Thursday, October 10, 2013

Muscle Memory vs. Muscle Confusion

The most popular Agile methodology in practice today is Scrum, which relies heavily on ceremonies. Any decent Agile coach working with a new Scrum team will drill these ceremonies into them in an effort to get the most out of the framework. They drive cadence, alignment, continuous improvement, transparency, etc. One of the big benefits of doing this is that it becomes a part of their routine. They no longer have to figure out how they're going to align on a daily basis; plan their work; communicate with their customer; inspect and adapt; etc. All of those things are "baked in" to the framework. Because there's so little prescribed, it's easy to pick up and repeat forever. By making those things rote, you develop a sort of Agile "muscle memory".

Wax on, wax off, stand up for 15 minutes
Muscle memory is a condition where a task is repeated so frequently that it can be performed unconsciously. Just think of Mr. Miagi and Daniel-san in The Karate Kid. Mr. Miagi had a lot of landscaping work to be done, and Daniel wanted to learn Karate. As luck would have it, the motions required of a Karate black belt are the same as sanding decks, staining fences, and washing cars - who knew? Right as Daniel is ready to throw in the towel, Mr. Miagi attacks him Daniel's muscle memory kicks in to save himself from being pounded by a Karate master. Likewise, those Scrum ceremonies become reflexive and help new Agile practitioners focus on the hard task of developing new software instead of thinking about how they're going to go about "Being Agile".

However, too much of a good thing can be bad. Once that muscle memory kicks in, it makes it harder for our Agile "muscles" to grow. The body has optimized how to do the repetitive thing, and doing it more doesn't really result in any added strength. This is a problem that strength trainers and body builders are familiar with. Your workout routine can't be too routine or you'll plateau. You have to introduce what's called "muscle confusion".

Muscle confusion is the concept of varying the types of exercises you do, as well as the number of sets and reps of those exercises, to avoid muscle memory and keep building muscle by tearing it and letting it repair stronger. If muscle memory kicks in then it becomes harder to tear the muscles. You see this concept manifest in workout regimens such as P90X and Cross Fit. One of the difficult things to get right, though, is the right amount of muscle confusion. Switching 100% of your exercises 100% of the time won't get you optimal performance.

I liken muscle confusion to a Kaizen mindset in Agile. You have to have an urgency about change, but it has to be small, incremental change in order to be effective. Change too little and muscle memory sets in - boring scrums, useless retros, tedious planning, etc. Change too much and the disruption causes everything to start falling apart.

P90X and Cross Fit are not for everyone. You will have to determine as a team how much change you can handle on a sprint by sprint basis. Some will change almost daily, others will be lucky to successfully adapt on one thing per sprint. As long as you're being honest with yourselves, that's fine. Just beware of muscle memory and muscle confusion. Optimize the change, and there are no limits to how much you can grow your Agile strength.
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