Agile, the “customer-value driven, sprint orientated, small team” way of working has been suggested to increase a number of organizational KPI’s, but of most interest to me is its potential affect on levels of employee engagement.
What started as a way of working to develop software is now being rolled out across whole organizations, so as this evolution takes place its interesting to explore: is there something fundamentally brain-friendly about agile that makes it work so well, and if so, what is it?
From my research into this I have come up with 4 main areas where I feel agile is potentially driving up employee engagement: cultivating a state of flow, increasing presence, reducing fight/flight triggers and boosting intrinsic motivation.
A state of Flow
When an agile sprint is in full-force there is a tremendous focus on what’s to be achieved. Goals are clear, challenging, but achievable, and are re-clarified each day at the daily scrum. Its timed, usually a 2 week sprint and to use the agile phrase “done is done” - its really clear whether you achieved the goals or not. This puts our brains in to a state described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as flow. A psychologically good state shared by professional sports people and artists, where we are fully engaged in what we are doing.
A state of Presence
But Agile is not just about sprints. Agile is also about being very focused on customer value (or whatever the main purpose is) but remaining open enough to see, but not be unnecessary distracted by, change. It’s not a sole focus on the goal, as we would then miss changing priorities, and it’s not a complete openness to everything, as we would then lack the focus to reach the goal. It’s a state where we do both. This is called being present, and along with flow, it is an optimum state of psychological functioning.
Both flow and presence give us energy, keep us engaged and fuel positive emotions.
So that’s some of the good stuff, but agile also removes some of the toxic ways of working more traditional organizations have. By having self-managing teams working in sprints a number of our usual ego-triggers are diminished. Using the acronym SCARF from David Rock, we can look at each of these triggers in turn and see how agile ways of working neutralize them.
Safety – is provided in the form of team membership and felt through the role of a scrum coach, who’s role it is to look after the team’s wellbeing and promote harmony.
Certainty - of what is required in any sprint; it’s time boxed and with radical transparency everyone can see what has been committed to. As agile teams get more experienced working together they improve on their level of certainty that they can deliver what they say they will.
Autonomy – you sign up for what you can do in the time given. Task are not handed out, they are self-selected. Autonomy is preserved as a self-managed team.
Relationships – as a team the relationships matter, agile teams are kept small (ideally 5-11 people), which helps all members have a relationship with every other member.
Fairness – in an agile team it is expected that you all muck in together, you don’t just stop when your work is finished, you all pull together to get the job done. Equally, you are not asked to do more than is fair.
We face these SCARF triggers on an almost daily basis at work, kicking off our fight/flight reactions. However many of the factors for intrinsic motivation are also covered in this list above, but agile hits on two more drivers of intrinsic motivation, in addition to Autonomy and Relationships:
Mastery - agile ways of working give people the ability to get really practiced at something, to develop deep skills, but also to add on new skills – a T-model of competencies is encouraged where people can bring their whole range of skills, deep or shallow, to help the team.
Purpose – Most agile teams put customer value at the center, they have a purposeful drive towards this and each decision about priorities or goals is couched in terms of this clear purpose.
So it seems that agile aligns well with what we know about optimum brain states of flow and presence, as well as boosting intrinsic motivation and reducing the toxic triggers of our flight/fight response.
Not bad for a software development technique; one to thank your IT department for.
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