I would point to the teams’ responsibility to be proactive and to sharpen the saw as something to focus on. Point being – its probably not the retrospective that’s being ineffective.

Wrapping Up

When I started writing this post it wasn’t clear to me that there would be a great mapping between The 7 Habits and agile methods. But as I wrote and thought about each habit, I found strong and broad connections.

In fact, I think I’ll “dust off” The 7 Habits and start using it more in my classes and coaching. It resonates that well with me.

I hope you see the connection and this inspired you to dig a bit deeper into The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Stay agile my friends,