The Psychology of Agile

Tracey Waters
Apr 27, 2018 · 5 min read

A long time ago, I did a Masters degree in Clinical Psychology. My specialism was children and anxiety. After graduating, I never worked a day as a child psychologist. I found myself pulled towards organisations and culture. In particular, unlocking the phenomenal potential of human beings. I found my natural place to be in the world of learning and development.

For a decade and a half I focused my efforts on leaders, managers and employees. All was going well, I thought. Then, for reasons, explained in a previous blog, we hit a stumbling block. There was no way around or through this block; instead we had to radically rethink our entire reason for being, and how we organised ourselves. We chose Agile as the block breaker.

Agile appears to be a hot topic in HR at the moment. I’ve heard it used to explain everything from flexible working practices to being more responsive to business requests. I’ve also seen it applied badly in an adhoc way (usually spotted when someone says ‘we tried Agile; it didn’t work’). These observations make me even more cognisant of the mantra the Agile crowd keep repeating: it’s all about mindset. Not ceremonies. Not renaming old things in Agile words. Not cherry-picking techniques.

Since August 2016, I have seen firsthand how Agile can transform a team, the way it works and the outputs it produces. I have also seen how to stuff it up very quickly and, fortunately, get it back on the right track. It is no surprise to me, that many of the underlying principles of Agile tap directly into well-established human performance factors. Here are the obvious ones:

  1. Clear, achievable (stretchy) goals: sprint goals need to be purposefully set to be achieved in a short time frame (like a 2 week sprint). It gives a clear finish line people can aim for.
  2. Visible work: putting tasks into tech tools like Trello, Planner or Jira help people to see what’s being done, to be done and done. Less surprises mean people can focus their limited attentional resources on the right work.
  3. Measurable progress: it’s enormously satisfying to move a card into the Done column. I bet the brain gives that person’s brain a little hit of dopamine for their efforts, too.
  4. Regular connection: Daily standups. These are as much about a group of people staying connected with each other, as it is about keeping up with the work and any changes. People feel part of the team and part of the work. The typical fortnightly project meeting is out of sync with the real world, in my opinion.
  5. Collective thinking: there’s a lot of talk in the press at the moment about diversity. One reason is because study after study has shown that a team of people who bring different perspectives get better outcomes. They each add something to make it better. Agile is fundamentally built around the power of a diverse team of people.
  6. Data over opinions: Data is influence. I have seen time after time how even a small amount of real data can trump a highly paid person’s opinion. The more relevant, real-time data a team can access and use to guide its own decisions, the more autonomous it can become.
  7. Team coach: Scrum master. This role serves many purposes. The most important one for me is the servant leader role. The scrum master guides the team, supports the team, and helps the team — without a personal agenda. Why do you think elite athletes have coaches?
  8. Reflection time: Retrospectives are about regularly taking time to look back and then look forward. Asking seemingly simple questions like, ‘what went well?’ and ‘what could we do better?’ help a team learn fast — by itself.
  9. Failure = feedback = learning: Our team has had many failures (we’ve blogged about several of them). The longest failure took a whole month to realise. Our best failures are same-day. It is liberating for a human being to reframe ‘negative’ feedback as a saviour of wasted time and effort.
  10. Celebrating success: Showcases. I even love the word! The feelings in these 30 minute experiences are pride, excitement — and sometimes relief! If you can get yourself a hit of that every 2 weeks or so, you turbo boost a high performing team.

To emphasise my point here, take a moment to reflect on how many standard corporate practices demotivate, disengage, exhaust, stress, and sometimes break a human being. Here’s the magic formula:

  1. Make sure people have no idea what’s going on, who is doing what or what’s on the horizon. Ideally, make it a secret only a small number of people know.
  2. Change the goalposts regularly, making sure it feels out of the team’s control. Set impossible targets for no good reason.
  3. Keep doing work over and over without measuring it, preferably because it’s what we’ve always done.
  4. Have fortnightly one hour meetings. The best ones are where the first 15 mins are spent arriving late and making small talk, followed by updating a spreadsheet no one looks at, and ending in the realisation no real progress has been made.
  5. Put individuals in charge of single things with individual objectives and measures, whilst at the same time encouraging them to ‘collaborate’ and criticising them when they don’t.
  6. Make sure senior people get to interfere in their work at the last minute. Those HiPPOs* can destroy morale and motivation astonishingly fast.
  7. Focus entirely on tasks, never on the human being. Definitely don’t let people’s real lives creep into the workplace. Or have fun.
  8. Never stop or pause. Just keep going. Even better, make the same mistakes over and over and over …
  9. Avoid feedback and, most definitely criticism, until you ‘big bang launch’ your amazing project – that no one else likes or cares about. Surprise! Nothing like wasting 3,6,12 months of your life.
  10. While you’re not stopping or pausing, the good news is there definitely won’t be any time to celebrate, say thanks or give praise. Phew!

If you want Agile to truly be a gamechanger for you, then your journey might need to start with just enough understanding of human psychology to know WHY Agile is designed the way it is.

* HIghly Paid Person’s Opinion

Agile in Learning

Experimenting with Agile in non-techie teams

Tracey Waters

Written by

Agile in Learning

Experimenting with Agile in non-techie teams

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