Are We Biologically Programmed to Work in Agile Methodology?16 Mar 2016

Our brain is a complex organ, which sometimes can be subjected to tricks that will make it work better for our purpose. Find out if and why are we really well designed to work in a truly Agile way.

Biologically Programmed to Work in Agile Methodology


To do anything, we need to want to do it first. But willpower is a very precious commodity within our brain. Some claim that applying a new process approach (i.e. Agile) will cost people to have to spend even more energy and willpower. Thanks to Anna Obukhova's great biological take on Agile and willpower we can see this is not true.

The main difficulty

Our resistance to change is natural. It results with lack of motivation, dedication and - mainly - willpower.

Although we want to go and apply the change, we lack the energy necessary to do it. This can be traced directly back to the way our brains are built. The reptilian brain, responsible for our self-preservation, is the oldest one. On top of this there is the limbic system, letting us find our way within a society. Above this there is the "human" brain (neo-cortex), which helps us think abstractly and objectively. The oldest parts of the brain are the strongest ones. Seeing, that a forced change is an external force, needed to be approached consciously and with a lot of abstract-future thinking and effort, it makes sense that we often struggle to welcome a difficult change. Keeping the willpower energy levels up is hard work for humans. Let's see what can be done to make this happen.

Save your willpower

This is best done by limiting its consumption. First of all, we need to sleep well, relax and avoid making decisions that needn't to be made. In the office, this is greatly achieved by finding our flow. Flow is a state somewhere between anxiety and boredom, when we know what to do and how to best do it, no further decisions need making.

Activities that we do basing on habits are not costing us much willpower, so let's make habits and stick to a once set plan. It's great to have set rituals, like a daily Stand-Up meeting, "second Thursday of the month" meet, retrospectives, review and planning meetings etc. Also, having a backlog of work items to choose from is a perfect situation for the willpower. Knowing how tired or energized we are, we can match the difficulty of the task to your given energy state during the day. On top of this, choosing items for ourselves tricks the brain into believing this is more interesting and fun than any task that someone else had assigned us to.

Don't let others decrease your willpower

Other people and certain situations influence our willpower by putting us under stress, raising uncertainty and anxiety. What to do?
Regular refinement of items that need work lets us reduce anxiety and ensure us that we know what these tasks will entail, what to expect. Testing items ensures we're all on the same page, and having a common definition of done is the key. The anxiety comes from thinking: have I done this right? As long as all team members know what is expected - and this does not change half-way through (or just before the demo of the product) - we are able to calmly work on our tasks.

Also, we need to treat change requests as regular occurrence - standardize their submitting pattern and think of them as just another task. In cases where a change is requested for the same item multiple times, it would help if it's not always the same person making the change, as we can only register so many changes before we lose focus on an item, and cannot see further need for improvement.

See the results and sell the results

In order to feel enabled for succeeding, our brains need to be fed success in at least small amounts regularly. Otherwise, it's incomprehensible for our brain to think "I will achieve something great". How to be fed success on a daily basis? Using check-lists, so that we can tick things off a number of times a day, make tasks small, so that each day we know there is something we've accomplished. Human brain loves this.

This is how moving tasks cards is so good for us, every time you move a card to "done" - this is a small success. In order to be focused and successful, and first of all creative, people need to be paid accordingly to their value, respectful of how they see it. An underpaid employee will be unavailable (as their brain is focused in "flight to another job" mode), and an overpaid one will be anxious that with any mistake they make, it will be known they were overestimated. In other words, people need to feel they are selling their results at just the right price.

Having understood this, it's quite impossible to argue that doing work in Agile methodology is unnatural, isn't it? Once we understand how well this approach cooperates with the way our brains work, it starts to make a whole lot more, new sense. Enjoy Agile!

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