Building Relationships Between Agile Teams and Stakeholders

Posted by Ben Linders on Nov 26, 2014 |

Neuroscience tell us that humans are wired to connect with each other says Jenni Jepsen. Results from neuroscience research can be used in our daily work to strengthen relationships in the workplace and improve collaboration between agile teams and their stakeholders.

In the InfoQ article the neuroscience of agile leadership Jenni Jepsen wrote about how we can shift our mindsets to become more agile. In this article she explained how neuroscience helps to understand why people oppose to change and how we can deal with it: 

Change of any kind, including a change to working Agile, is perceived by the brain as extreme novelty. And we are hard-wired to resist change. The error detection systems in the brain light up when there is something new or unusual in your environment making us extremely resistant to change. And, if this error detection system fires too often, it brings on a constant state of anxiety or fear.

What can we as leaders do to overcome this? We can help people to break down the changes into smaller pieces – the same way we do when we plan in an Agile way. We work at a sustainable pace taking one thing on at a time. So rather than be overwhelmed by the long list of things we must do, we take it a step at a time, show our results and get feedback.

Jenni learned from neuroscience that building relationships is something that people do naturally, humans are wired to connect with each other. At the XP Days Benelux 2014 conference Jenni  will talk about how neuroscience and human nature can help us to create relationships with stakeholders. InfoQ will cover this conference with write-ups, Q&As and articles.

InfoQ interviewed Jenni about building relationships and what we can learn from neuroscience, dealing with uncertainty, and improving collaboration between agile teams and stakeholders.

InfoQ: Agile values customer collaboration, the manifesto tells us that business people and developers should work together to deliver valuable software. How does building relationships fit into this?

Jenni: Simply put, relationships equals results. When we feel connected to people, the communication bandwidth is wider – we know each other, so we have an easier time understanding each other’s needs – or we are more willing to invest the time to understand. And this leads to creating real value together, usually faster. Building these relationships also builds trust and that deepens the strength of our relationships. It’s a very positive spiral.

InfoQ: Can you explain the neuroscience behind your statement that “we are wired to connect with others”?

Jenni: Our evolutionary wiring predisposes us to being social. Social connection is a fundamental need, as is food, water and shelter. When we are born, we must be connected to someone who can give us nourishment and shelter. And, we have evolved so that fundamental needs cause pain (such as, hunger and thirst) forcing us to seek relief. Social disconnection activates the brain’s pain circuitry and causes ”social pain” – which in our brains is the same as experiencing physical pain. The research also shows that we are able to keep track of our social interactions because we have a larger, more developed cortex than any other animals. Our brains have evolved to support social connection.

InfoQ: What surprises me is that many teams find it challenging to collaborate effectively with their stakeholders, even though neuroscience teaches us that it is a natural thing. What are your thoughts on this?

Jenni: While we are wired to connect naturally, there are many things in the workplace that put us into survival mode and make it difficult to collaborate effectively. When we first meet someone, our brains are “sizing the other person up,” conducting a check of our unconscious memory about people we’ve met before who are similar to this new person, or whether we have heard, read or know something about them that is important. We do this usually without realizing it, and it is the brain’s “friend or foe” check, if you will. We need to know if this person is good for us, or might hurt us. If it is the latter, then trusting them to collaborate effectively will be difficult. Our brains are telling us “beware!”

Another challenge to collaboration is based on our own past experiences – again, building relationships is about trust. If stakeholders have not been fair, or treated someone poorly in the past, that does not predispose us to trusting them now. This is known as “inequity aversion.” Being treated fairly by others seems to signal acceptance and is experienced as intrinsically rewarding in our brains.

Stress in the workplace is the last major deterrent to collaboration that I’ll mention. When we are stressed, our brains automatically put us into survival mode – we want to fight, freeze or get out of there. And in this condition, we expect and see more threats or danger, even where there are none. It’s hard to want to work closely with stakeholders if we perceive them as a source of more stress.

InfoQ: In your article on the neuroscience of agile leadership you mentioned that planning for uncertainty as we do in agile actually helps to create certainty. Can you elaborate why this is the case?

Jenni: Sure. Two reasons. One, is because just knowing that we don’t know is a form of certainty – at least in our brains. And two, because we plan and develop in iterations, it is much easier to change course as we learn more. This gives us certainty that we are following the value. Iterative development also shows a strategic awareness that we are positioned for change – we are flexible, AGILE, in the work. In addition to allowing our brains to stop worrying and focus our thinking, it also builds trust with stakeholders.

InfoQ: Can you give examples of how building relationships with stakeholders has helped to deal with uncertainty and collaborate effectively?

Jenni: Yes, here are three examples. We were working with middle managers to reorganize teams in a more Agile set-up. 150 people would be affected by the change. The managers wanted to have control over the entire process – deciding who would be on what team. There was an incredible amount of uncertainty related to new team compositions from the managers and from the individual team members. We convinced the managers to talk with each of their team members to share more about the new set up and find out what were each team member’s first and second choices of teams they would like to be part of, and where they absolutely did not want to work. What ended up happening is that 80% of the team members got their first choice. No one was put on a team they did not want to be on. The managers were surprised at the results and team members expressed a high satisfaction level with the process. This would not have happened without the one-on-one, trust-building conversations the managers had with their people, or if the managers had not trusted us enough to try this approach.

Another example I have is from a series of master planning workshops driven by the business side together with stakeholders across the organization, including upper management and IT. There was a tremendous level of doubt about the value of this planning process and the amount of time required up front to understand together. We did a lot of pre-work – talking about the process, setting expectations and goals for the workshops. After we finished the three workshops, there was complete buy-in to the plan – a first in that organization! Getting that buy-in required creating relationships where stakeholders trusted the business and the process.

Finally, an example that we see every time we work with organizations transforming to Agile. There is always uncertainty around the change. And there is usually a feeling of suspicion or fear about what this will mean for people. In order to accelerate the adoption of Agile practices which lead to the transformation, we have to create strong relationships with the people affected via workshops, one-on-one conversations, short presentations about what’s-In-it-for-each person, trainings, and then a gentle approach to implementation: one that builds trust. When I say gentle approach, I mean break the change into smaller chunks and let teams decide what they want to implement first, and so on until they’re running Agile. We also have to build relationships with business stakeholders if they are not already involved in the transformation. They are the ones responsible for optimizing the value and they are really the ones who can help us create an environment where Agile doesn’t just work in their organizations, but rocks!

InfoQ: Can neuroscience also help us to improve collaboration between teams? How?

Jenni: Yes, what we know is that collaboration is a socially rewarding process, and that competition requires additional mentalizing resources – meaning that we use more energy to try to figure out what the others will do when we compete. Energy we could use instead to solve real problems or deliver value faster.

So, the question becomes how can we create an environment where collaboration is valued? An environment that supports collaborative ways of working, rather than supporting competition? When we create this collaborative space – in and across teams – we can get the best, focused thinking power out of people.

InfoQ: At XP days you will show tips and techniques to build relationships. Can you share some of them with the InfoQ readers?

Jenni: Of course! None of my ideas are rocket science, however they support the neuroscience of being wired to connect. Here’s a quick list:

  1. SMILE! It’s amazing the power of smiling. We are drawn to people who smile at us.
  2. Ask questions, then be quiet and LISTEN – really listen – to what people have to say.
  3. Take 5 or 10 minutes each day to ask about/share more personal things with someone. It could be after a meeting, coffee break, at lunch, or even walking to the parking lot or train station. Listen when another person mentions something personal, and remember and ask about it later.
  4. Offer to help someone and follow through. Or help without being asked.
  5. Thank someone for something they did for you. Show your appreciation.
  6. Be nice – we are more inclined to like people who are nice to us.
  7. Finally, physical touch – a handshake, hug or pat on the back, for example – releases oxytocin in our brains. This is the hormone that makes us feel connected to another person; it is sometimes referred to as the “bonding hormone.” It’s why mothers are patient caring for their crying babies, why we feel good when we kiss our partners, and why we tip more when waitresses give us a quick touch on the arm when they give us the bill.

About the Interviewee

Jenni Jepsen is a partner at goAgile, based in Denmark. She has extensive experience in change leadership and communications, and integrates neuroleadership concepts into her Agile coaching, training and sparring with leaders at every level to help people create lasting change. Jenni has her Certificate in NeuroLeadership, is a certified Strategic Play© with LEGO® Serious Play™ facilitator, and a certified DSDM Agile Project Leader.

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