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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Jenni Jepsen on the Neuroscience Behind Why Agile Works

Jenni Jepsen on the Neuroscience Behind Why Agile Works


1. Good day, this is Shane Hastie with InfoQ, we’re at QCon London and I am here with Jenni Jepsen. Jenni, welcome, thank you for taking the time to come talk to us today; you and I know each other, but you would mind briefly introducing yourself for the audience?

Sure. I am an agile coach working in Denmark, but I work with companies in Europe and I focus on helping create lasting change so I do that by involving and engaging people and I happen to believe very strongly in agile as a way of working, I think that helps get people to a point where they are working differently. So, that is what I do. And I speak and I write every now and then.


2. Cool, great, thank you. Now, you gave a talk on the neuroscience track today; what is some of the important neuroscience behind why agile seems to work?

I love this because agile fits all the ways that we are motivated as people and so it doesn’t matter what culture you are from, what background you are, what the neuroscience shows is that we all have the same sort of social motivations and those are represented very nicely with the SCARF model, David Rock is one of the proponents, but Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness and all of those elements give us something to hang on to and when we work in an agile way it addresses all of those motivators, so sometimes, status- that’s sort of the pecking order, how we fit in this, so in agile it’s very clear what the roles and responsibilities are and there is a lot of value in each role; certainty, sometimes people say “oh, there is no certainty in agile”, I think “oh, that’s crazy”, there is so much structure and certainty, what we don’t know for sure is exactly what we are going to get to, but we understand the value, we know how long our sprints are, we know there is a backlog, we know all the different ceremonies, in Scrum for instance, or if we work in Kanban we know that hey, nothing is coming in until something flows to the next queue, so there is a lot of certainty there, the demos give predictability to the business and they have the demos each month, so people know when it’s going to happen, so certainty is addressed there.

The next motivator is autonomy and agile is fantastic for that. So, self-organizing teams, teams that understand the value that they are going to deliver, how to do it- that’s up to the teams to decide, so it matches our motivation there. The relatedness is the next motivator and again, when we understand together and plan together, where we see the first two agile principles, this is all about the connection and understanding and learning together, so that builds the connectedness that we have to each other and that is a motivator, it sends the dopamine up in our brains and it allows us to focus more creatively on problem-solving and getting to that value faster.

So the last one is fairness; I also think, if you look at the product backlog, for instance, that is such a wonderful tool of fairness in an organization because of course there are competing stakeholder groups that have different priorities and maybe a team is working with, especially in large organizations, one team is probably getting items from a lot of different areas, but they have one product backlog, so then it’s up to those product owners, or product owner groups or whatever they are called in the organization, to decide together and then it goes into the backlog because we can only have one number one priority and so when something else comes up, of course there is room for production issues or whatever, they can take top priority, but then we understand that the other things go down and so fairness, we may not agree with it, we may not like it, but it feels fair in our brains and there are a lot of examples in agile that support how our brains operate to open up thinking.

Shane: So, the neuroscience backs up all of this stuff.

It does, it does.

Shane: You mentioned one of the things you love to do is create lasting change in an organization, that’s a big challenge.

It is, and it’s this big overall purpose in my life and if I were to say taking a Scrum look at this, creating lasting change that would be the theme level maybe, pretty big theme, and then break it down into epics, what’s involved in that, and so involving and engaging people and what the change is all about, why do we want to work agile, what’s the value that we are going to create, then looking at leadership, intent-based leadership, how do we create leaders at every level in the organization, so that people really are empowered, it’s not “hey, you are empowered, Shane, I am giving you this power”, that’s not empowerment, empowerment is the feeling that I have as an individual or as a team to decide and to do and to act and to know that I will not be punished for it in the organization, that is real empowerment. So, each of those things, I mentioned two, but of course there are a lot more, then you need to break those down, what are the user stories that go into that; it’s a big task depending on the organization and I am fortunate enough right now to be working in quite a large organization where some are very open and very willing and excited about this way of working and others are “hey, you know, this agile stuff, we’ve seen this before and isn’t this something like lean… yeah, yeah, you guys just do that and we will do that”.

Shane: The next fad, it’s going to go away…

Exactly. So it’s also looking at how do we help people understand the value of the change and what’s in it for them, so we need to start where people are at and not try to force everything, so if you look at the agile approach to working, we are chunking down things into pieces of work that we can actually accomplish in a period of time and that is the same way I think today most agile coaches are approaching transformations, we are chunking things down, so we don’t come in and say “ok, now you must do a standup meeting, do a backlog, product backlogs, start your tool…”, whatever it is, every single ceremony of scrum or whatever; it’s more about ok, here is the context of the change, this is why we want to do it, we believe that agile or one of the agile processes is a great way to work, what would you like to see, what do you like to try first, here are some things on the buffet, here are some things you could try.

Shane: Back to empowerment.

Exactly. So that is the approach, I think, to help people get through this.


3. You mentioned leadership at every level; what does that mean?

It’s interesting because I am doing a lot of my work in Scandinavia, and there is not a distinction in terminology, at least not in Danish, between manager and leader and this is where English is richer, so managing is handling the things that need to get done, so of course there are a lot of tasks that need to get done, that’s managing and sometimes it’s about managing people which kind of makes my skin crawl, because I think we don’t need to manage people, and leadership I see as something different. Leadership is about creating an environment where people can thrive, where they feel valued, where they deliver value, where people are motivated and happy and self-organized and all of those great benefits, and that’s I think the job of the leader. So how do we create those environments where people feel valued, where they can thrive? And we can do that at every level in the organization, every level there is leadership, not just the top level where the CEO is the leader, no, no, we want to create this culture of leadership where everybody in the organization wants to do their part in creating this environment where people feel valued.


4. Again, this links to that concept of empowerment that you were talking about earlier. How, if we don’t empower people by saying “thou art empowered”, how do we create an environment and a culture that supports that empowerment?

The biggest thing I think managers can do on their journey to be leaders or leaders do already is to not punish people when they fail and sometimes, every now and then, not with any of my clients, but every now and then I hear about companies that say “hey, we have an open environment, of course it’s safe to fail, not a problem”, but what happens is that when teams actually fail or somebody screws up or does something wrong, it’s “oh, do you know how much this is costing us?” and there are a lot of things that happen where the verbal message is different from what the actual message is and there is no congruence in the behavior and what’s said to people, so the message then becomes “oh, they say that, except when failure does happen we either get yelled at or we don’t get the bonus because we didn’t meet our KPI or whatever”, there are a lot of things set up in an organization to support that hey, failure is not an option, so we need to break those things down, I think breaking down KPIs would be a really great starting point, bonuses forget about it, competition, team performance, forget about it, it’s only valuable for the teams, increasing their velocity, their feeling of ownership, pride in the work that they are doing, the value that they feel, that’s valuable for them, measuring that team against another team and saying how come you are not as good as the other team, that doesn’t work, forget about that. So there are so many mechanisms in organizations that don’t support empowering people and I think that “failure is not an option” is the biggest one, so they say one thing but they do something else.

Shane: That’s a big shift.

Yes, it is. Because of course, especially in the western culture, maybe all cultures, we’ve been so socialized that if we make a mistake we feel shame or we feel stupid or “oh, I can’t believe how dumb I was, I can’t believe I did that, how did this happen, oh, it’s terrible”, and we start beating ourselves up instead of thinking immediately what can I learn from this, of course I don’t want to make the same mistake again. I think about this, I practice this actually in my daily life, every now and then my husband does something wrong or I make a mistake, break a wine glass, either something very small is a way to test this, maybe somebody spills milk, a little child comes to dinner, spills milk all over the table, you know what, the milk is already spilled, does it help anyone to say how did this happen, that doesn’t change the reality of the spilled milk. So, what we want to do is “hmmm, let’s take a look at this, what can we do differently?” Now, the spilled milk, that’s an easy one, but when we look at organizations, maybe somebody didn’t deliver the value on time or went over or delivered something that they thought was working software and really the system crashed and all these customers are impacted by this; yeah, guess what? Yelling at somebody about it is not going to change the fact that it happened. So, let’s focus on the positive parts of what we can do differently and if we yell at people, punish people, it sends our brains into that fight, flight or freeze area so there is no way we can come up with any solutions in that because we are just trying to survive this situation. What we want to do is say “uh, ok, it happened, it’s not good, in fact it really is bad, however, how fast can we change it, what can we do now, what do you need, what support can I give you to make this happen so we can get it fixed quickly” and maybe take a look at what can we do differently next time so we reduce the chance of it happening again? And I don’t mean putting in some sort of risk analysis, a template that somebody needs to fill out because we made this mistake once, no, the lasting change is in that habit of made “we a mistake, not so good, let’s figure out how to do it differently next time”.

Shane: So, inspect and adapt, and ongoing learning.


Shane: And trust?

Trust? Yes, that’s hard for us, it’s that whole control thing because we as people, we like the certainty, we like to have control, and even if that certainty is a false sense of certainty, especially in a waterfall way of working, I mean come on: a one year project, fixed time, scope and budget, it’s an illusion of certainty, but the thing is it gives people, project managers, a sense of safety, a sense of security, a sense of control over the situation, so if we know that people need that control, that sense of safety, what can we do differently, how can we meet that need and still work in an agile way? So the communication part of working agile is so important and when I talked about intent- based leadership, I’m inspired by David Marquet who came up with the term, and that is all about the communication up and down and across “I intend to do this”, it doesn’t mean I am asking for your permission for me to do it, it’s I’m informing you and maybe you know something that I should know, so when I say “hey, Shane, I intend to whatever”, you can say “ah, well, that sounds interesting and have you thought about this and what is the value in that” and ask me questions and challenge me as my leader, perhaps. And the same way, if I am the product owner and say to the Scrum team “hey, I intend to do this with the other stakeholders”, the scrum team can then just say “hmmm, have you thought about these non-functional requirements, for instance”, “ah, no”, or “have you thought about if we do this this way, we can change this on the other side”. So it’s really that openness and talking about it that allows people to have that sense of empowerment, at least I think so.

Shane: Jenni, thank you, that is really interesting. Tthanks for talking the time to talk to InfoQ today and enjoy the rest of the conference.

Thanks for having me, thanks, Shane.

May 05, 2015