Seven Habits for Effectiveness

seven-habitsStephen Covey, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, describes seven principles that he claims, if followed, lead to success.

The first three habits are habits of personal effectiveness:

Be Proactive

Have a bias for action. As a counterpoint, Lean Manufacturing (pioneered by Toyota) encourages delaying decisions as late as possible. Extreme Programming gives the correct balance: proactively work on the most valuable or riskiest thing you can.

Begin with the End in Mind

Know where you are going. This is, in my opinion, the hardest thing to do well. Good to Great‘s principle of the Hedgehog Concept gives some guidance: Find the thing that you have the potential to be the best in the world at doing, that you love to do, and that will bring you the economic rewards that you need or want.

First Things First

What should be worked on first? Here, Covey creates an excellent model: Four quadrants; on one axis, importance, on the other, urgency. Covey urges spending time in the quadrant of important/not urgent, rather than urgent/not important. Again, extreme programming gives a clearer picture: risk mitigation, which doesn’t deliver results, and so may be considered neither important nor urgent, is actually something that is important and needs to be done urgently, as a realized risk can derail important work, and the longer you wait to mitigate the risk, the worse the damage often is.

The next three habits are habits of effective relationships:

Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

While Covey emphasizes the order, the important thing is to ensure that you understand what is expected of you, and that others understand what you are taking responsibility for. Covey offers some techniques for ensuring understanding such as restating the other party’s position until they agree that you have understood it.

Think Win/Win

Thinking win/win often requires not agreeing to do something you don’t believe in. Bureaucracy frequently imposes lose/lose, in that a bureaucratic prescription doesn’t achieve the result intended (e.g. you get security theater, not security), and you are blamed for failing to deliver the expected benefit, usually because you were forced to waste so much effort on following the regulations. Other times, a win can be taking one for the team even though you don’t agree with a decision.


Synergy is hard to achieve and easy to destroy. Bureaucracy and rigid hierarchy are the enemies of synergy. Synergy often involves realizing that someone else has expertise in solving a problem like the one confronting you, and laterally reaching out for help. If doing this is stifled by a command from above to follow the “correct” process, synergy will disappear like smoke.

The final habit influences all the others:

Sharpen the Saw

Sharpening the saw means continuously improving. This means taking time away from production (e.g. delivering new features) to learn, build tools, and remove cruft and refresh tired documentation and processes that are getting in the way. As a good friend of mine once said, when talking about how we could make progress on improvements we’d like to make, “I just do what I know needs to be done”. Personally, I prefer to work in an environment that recognizes the need for sharpening the saw or, as they call it in Japan, kaizen.


About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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