Forcing functions for good and evil

I sometimes question whether I should focus more on coaching the team or changing the environment to unleash the team. Choosing between the two can be a real dilemma for me.

However, there are some coaching tools that are useful in both helping the team grow AND creating space to support that growth in the organisation.

A “forcing function” is one of those things. The name is bit obscure and like all good ideas in agile coaching, they are used to mean different things to different people at different times, to ensure that any smart curious person can remain confused as long as possible.

What is a forcing function?

My take is that a forcing function is something that forces you to take action and produce a result.

A forcing function interrupts your current flow to nudge you to move in a particular direction or to pause and reflect on whether you should be doing something.

A very simple example is the “are you sure?” question that often follows your attempt to delete a file. The question pops up to stop you acting on automatic to force you to think for a moment.

In change management and coaching it is usually a regular event that harasses you to keep going with a new practice (or that keeps raising its head to pull you back into past bahaviours).

For example, let’s say that I wanted to do regular exercise to become super fit, but I was a bit lazy and was a superstar at procrastinating.

I could join a Gym, buy exercise equipment, buy some running shoes … and then watch a lot of tv while thinking about getting fit.

Instead I could employ a “forcing function” to act as a regular nudge to make me go and exercise. I could pay a personal training to meet weekly and then, once every week, I would have to consciously decide to turn up or cancel my session.

Turning up means I need to report on whether I got around to doing my daily stretching a had a walk. It also means I will actually get some exercise in the session.

However, not turning up is potentially worse for me. I need to conciously decide to do this without procrastinating. This will embarrass me in front of the trainer and make visible to me that I am wasting money. It is probably easier to just turn up.

Alternatively I could organise a regular tennis game with my friends, again causing me to turn up or consciously let my friends down once a week.

However, the most common forcing functions that I encounter in an agile team are regular events that cause the team to stop and think. These include showcases, retrospectives and stand-ups, pre-booked regular focus groups and even regular deployments.

This regularity forces decision making and interrupts the flow of things to nudge me to delivering something.

Couldn’t I just say meetings then?

Agile teams love to rename meetings as ceremonies, rituals, workshops or events, so we have more than enough terms for the idea of “come together and talk.” I am not proposing that you start telling the team to turn up for their daily forcing function.

In fact many meetings are ceremonial and do not actually interrupt thinking or nudge people back onto a given path.

  • Some meetings are workshops which create outcomes and product either new ideas or generate shared understanding. These are great, but not forcing functions.
  • Some meetings are just things people go to without knowing why or getting a result. These are not great and they are not forcing functions.
  • Even a good showcase or retro might just be about gaining stakeholder buying and team alignment. These are potentially good outcomes, but it also means that they are not functioning as forcing functions. They would need to cause the team to stop and consider what they are doing before consciously deciding whether to continue, or they would need to make the team stress during a sprint to have something done for the end of the sprint (either a feature or an action item from the last retrospective).

So not every meeting or regular event is a forcing function, but once you become aware of the concept, I think you will notice that there are a lot of forcing functions that are baked into the organisations processes and the the team dynamics. Each one is building a habit (or inhibiting the building of a habit) by interrupting the flow to remind people to consciously do something now.

You will also notice that these events all function to either create or diminish accountability and the also act to either create or diminish empowerment. They are not about coming together to talk and align, they are about nudging the team to behave in a certain way.

Do I like forcing functions?

If a forcing function was a person, I do not think I would be friends with them. They are amoral and tend to be stressful to deal with. I have also caught them doing things they were not really meant to be doing.

James King, while writing a blog

Forcing functions can be really useful, but they are also a bit dangerous, so I have mixed feelings about them.

For example, a weekly showcase or review is awesome. Even more so if you present data and interrogate it together.

However, say if in your weekly review there is a single executive that the team is nervous about talking to. Now every week they have a chance to experience scorn or to quickly bluff their way through.

The manager is not actually mean, they are participating in the meeting as they think they should. They call out issues and they question data. They also remind the team on a weekly basis the they are there to help whenever they are needed. They even chase up other teams to get support when it is needed.

Now the team stops once a week to try to present something safe and they still get tough questions. They start to come up with safe estimates, stop for direction when there is a question, demand a definition of “ready” before they start on any work and generally avoid raising disagreements in front of managers or calling out other teams who might get harried into doing work they resent doing.

After a couple of weeks the forcing function has done it’s work. The team now have embedded the practice of taking orders. The team has the perfect appearance of doing agile but in fact no matter how hard the coach works, they might take unlearn their bad habit, because the forcing function keeps reinforcing it.

If they are scary why use them?

As I said though, forcing functions can be really useful too. They are ideally suited to a situation where a team (or person) decide to create a new habit or adopt a new practice.

It is surprisingly hard to maintain your commitment to things even after you decide to do them, but it is easier to commit to a plan to support your commitment.

So the team can agree to adopt a regular check-in to keep themselves on track. Even better, if they publish that regular checklist to their friend then they will be nudged in the right direction.

I sometimes do this too by booking a workshop before I am ready and then procrastinating. But when remember that the date is already in my diary then it forces me to take action. My procrastination is powerful but the forcing function of the public commitment to deliver something gains power as the workshop approaches. I toy with things for a bit, panic for a bit and then smash out a workable agenda. Without booking the workshop, there is a risk that my procrastination wins every day because I turn out to be really busy every day.

People who have been coached by me might be familiar with a “habit story” that I get them to use between coaching sessions and then a polite question from me in each session as to whether they used it to catch their bad habits. Together, the story checkin and my annoying question create a forcing function.

The same is true if a management team want to “force change” in a wider group. While you cannot drive change in a linear way, you can implement some regular nudges (a forcing function).

They start by rolling out a message and getting a commitment to a change (otherwise the forcing function runs out of control). Next the managers design a regular check-in that automates the nagging of teams so that each team is regular prompted to stop and check their progress in adopting the change.

How do you design a forcing function to work for good, not evil?

If you want to implement a forcing function, there are some suggestions.

Firstly, make it a regular prompt (once per week, every time the team starts a new epic etc). Once they agree to follow the routine then they are on the journey.

Forcing functions work by stressing you out so they are not fun. You need to either create a hook so that people will follow through or you need to make the cost of not doing them (say the feeling of not meeting a commitment to someone else) higher than the cost of following through.

Do they have to suck or can you make them fun?

Forcing functions work because you get to outsource (or automate) your nagging of people. They create a regular reminder to act, so their purpose is to interrupt thinking or unwanted habits.

What about a showcase then? Should it suck badly and stress people?

I once ran a coaching course and said that showcases are not always good news and they should be allowed to present failure. An experienced coach started arguing with me because he sees a showcase as a regular celebration that give the team energy. He said it should focus on the positive and not the negative.

When I say argue, he was not disrupting the class, he was actually a great role model for “argument” being a frank and respectful exchange of views so that both participants learn from the discussion.

Nonetheless, the class got sick of our argument and so we took it off line.

We discussed our difference of opinion and eventually agreed that it was a question of style. He wants to create good habits through helping people see the positive aspects of their journey, I want to bring issues out into the light of day so we can tackle them.

We were both right and both are involved in the process of a showcase. Without regular positive reinforcement change fails, so he was right. Having said that, the purpose of a forcing function is not to give you energy, it is to force (er prompt) you to practice something. So I guess I would err on the side of positive showcases, but then I am optimising motivation over persistence. The same is probably true if I hired a personal trainer – they want to motivate me to exercise but they also want to put some pressure on me to follow through on training. They have to get the balance right depending on my personality and current progress I suppose.

But generally the joy of the forcing function comes later. The process itself is often mildly annoying but the results of the change bring the joy.

So be honest about a forcing function – tell people it is the medicine to support their cure, not the reward.

Finally, be honest with yourself about what habits and sense making the forcing function will enforce.

A forcing function is not the same as “deliberate practice” and its regular use does not always lead to learning. It can be combined with formative assessment, if you use that, but again that is a complementary tool not the same thing.

So a regular “forcing function” will typically nudge people to remind them to follow the path they are committed to, but will also introduce a level of stress in doing so. I recommend being open with the team about what the forcing function is about (interrupting you to cause you to think and hopefully act).

You can also use a tool like a force field analysis to help the team make things visible and take control of the various forces that prompt their habits.

If you do this then they will be a useful tool, complementing your coaching.

Next time I might talk about other forcing functions, like those that emerge from the past like ghosts to drag us back into bad habits. In the meantime though, give them a go.

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