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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Agile Transformation: Put First Things First

Reading: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Agile Transformation: Put First Things First
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Agile Transformation: Put First Things First

Last time we explored Habit 2 – Begin With The End In Mind of Stephen R. Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” as it relates to Agile Transformation.  With Habit 2, we concluded that it’s essential for an organization to begin with the end in mind, their end state vision, for an Agile Transformation to be successful and that they must be proactive (Habit 1) in support of that. This time we’ll explore Habit 3 – Put First Things First for which Covey considers the fulfillment of Habits 1 and 2.

If Habit 2, Begin With The End In Mind, is considered the first creation, then Habit 3, Put First Things First, is the second creation, the actualization or the doing of the first creation.  You may recall the example Covey provides with leadership and management; leadership being the first creation and management being the second creation or carrying out the direction of leadership.  That said, Habits 1 and 2 are prerequisite to Habit 3, which is focused on effective self-management, and is just as relevant to effective organizational management or an effective Agile Transformation in this case, as we will explore.


Covey declares, “Effective management is putting first things first.” With leadership as the first creation, made possible by being proactive and beginning with the end in mind, effective management can make it happen by putting first things first.  So, how do we find the time to make it happen?  

Time, more specifically time management, is an important component of Habit 3 that Covey explores in detail. He points out that over the generations (four generations of thinking around time management), there has been an evolution from a focus on things and time to a focus on relationships and results, which is where we are today. With insight into the evolution of thought on time management, Covey introduces a powerful tool for analyzing all the things that are constantly competing for our time. Anyone familiar with Covey’s work knows the Urgent/Important matrix with its four distinct quadrants, the urgent being reactive and the important being proactive:

  • Quadrant I is the Urgent/Important activities that have us in crisis mode and can be very all consuming if we let them.
  • Quadrant II is the Not Urgent/Important activities which align with our values and contribute greatly towards achieving our mission and accomplishing our goals.  
  • Quadrant III is the Urgent/Not Important activities which tends to be other people’s crises inflicted on you.
  • Quadrant IV is the Not Urgent/Not Important activities which may be fun for a change of pace but don’t produce real results.

Quadrant II is the essence of effective management, both as a person and for an organization.  Or rather, stay out of Quadrant III and IV to be effective (even if it means saying ‘no’).  

If you manage a team or department, it’s an interesting exercise to take and apply this matrix to see where your team is spending their time and if it’s producing the greatest results.  You will find that the Pareto Principle (a.k.a. the 80/20 rule) whereby 80% of the results flow from 20% of the activities is alive and well. Likewise, we can use this matrix to really zero in on the greatest bang for our buck with an Agile Transformation, putting first things first by focusing on Quadrant II.

To operate in Quadrant II and ultimately be effective, an organization must organize and execute around balanced priorities. This means knowing their priorities, organizing around them, and having the discipline to execute on them. As Covey wisely states, “The way you spend your time is a result of the way you see your time and the way you really see your priorities.” That reminds me of something a very wise woman (my mom) once said, “We work to fill the time allotted.” I didn’t really know what that meant until I became a mom myself and was challenged to juggle career and marriage while raising two vivacious boys. Now I know what that means as I am living it day in and day out. If we aren’t principle-centered in our priorities and we are focused on the unimportant, we will fill that time with Quadrant III and IV activities, when we aren’t reacting to Quadrant I. Know what’s important and focus on Quadrant II to spend that time wisely and be as effective as possible. So, how do we know what’s important?


Covey is clear that Quadrant II activities are the “first things” we need to put first. This is a key point of Habit 3 in that, not only do we need to prioritize, but we also need to know what’s important. Priority placed on the wrong things, those Quadrant III and IV activities, just gets us back to working to fill the time allotted. A focus on what’s most important, Quadrant II, maintains alignment with values and best serves our mission, both as an individual and for an organization.

Covey suggests there are four activities involved in organizing around and focusing on Quadrant II: 1) identify roles, 2) select goals, 3) scheduling, and 4) daily adapting.  If you’re like me, you can see the Agile in every one of those activities.  For an organization, this short-term organizing should give way to the long-term goals of the organization.  In the case of an Agile Transformation, the long-term goals should be based on the outcomes inherent in the end state vision we talked about with Habit 2, Begin With The End In Mind.  Specific to an organization, this short-term organizing is indeed an outcomes-based plan.  An outcomes-based plan is all about those Quadrant II activities. The more the (short-term) priorities of an agile transformation – those articulated in the outcomes-based plan – are tied back to the organization’s (long-term) goals of going Agile, the closer they get to their end state vision and the more effective the Agile Transformation will be.

Finally, Covey concludes Habit 3 with a call to action that every person and organization can do to become more effective. Get organized around Quadrant II and develop a paradigm to see through the lens of importance rather than urgency.


Habit 1, Be Proactive, and Habit 2, Begin With The End In Mind gave way to Habit 3, Put First Things First. So far, we’ve learned that a proactive organization (Habit 1) that has a mission sound end state vision (Habit 2) and works to realize it with a focus on what’s most important (Habit 3), is the beginnings of an effective Agile Transformation. Next time, we’ll take a look at Habit 4 – Think Win-Win and get into what Covey refers to as the Paradigms of Interdependence.

Next The Power of Resolute Purpose

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