In my last post, I summarized my 3-step coaching meta-process:
Start by baselining the team and their business model
Use a traction-driven approach to identify what’s riskiest in the business model
Trigger the team to change course (if needed)
Over the next several posts, I’ll dive into these steps in more detail. Before doing that, it would help to share the theory behind this meta-process—specifically, the science of habit change or behavior design.
Why Behavior Design?
We are living in a new world where the way we build products has fundamentally changed. Succeeding in this new world requires learning new ways and unlearning old ways.
Therein lies the challenge.
New world = New Mindsets = Habit change
It requires product teams to go from being experts in the old way (the familiar) to becoming beginners in the new way (the uncertain).
This is uncomfortable — especially when teams are met with negative versus positive reinforcement like a failed experiment (which is almost a certainty with initial experiments) or when they are required to do new things that they don’t yet know how to do (like selling before building).
What happens next is quite predictable — they revert to the old way.
This is just the nature of behavior change.
Adopting anything new and worthwhile takes effort.
We encounter behavior change challenges all the time. Despite knowing the merits of doing an activity, like eating healthy, exercising regularly, or saving money, we struggle to implement them into our regular routines.
Adopting a fundamentally new product development process is no different.
The good news is that we now understand the science of behavior change a lot better thanks to the work of people like Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, BJ Fogg, Dan Ariely, Charles Duhigg, Nir Eyal, James Clear, and more.
Meet the Habit Loop
I first learned about the habit loop in Charles Duhigg’s groundbreaking book: The Power of Habit, which is a great primer to behavior design.
He describes the habit process as a loop with three steps:
A cue or trigger prompts you to take action.
A routine or specific action follows the cue, and
A reward lets you know whether the action worked and is worth repeating in the future.
The habit loop, while simple, leads to some pretty interesting applications beyond classical conditioning. Consider the Pepsodent case study Duhigg shares in his book.
Did you know that brushing your teeth wasn’t a daily habit until the 1940s? This wasn’t because toothpaste hadn’t been invented or people had healthy teeth — quite the opposite. Dental hygiene was so bad in the United States that the federal government declared it a national security risk. It took a marketer at the toothpaste brand Peposodent, Claude Hopkins, to change all that. Do you know what he did differently?
Like other marketers at the time, he too touted the benefits of clean and healthy teeth, which represented the desired outcome people wanted. But he also recognized that the gap between the current state of dental hygiene and the desired outcome (clean teeth) was too big to bridge with brushing alone. So he introduced an intermediate reward. He had his chemists add mint and citric acid to the toothpaste, which created a cooling and tingling sensation that none of the other kinds of toothpaste had. This was different and provided an immediate (albeit temporary) reward of slightly better breath.
This missing aha moment reinforced the action of brushing teeth that people needed to come back and brush their teeth again the next day and the day after.
Takeaway #1: A positive reward is critical to reinforce the action.
They returned the following day because that minty fresh feeling had worn off, and their teeth felt unclean again — creating a naturally recurring trigger or cue.
Takeaway #2: A recurring trigger is critical to bring people back to the action.
With each subsequent brushing, their teeth got progressively healthier, and the habit of daily brushing stuck.
Takeaway #3: It takes a few cycles through the habit loop for the habit to stick i.e. become automatic.
While there’s nothing magical about the habit loop, deconstructing the habit process into three discrete steps (trigger, action, reward) opens the door to taking control of these steps and designing for behavior change.
Let’s apply these concepts to coaching.
Going from the Habit Loop to Behavior Design
Like the brushing teeth routine, if you want to maximize the chances of fostering a fruitful coaching relationship, you should aim to deliver an initial reward by the end of your first coaching session — typically within 30-45 minutes.
From last time, prescriptive lecture-driven advice doesn’t qualify as a reward because unless the team buys in, this kind of advice typically goes nowhere. My goal in the first session is to achieve team alignment around “right action, right time.”
Right action, right time: Focusing on the key action that drives the biggest impact and ignoring the rest.
Getting the team to a “right action, right time” aha-moment is the first reward. It’s a reward because early-stage teams typically have a dozen or more high-priority to-dos competing for their attention. Simply getting them to focus on the one thing that matters is intrinsically rewarding.
How do you achieve this in a 30-45 minute session? Through a structured process.
I require any team seeking advice first to deconstruct their idea on a Lean Canvas which we review together during the call. To ensure the Lean Canvas gets done, I do my best to keep this a low-friction routine/action step.
I specifically instruct the team to
only spend 20 minutes on their Lean Canvas,
not do any other reading or prework to fill the canvas, and
skip boxes they don’t understand.
This deliberate disarming step helps me baseline how a team naturally thinks while simultaneously prompting them with key questions that set the agenda for the session.
During the session, I use a structured Lean Canvas diagnostic script to
systematically identify the riskiest assumption,
seek alignment with the team,
gain commitment on a specific next action — typically a learning experiment.
While ending the session this way certainly delivers on an intrinsic reward (clarity of focus), it still isn’t enough to make the habit loop stick. Why?
Because turning a one-time behavior into a habit requires repetition. I find that it takes three sessions on average for the habit to stick. The challenge here is that, unlike the tooth-brushing scenario, there isn’t an automatic recurring trigger that prompts the team to set up their next session with you.
In other words, relying on the team to schedule a follow-up session with you is a recipe for never hearing back from them. This is because most teams fall into the success theater trap and only want to report good news. When faced with an unexpected outcome or obstacle, they often wait too long or never reach out for help, eventually reverting to their old ways.
There is a simple investment step you can take at the end of your coaching call to sidestep this success theater trap.
Implement a Timeboxed Coaching Cadence
Once I learned that it took a few sessions to drive true transformation, I stopped conducting one-off coaching sessions with teams. My ideal coaching engagement now is 90 days, broken into six 2-week sprints. This 90-day cycle is long enough to drive meaningful traction, and the 2-week sprints are short enough to drive meaningful accountability.
I explicitly schedule all my coaching sessions at the start of the 90-Day cycle, so we don’t have to think about it. Irrespective of results or obstacles, we meet regularly to continuously align on “right action, right time” by following the 3-step: Model-Prioritize-Test process:
The first session is typically about aligning on goals, models, and assumptions. Clarity is the reward.
The next session is typically about prioritizing on strategies (or campaigns) for achieving the goal. A promise of traction is the reward.
The following sessions are where the team executes the campaign(s). Learning, insights, and eventual traction are the rewards.
I’ll have more to share in future posts on the 90-Day cycle cadence. Next time, I’ll start with a detailed meta-script for running your first coaching session: The Lean Canvas Diagnostic. This is where you deliver the first aha moment and set the foundation for habit loop stacking.
Hi Ash, excited to have found this Substack as I have just made the jump to being a Product/Startup coach and I've been a big fan since the first edition of Running Lean! I hope this is still an active project!? Thanks 🙏
Makes me think of how physical training coaches try to create a training habit for their customers. The reward in that case might be making sure that the person feels better after a training session.
I haven't experienced this yet, but the hope is that after x recurrent training sessions, this positive feeling (the reward) will be strong enough to make the person overcome the friction implied in doing the activity (in my case getting up at 6 AM to train before the kids wake up).
Do you think it's possible to create this habit in teams after only 90 days?