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Agile Productivity: Willpower and the Neuroscience Approach

The 400% problem

Agile was invented for flexibility, frequent delivery, and shorter time to market, but when you ask your customers why they selected Scrum and what they expect, you will usually hear a lot about better team performance (read as more features for less money).

In 2006, Jeff Sutherland presented an article that showed the 400% hyper-productivity of a Scrum team in Java development. That was a real team in the company I worked for, and the 400% measured the amount of Java code per person per time with fixed quality. It seems that every customer has read that article and expects better productivity from you and your team just because you’ve started using agile. Irrespective of the real situation, process, and level of distribution, customers expect that agile means better productivity. 

It becomes an even worse problem when customers wonder why, if you can create more code with a different process, you cannot produce the same amount of code using the old process. Same people, same brains, so why not?

When you start agile, you expect not only more code from the developers but also more decision making, much more communication with product owner and stakeholders, and better understanding of business problems. You not only expand the amount of work but also the different types of activities that you want from the same people sitting at the same places. You are overloading your brains, heavily. And this becomes a survival mode — you’re not in working mode, not in thinking mode, not in productive mode. Are we able to function like that?

Productivity and willpower

What do you think of first when the topic is productivity? The number of tasks done in the timeframe and the speed it takes to get the tasks done?

Classic time management recommends how to check the time you spend during the day in order to let you concentrate on the important stuff, reduce non-productive breaks, and build a task list for the day, week, and month. You may also think about changing two or three habits, quitting smoking, jogging, and smiling. :)))

Project process improvements resemble that personal algorithm: a new process means more work today and a new, better life tomorrow. Not bad!

There’s one small pitfall, however. Once you start that new, better life with grander perspective and a lot of plans, you’re highly motivated and in a fantastic mood — but how long will that last? Statistically, three days (see Charles Duhigg’s talk, “The Power of Habit”). People do not recognize when they start to self-sabotage their commitments. They’re in a bad mood, get a cold, oversleep and skip the morning jog, or find other ways to doubt that the new goal is good for them. There is nothing wrong with the goal; it is the lack of willpower that prevents action towards the goal.


Where is willpower?

Willpower is located in the prefrontal cortex, which is a feature that distinguishes us from animals: only humans have a well-defined prefrontal cortex.

Look at brain structure as evolutionary layers:

1) The ancient brain (reptilian or lizard brain) is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, heartbeat, and other basic things. It closely resembles what modern crocodiles have, so we have our inner crocodile all the time.

2) The next layer is the limbic system, which houses our emotions. It is part of the mammalian brain that dogs and monkeys, for example, have.

3) The human neocortex (and the prefrontal cortex that’s part of it) makes us human beings. It is responsible for speech and rational decision making.

The main thing is that neocortex, the prefrontal cortex specifically, lets you make decisions that are not for immediate gratification. It lets you decide to now do something harder and not that pleasant that will bring gratification later. This is what we call “willpower”. 

You have your impulse self (reptilian brain and limbic system) and a rational self that protects you from that impulse self (see “The Science of Willpower”). Your prefrontal cortex protects you from your impulsive animal mind. But because the deeper layers of brain are older, more energy efficient, and more powerful, the impulse self has more energy than the rational self. You cannot switch off your internal crocodile or monkey. You can only use the neocortex to override them and prioritize rational decisions.

But if you are drunk, tired, sleep deprived or distracted, your prefrontal cortex does not work properly. You start making decisions based on immediate gratification (like drinking coffee with sugar to gain energy), not thinking about what will happen next. Also, when you use your prefrontal cortex too often or when its decisions continually contradict the crocodile while protecting you, it becomes drained and stops working. This is the willpower issue.

We use willpower more often than you think. For example, you use 270 willpower actions simply to choose what to eat. All of us use it thousands of times a day. All “I will” and “I will not” decisions use willpower.

Muscular theory of willpower

The muscular theory of willpower is currently popular. It says that willpower is like a muscle: when you use it, it becomes tired and needs time to recuperate. The positive aspect is that you can train your willpower and make it stronger.

Willpower, like everything in the body, is a set of biochemical reactions, which the neocortex and conscious mind do not directly manage. All you can recognize is that you are tired or in a bad mood or that your attention is not sharp. This is a signal that your willpower is close to running out and that you need to relax and recover.

How often do you really relax in such situations? Not very often, I will suppose. There are lots of things to do while the workday is in progress, so you instead take one more coffee with sugar (by the way, the worst thing you can do in such situation) and try to concentrate, writing more code and doing more brain work. Yes, you can keep yourself working for some time, but the quality of work will be not great and I hope you understand that you are incurring body and brain debts. It can’t go on.

Willpower fuels: Sugar and lysine

The willpower engine works on two sources of energy.

Sugar is not energy that’s specific to willpower; the brain needs a constant supply of glucose in the blood. Without it, the body goes into “desperately searching for sugar” mode. 

Lysine, an amino acid, also supplies energy. Amino acids are the structural elements of protein. When you eat protein, your body breaks it down and absorbs the component amino acids, which it uses to form your own proteins and regulation. No amino acids means no life. Lysine is an essential amino acid, meaning that you can only eat it; your body can generate non-essential amino acids from other chemical sources. This is why it’s dangerous for vegetarians to risk a dietary protein deficiency.

Your body cannot store surplus essential amino acids, so there’s little point to bingeing on them. Your body will eliminate any excess lysine or use it to form non-essential amino acids.

Your body has a number of uses for lysine. You use it for building your own protein, energy metabolism, and body recovery. The immune system depends on lysine. Lysine can also reduce the occurrence and severity of herpes infection.

Insufficient lysine negatively affects concentration and short-term memory. Low levels of lysine also trigger anxiety. Lysine deficiency also affects growth hormones, which can lead to reduced height, poor muscle power, impotency, and baldness.

When your body does not get enough lysine, in critical situations (and stress is a critical situation) it will break down muscle tissue for energy instead of fat.

Software developers who don’t get enough lysine cannot concentrate. They forget the tasks they are working on or where they were a minute ago. Their minds are wandering, thinking about everything except the task. Their moods may also be affected — bad moods without reasons, anxiety, nervousness, and overreacting. If something good happens, a lysine deficiency may prevent you from feeling joy, keeping your mood a constant grey for no reason. You want to use willpower to get to the work but without enough lysine you don’t have the willpower.

Productivity strategies and Scrum

Productivity depends on the ability to concentrate and to keep that concentration long enough to advance towards your goals and get results. This is especially important for hard mental activities.

Without training techniques to improve concentration, one can keep good work pace for less than four hours a day. After that, the productivity dramatically drops. But you can modify what is happening to you. You can adjust your work environment in ways that save or do not involve lysine (or willpower).

There are three tactics that have worked well for me:

  1. Include actions that do not need lysine at all.
  2. Avoid actions that need a lot of lysine.
  3. Restore the ability to enjoy success.

These three strategies to save willpower energy and increase the ability to concentrate and make decisions all depend on each other.

Scrum has the tools to get teams through all three willpower-boosting tactics, leaving practically no chance for low productivity. A big bonus is that you don’t have to explain to others how it works; it works even when you don’t understand what’s happening. Also, it takes the same amount of effort to create “normal” Scrum and “high-productive Scrum”. You need knowledge and understanding to establish high-productive Scrum. I will give examples what pieces of Scrum work for which of the three strategies, and you can adjust your approach based on your team and evaluate what else you can do.

Strategy 1: What actions do not involve lysine and willpower?


The brain does not spend much energy on habitual actions — only in the beginning to recognize that this is regular action and in the end to review the result — and willpower activity is minimal. It is changing the habit or establishing a new one that is difficult. The following graph shows the energy spent.


A ritual is a ceremony or action performed in a customary way, a series of actions or type of behaviour that you regularly and invariably follow. Ritual energizes us when we need to act or claim our power to make lasting change.

Neurologically, habit and ritual are like roads in the brain. When you use a neuronal chain for an action, the probability that the same chain will be used when you repeat the action is close to 100%. Neurons that fire together wire together. To build this road, you need to use a neuron chain for 66 days on average.


Flow is the most important state for productivity, but it is not only when you are concentrating on single, interesting, complex-but-not-too complex task outside of your surroundings and time at peak concentration. In the flow state, willpower is not used.

Endurance and patience also factor in. Endurance is how much time you can physically concentrate on a task and depends on your brain’s physical condition. Patience is how long you can work on a task after it starts to bore you so much that you want to stop. Flow uses endurance and does not use lysine. Patience requires constant willpower and quickly drains lysine.

You can use all three pieces of strategy 1 at the same time: use rituals to start the habit of working in a flow.

The Scrum stand-up and sprint pulse are examples of ritual and habit that prepare the brain for the action. To make them work as we want them to, they should always take place at the same time in the same place, using one schema of actions and the same questions. If the place or time changes or if you wait for people or start with new questions, you lose the habit and have to start building it again.

The sprint pulse (a defined schedule of main sprint activities, e.g. planning, retro, demo) has two important aspects. First is the habitual schedule of the main meetings and activities. After a few sprints, you don’t need to look at the calendar because you just know that the meeting is today. Second is that when you have a set meeting schedule, you can plan your work while expecting nothing to interrupt your flow. You have time to concentrate. Again, if you change the rules, meeting time, or meeting rituals, you must start from scratch.

The rule that developers personally take a task from the sprint backlog makes a task much more of a flow candidate (as developers use less willpower during implementation). The developer self-commits to the task and how interesting and difficult the task is depends on the person selecting it. When you give a developer a task, even by facilitating rather than by assignment, the task has less chance to enter flow mode because the worker’s level of interest and challenge are less innate.

Strategy 2: Avoid stress

Stress eats away at your willpower reserve.

When you are anxious or don’t know what is going to happen, your body produces adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol. High levels of cortisol can suppress the immune system and impair memory and cognitive function. Stress also reduces the amount of lysine in your bloodstream, in part because your body uses up lysine to cope with high levels of cortisol.

As a result of the biochemistry, stress can rob you of your concentration so that after reading a text you cannot remember what it was about. Your work can also suffer, which leads to more stress. It’s a vicious cycle: stress reduces your capability, which leads to more errors, which leads to more stress.

There are ways to deal with stress. For example, remove uncertainty from routine activities. Know what is expected and how it will be evaluated. Estimate task durations in advance and include time to rest.

Scrum offers much to help you remove uncertainty — and when you use them correctly, the results are immediate. Backlog-refinement meetings should move the team towards sprint planning, to the state when team is ready to commit because the members have confidence in the estimate and do not fear that they’ve missed anything important. You are not looking for an exactly accurate estimate but for confidence at the time of commitment and a feeling (in the crocodile brain, remember) of “this is doable”.

Story tests can guarantee that the work should be accepted, but only when a demo proceeds step by step through the story tests and follows the definition of done. This might not be as elegant as running through the functionality, but this accomplishment is what the team expects and what gave the team its initial confidence.

Changes are great and you will often accept them… in the next sprint. Your brain stops recognizing the result of something that has changed more than three times. To avoid this, redefine “change request” as “request for a new result”. The change in wording is very powerful: different words use different neural chains in the brain, forging new “roads” and leading to a different mental response.

Unit tests and test automation give independent external feedback about the result. Don’t underestimate the green tick!

Strategy 3: Get a result and get happy about it

At first, results don’t seem related to willpower, but you cannot achieve good results without spending willpower energy.

Result selling and authorization (“this is my result and I can sell it”) is straightforward. You are working within and dealing with the company (even if it is your own) in terms of results. You produce results, which the company buys in exchange for money and other rewards. That is a perfect system as long as you are producing material things but if you are producing something abstract, your brain is ill prepared to recognize whether or not you have produced something of value. 

Compare the making of a chair to managing a team that is writing bank software that calculates derivatives of derivatives. In the latter case, your crocodile brain shouts, “Where is my chair? You didn’t do anything!” In such situations, you should precisely define your goal, how you can reach it, how you can confirm that you’ve achieved it, and link it with your earnings. Without doing that, people try for any additional results, adding tasks and activities and draining energy on unimportant but easily understood results. And this leads to the vicious cycle of errors and stress.

If you work and earn your money, but you have no physical result to sell, you may question what it is you are selling. You are selling time, energy, knowledge, and dedication… — you are selling yourself! And you are your most valuable asset, a unique and non-renewable one. You want a good price for this valuable resource — at least, a fair price. The chance that you get exactly what your mind considers the right price for your effort is low.

When you’re underpaid, your crocodile brain, which makes decisions and rules emotions, thinks that you’re not valuable and that predators are closing in to eat you. This is stressful and leads into the cycle of stress, cortisol, less concentration, poor results, more stress, etc. And this type of stress is constant.

Thinking you’re overpaid can be even more stressful: you fear that the pay is a mistake because you’re not so talented and that he company will soon fix its mistake and release you. Your crocodile brain translates this to “They will eat me!”

To reduce stress, shift from selling yourself to selling your results. This is the second-most-effective tip, after the working in the flow, for improving your productivity.

In addition to getting and selling results, you can place yourself in a success well. The concept of the success well is based on the fact that to forecast our future, our brain needs to have a memory of a successful accomplishment. Sure, you can dream about a better experience than your current one, but your croc brain will not accept it until you habitually achieve success, either large successes or the set of small continuous successes that build confidence and create anticipation (backed by dopamine, the hormone of happiness). Scrum powerfully allows people to regularly plan, achieve, and realize their own and team results.

The whole Scrum structure helps you to see frequent results: every short release, every sprint, every task completed.

Demos and customers who accept the stories also contribute. All these presentations, story-test scripts, green ticks, and the final customer acceptance are visible and frequent achievements often confirmed by an important person. If you don’t invite the team to the demo or don’t follow the “accepted/not accepted” game, team members feel no inner accomplishment.

You can manage the size of tasks in sprint planning. Each task should take no more than a day to promote success. With tasks this size, each developer and tester can achieve a personal success with a task every day. After that success, team members may feel like taking on another task or go home — they have reached their daily goal and sold it.

If you use fixed-price agile, with a contract that states that a customer pays not for time but for the accepted stories or business result, “selling the result” is not abstract but real. A result means money coming in.

Compound strategies

The concept of compound interest is the single most powerful idea in economics. In the field of software development, it means that the impact of several combined small actions is larger than the impact of all those individual actions. Also, the longer you practice, the greater the output. Small actions acting for a long time have great effect on your life. This applies to the practices described in this article. If you implement one, that’s not bad — but if you add another and another, the compound effect will provide ever-greater results. When you modify your existing Scrum process to include the three strategies that help you to save willpower, you can expect results in a month (two sprints).

If you don’t see results, probe your crocodile mind. Does it feel okay, calm, confident, energetic? If not, do a retrospective and change. Sometimes, the brain is so tired that it needs time to believe that you can live with less stress and overwork.

Any process, if you understand how it affects your brain and body and what works towards or retards productivity, can be made effective. These three willpower-saving strategies are already included in Scrum — you just need to ensure that you use them correctly. You can create with them a work environment that will support your and your team’s productivity.

More importantly, saving willpower can benefit you even after the full workday. You will still have the energy and willpower for anything you want to do for personal success.

I hope you now understand that the 400% increase in production over the industry average is not so large an expectation. You can achieve that by not running for the result, but just working with pleasure.

About the Author

Anna Obukhova is a global agile portfolio-delivery manager for a large investment bank in London. She’s worked with agile methodologies since 2004 as a ScrumMaster, project/program/portfolio manager and agile coach, and is mainly interested in distributed and dispersed projects and effectiveness of team communication in such conditions. Her passion is to collect and share the best industry and company practices in agile management. She helps agile teams and programmers to improve their processes and transition from waterfall to agile in corporate environments. She uses her education in biology to connect working tips and recommendations with the natural processes that happen in our bodies (especially in the brain). She believes it can explain a lot and she’s very excited about how naturally agile works.

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