7 habits of highly effective software development?

“Most of us think we don’t have enough time to exercise. What a distorted paradigm! We don’t have not to.” Stephen R. Covey

Try reading that quote again and substituting the word “refactor” for “exercise.” Or try substitute the words “test first”, or “technical excellence” for “exercise.”

It was Craig Girvan of Head Forwards at Agile on the Beach this month who pointed out to me that one of the most famous management books of all time actually contains an edict to pursue technical excellence and refactoring.

Read this snippet form The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and as you do so think about software development, and specifically the technical quality of the code being cut:

“We are instruments of our own performance, and to be effective, we need to recognize the importance of taking time to sharpen the saw”

Whether you think of the skills of the engineers building the system, the system itself, the technology which powers the system or the process that build the code into an executable there is a resonance.

On of the things Covey emphasis in the book is that the be effective one needs not just productive capacity (“PC”, the capability to produce something) but to maintain that ability and enhance that capacity. Hence his advice to: sharpen the saw. That means using some of your PC to create more PC in future, grow the pie if you like. This is a theme he returns too many times in the book.

And that is exactly the thinking we need to put behind our software development teams: it is not just about producing something for today, it is about increasing our capability for tomorrow. Of course there is a balance, one needs to both produce today and enhance for tomorrow, find the sweat spot is hard.

In the race to deliver value today we sometimes loose that. We forget that enhancing our capability creates value because it helps us create more value tomorrow – that capability is itself valuable. In part the problem is because investing in capability enhancements has a longer payback period, the return on those investments will not be seen immediately while directing our efforts to today will deliver returns real soon.

The old “jam today or more jam tomorrow” problem. It is a balance, and getting that balance right is incredibly difficult.

But it is exactly that philosophy that lead Microsoft and Amazon to reinvest all their profits for many years. Rather than pay shareholders dividends they prefer to invest in themselves so their future capacity is greater. And because of that promise their share rise in value and shareholders benefit more than if they had paid dividends.

It’s nearly 20 years since I read 7 Habits but after Craig’s observation I fished out my copy. What struck me was how the 7 Habits themselves could be seen as a software development method in their own right:

  1. Be proactive: teams are experts in delivering useful digital products, they should be finding what is needed and working to deliver it. Simply doing what you are told is not enough. The days of sitting around waiting for a requirements document or specification are over.
  2. Begin with the end in mind: what could be more outcome focused than that? It’s not about the myriad of stories and features you will develop, its the ultimate goals that is important
  3. Put first things first: some will see this as a mandate to design the thing up front, I don’t, I see this as an instruction to start delivering value and testing hypothesis immediately. For Covey it is simply about prioritisation, “organize and execute around priorities” – simply decide what are the priorities today and get on with them.
  4. Think Win/Win: too often in development we frame decisions in confrontational terms, “Users v. developers”, “The business v. coders”, “Programmers v. testers”. One side “wins” at the others expense. We need to stop that, and we need to stop seeing the divisions. (Similar to David Cote’s argument in Winning now, Winning later.)
  5. Seek to understand first, then be understood: what a brilliant way of saying “Listen to customers” and then frame technical discussions in terms the audience will understand.
  6. Synergize: this overlaps with #4 in my mind. Covey says it is about recognising that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What better description of a software system could you want? All those little parts, functions, classes, modules, all working together to produce a useful whole. Yet this is one of the most difficult problems in software engineering, approaching it from either the parts or the whole creates problems. Instead we need to build something small that works, some parts that work together, and then grow it, organically.
  7. Sharpen the saw: work to have more capability tomorrow than you have today, which is where we came in

So maybe 7 Habits is a development method in disguise, or maybe its a way of thinking that should inform our approach. In fact, as I said, I read the book nearly 20 years ago, I suspect much of this has seeped into my general thinking and, without me knowing it, informed my approach.

The book may have become a cliche itself but I would still recommend reading 7 Habits.

Saw images from Luke Milburn on Wikicommons, Creative Commons License.


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