Practices as Habits for Teams

What Are Practices?

Both XP and XPM focus a lot of attention on practices. Just what are practices anyhow? Are they rules? Guidelines? Are they just "the usual way of doing something" as one dictionary definition states? In an XPM context, I think practices mean more than dictionary definitions imply. I prefer to define practices as habits for teams. Or, more precisely: practices are "recurrent patterns of behavior, directed towards an objective, usually acquired through frequent repetition". Let's explore the implications of this definition.

Practices Are Habits For Teams

Practices are habits for teams, as opposed to habits for individuals. They're similar to habits for individuals, in that they're repeated, over and over. They're iterative activities. However, unlike habits for individuals, practices are adopted by the entire team, not an individual or two.

This is significant. It implies that the entire team understands, and consciously adopts each proposed practice. It implies that each adopted practice is defined, discussed, understood, and agreed to by all team members.

Individuals may form a habit by unconscious effort or vague intent. That's not enough for a practice. Following a practice requires a conscious understanding and commitment by a group of individuals. Thus each practice that is adopted helps foster team alignment and cohesiveness - indispensable components for every effective team.

Adopting Practices Is Voluntary

Unlike rules, habits imply voluntary actions. The entire team must agree to adopt each practice. Group habits can't be practiced otherwise. They require each member's consent.

Practices Encapsulate Theory

Practices are something you actually do, as opposed to theories, principles, and values. Compared to theories, practices are more concrete. Practices are actions. You can argue about theories, and discuss principles and values endlessly. But when you want to get work done, to accomplish something, you need to take action.

Practices are interesting because they encapsulate all the theories, principles, and values that underlie them. Each practice represents, perhaps, years of research, theorizing, analysis and ... practice. The simplicity of practices is deceptive.

Practices Are Not Goals

Practices are more concrete than goals and objectives. Practices are actions we perform to help achieve goals; they're not goals in themselves. A goal might be to foster effective communication. A practice to support that goal would be to hold daily stand-up meetings. We devise and adopt practices to help achieve our goals.

It's wise to reinforce this notion from a higher vantage point. Following practices is not our ultimate objective. Creating a successful project is. Practices help us achieve our ultimate objective, as well as our intermediate goals.

Practices Are Not Setups

Some activities facilitate practices, but they're performed only once, not habitually. I consider such one-time activities as setups, not practices. For example, providing an open work environment is a setup that facilitates practices such as pairing and working together.

Practices Are Not Alternatives

Practices are things we do repetitively, habitually. If you have a list of alternatives to choose from, the alternatives aren't practices. They're simply alternatives. If you always choose the same alternative, then it becomes a practice. Practice implies consistent choice.

Practices Are Assets

Practices, because they're habits, become organizational assets. They become part of the organization's culture. They remain as part of the organization, as projects change, teams change, and people come and go.

Practices Should Be Explicit

Practices, like habits, can be learned and applied unconsciously. They can be implicit, not explicit. However, if practices are applied unconsciously by a team, it's more likely that all team members won't comply, and new team members won't be aware. So it pays to make all practices explicit. Making practices explicit helps promote team alignment.

Practice Triggers

Practices are actions initiated in response to events. They're event-driven. In that sense, they could be more precisely defined as reactions. As habits, practices are executed consistently, in response to some trigger mechanism. Triggers remind us when an action must be performed or something must be done.

Some examples of triggers and related practices:

Measuring Practices

Since they're concrete, you can measure conformance to practices. You are either doing them or you are not. You are doing them well or poorly. They are contributing to your objectives or they're not.

Improving Practices

Practices improve with practice. We become more comfortable and efficient following the same practices over time. But practices can be improved in other ways too. They can be adapted based on feedback. Since practices are performed iteratively, they can be measured, evaluated and improved over time. We can modify, eliminate, or adopt new practices depending on how we think they're contributing to our project's success. Practices are starting points. We adopt them. Then we adapt them based on feedback.

Following Practices

We follow practices, habitually, but only when they make sense. We won't hold a daily stand-up meeting if we have a deadline in an hour. We'll consider it, but then defer. A team does not blindly follow every practice. It does so only when appropriate.

Enforcing Practices

Practices are easier to follow than individual habits. Individual habits are enforced by one person's conscience, which tends to be fairly ineffective, as we can attest to by observing our own frequent lapses. Practices are, or at least can be, enforced by peer pressure. All team members understand and agree to adopt each defined practice, and all are responsible for enforcement. Anyone on the team can point out lapses; we don't rely on a single enforcer.

New Practices Displace Old Practices

When we adopt new practices, or habits, we often displace, or at least disrupt, old ones. We're the same person or team; we just do things differently. Implementing new practices doesn't happen in a vacuum. It puts stress on older, perhaps more cherished practices, and they must change to accommodate. We expect the results of the changes to be worth the effort. If not, we'll revert to our old practices.

Summary

Defining practices as habits for teams helps us understand them a little better. It helps us appreciate their value, see how they foster team cohesiveness and contribute to achieving our objectives. It also gives us insight into how practices can be adopted and improved over time. Defining practices as habits forces us to more clearly define each practice, which in turn helps focus and align the team.


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Feedback Wanted

I'm just beginning to explore this notion of practices as habits and I hope to improve it over time based on additional feedback, research and experience. Thus, I welcome your comments and suggestions. See contact us for more information.

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