Motivation gets you started by habit keeps you going

A poster advertising a gym. It has the phrase "motivation gets you started, habit keeps you going
Habit keeps you going

I came across this sign some time ago, while walking down a street in Queensland, Australia.

I thought it was a great ad for a gym or a personal trainer and I also think it is a great motto for an agile coach.

Say a team is told to use something like Scrum, but have no motivation for doing so, beyond the fact that management told them to do it. They will never really get started.

A team can have a stand-up every day, but if it is inflicted on them they they will simply go through the motions until they get a chance to stop.

The “new way of working” will actually turn out to be “the temporary distraction we had on top of our work, before we went back to normal.”

Inertia wins over coaching, if the team have no motivation to try something different.

Nobody famous

For this reason, I think coaching starts with a new vision of an agreed and desired future. I mentioned this in my last blog article – “Change the future to change the present.”

That means starting with a believable future state that the team would like to work toward. It also means something more subtle – you want change to be fun to start with. It is not motivating to be hammered every day or be told you are failing. Find small wins and highlight things that are already working, rather than just stretching too hard.

But now we come to the next part of the change – habit keeps you going.

I like to believe that I am in control of my decisions, but I keep encountering research that suggests context and outside factors determine a lot of my decisions.

For example, I might decide that exercise is good, but I keep starting work early, finishing late and then having dinner. There is no point in hoping to go to the gym after I get home tired and have a meal.

Say that I then start to hope to go to the gym first thing in the morning, but actually I have to get my daughter ready for school each morning and then I have a 9am meeting. It is going to be hard to get to the gym today.

Then I push myself a couple of times, but some of the people I work with ask for help to facilitate a workshop. I agree and then they mention that they want to get started at 7am to have a working breakfast and plan the day. I miss the gym that day, because I felt pressure to turn up for breakfast and then another day went by.

If I am going to get fit by going to the gym, I am going to need to constantly make choices to do things differently each day so that I can get to the gym. This is more exhausting than it sounds and I will actually need superhuman persistence and willpower to keep pushing back on the rest of the world so I can get to the gym.

It feels like I am giving into temptation, but actually I am using up my “thinking energy” each day, consciously trying to make myself do the right thing. Since my energy is limited though, so I will eventually give up for today, each day.

On the other hand though, if I could create a new ceremony, where the team and I met at the gym at 7am, had a short 15 minute workout and then had a morning team meeting then I would find that it was easy to get to the gym. Similarly, if the gym was next to my daughter’s school, I could take my gym gear with me, drop her at school and then relax in the gym.

Habit normally wins over willpower.

Me, pondering why change often seems to be fleeting

Now we hit the next coaching tip – The pull of the past and the distractions faced by the team often mean that a simple change is very difficult.

What is worse is that it should be easy, but people just seem to give into temptation and go back to their old ways. This results in the team and the stakeholders starting to doubt the team will change. They start to believe that the team is “resisting change” or just not motivated.

The role of the coach is critical here. The first thing to do is to highlight that there are distractions, some of which are important. This does not mean that the team know that they are distracted, not unmotivated.

The next step is to work with team to change the context in which they work. This does not mean that you need to make massive changes and move to a new office, but it does mean that we need to work out how to make an improved way of doing things easy.

We can start by creating the right triggers, by making it more likely that they will remember what they said they will do. Then we want to make it easy to take the new action, or at least easier than it is to go back to the old action.

So coaching a person or a team is not just about cheerleading or wise advice. Instead, sustained coaching comes through

  • Improving awareness and focus on what we want to create as a habit, for example with “habit stories” like I used in this article ., or through providing ongoing feedback, and observation.
  • Next we work with teams to look at how they will support a change. This might involve changing routines, changing agendas in meetings, or removing some triggers and replacing them with others.

This seems to be one of the secrets of agile coaching, but it is really just about changing your coaching habits to practice it – should be easy.

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