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The Curse of Recurrence and Habit

Some habits are good. Others are productivity killers.

cursedHere’s one example. Someone schedules a meeting. That’s bad enough, right? And the person decides to make it a recurring meeting — every week for as far into the future as anyone can imagine. Then it gets worse. Week after week, zombies (sorry, I meant people) arrive at the meeting wondering why they have to attend and hoping it gets cancelled. It becomes a habit and it just goes on and on.

Here’s another example. Each week a report is generated and distributed to thousands (okay, maybe just a few dozen people). Some dutifully look at it each week while others simply ignore it. Few remember the original purpose for the report. They merely recall that they are supposed to look at it each week. Now it’s a habit.

Habits are hard to break.

Crazy, right? It is and it also happens all the time in companies around the world. People get into a habit — a recurring event — and they just do it. Those recurring meetings are particularly nasty. Often, attendees will multitask. They bring a laptop to the meeting so they can be doing something else. Or, they call in even though their offices are just down the hall.

Multitasking? Really? Why not just cancel the meeting? Call a meeting when needed and only if needed. Before calling a meeting ask yourself if a one-on-one conversation is all that’s required. You can inform everyone else via email. If you believe that every decision needs to be a group decision, don’t bother, your project is doomed.

As for that weekly report distribution, kill it. Automate the process such that information is tracked and automatically presented in a dashboard for anyone who cares. Send out an email reminder if you must. (Pull people to the information. Don’t push the information to them! If the information has no pull, why bother?)

The curse strikes agile development teams too.

The same effect happens with daily stand-up meetings and retrospectives. They become so routine — boring — that no one pays attention. Teamwork deteriorates into individual contributors touting their efforts. Continuous improvement deteriorates into self-preservation. That’s the curse of recurrence and habit.

I’m a proponent of both daily stand-ups and retrospectives when they’re done right. You know the drill. There are plenty of references on this website and others on running proper stand-ups and retrospectives. Therein lies a hidden danger — the curse.

If those meetings become too prim and proper — too structured and routine — new and innovative thinking gets cast aside. Everyone learns the drill. They arrive. They participate as required. They leave — and get back to work. “Get back to work”, as if the meeting is not considered “work”.

  • If the team shows up and everyone always stands or sits in the same place, you’re cursed.
  • If everyone speaks in the same order every time, you’re cursed.
  • If everyone uses the same words and phrases time after time, you’re cursed.
  • If people are continually late for the meeting or distracted during it, you’re cursed.
  • If the results of the meetings are always the same, you’re cursed.

Variety and variation will break the curse. Employ various techniques and styles to make the meetings interesting. Always start on time. Always end on time. Mix up the agenda and the format. Have different people run the meetings each time. Ask unexpected questions. Present a problem and brainstorm solutions. Watch the attendees. If any of them look bored, ask what can be done to improve the sessions. Take the advice. Experiment.

Stay agile. Don’t let the curse of recurrence and habit destroy your productivity.

photo credit: Rev. Bombasticos (ClintJCL) via photopin cc

Updated: March 31, 2013 — 10:40 pm
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