“Act our way to new thinking” – Jenni Jepsen about Agile

Jenni Jepsen

Jenni Jepsen is a transformation advisor at Denmark-based goAgile. She helps transforming organizations to achieve a lasting change. By working closely with the organizations, Jenni supports the people there in increasing organizational effectiveness, motivation and results. She consults, writes and speaks worldwide about leadership, communications and Agile. For Discover CEE, she answered some questions on Agile and how to do it right.

You say that you help companies “to make agile work”. What is the biggest problem companies face when they decide to start an agile transformation?

What we see time and time again is that the focus is so much on the “ceremonies” of Agile that organizations “forget” that Agile transformations are a change process – and people have different starting points for that change. To make Agile work, we need to introduce new ways of working at a sustainable pace, and in a context that makes sense for the individual. Giving people as much influence in the implementation as possible is one way to make the transformation work better. 

There’s a balance though. We also need to “ACT OUR WAY TO NEW THINKING,” and not “think our way to new acting.” So, we must decide to do something different and do it to make it work. That means we have to actually start planning in a new way, or having our meetings in a new way, or accept that we must get feedback to guide our decisions, or involve our customers, or, or, or… The balance of what is done with each person’s different starting point is the key to making Agile work.

Why should companies take the step anyway? Is this a path that suits everyone?

If we think about Agile in a more pragmatic way – taking a step back from the frameworks of Scrum, Kanban, SAFe, etc. – the underlying way of working is about understanding together, planning together, validating together, and reflecting together. We call them the “Involve & Engage Principles.” If we are doing those four things, we are Agile. All the events, ceremonies, processes of the various Agile frameworks are essentially facilitation techniques to enable us to understand together, plan together, validate together, and reflect together. (We have a book coming out in mid-November that is all about this. It’s called: TOGETHER – How leaders involve & engage people to get great things done.)

When you look at Agile through the lens of these four principles, when does it not make sense to understand your customers and other stakeholders, plan together so that everyone understands the why and what, validate together so that we all get the needed input to guide our decision making about what to do next, and finally, reflect together to learn and improve.

Whether or not every event in Scrum or SAFe or Kanban is right for everyone, my advice is to start somewhere, understand why you are doing that particular event, validate your results, reflect, learn and adjust so that you can achieve the benefits from the methods outlined in the frameworks. You will not learn this in one try. You need some experience, then adjust to suit your organization.

How can this approach also be made attractive to employees? What are the advantages in daily work?

By involving and engaging employees in the change you can make your Agile transformation a success. Facilitate sessions where people can learn the WHYs, what are the benefits, as well as learn the methodology in a fun, easy-to-understand way. Using simulations like the XP Game is a great way to explore the benefits of Agile and to learn some of the language associated with the key frameworks.

The advantages in the daily work are many. Here a few:

· Shorter time to market for our products and services

· More focus on one piece of work at a time

· Increased clarity about what we need to do and when (and of course, why we need to do it)

· Greater influence and decision making of people who are closest to the work

· Closer relationships with customers and stakeholders

· Happier, more motivated employees

Why does Agile increase motivation, effectiveness and transparency – if it is done right. By the way, how is it “done right”?

I’ll start with the last question. For me, “done right” is all about involving and engaging people in the change. Giving people influence in how we implement Agile. Focusing as much (or more) on communication and working together as we do on the processes of Agile. Really getting, really feeling, the benefits of this way of working.

Agile works to increase motivation, effectiveness and transparency because the principles and ways of working trigger the release of dopamine in our brain. Dopamine is the reward neurotransmitter that gives us that feeling of being motivated. And when dopamine is at the right levels, it gets us to a place of high performance, or optimal thinking in our prefrontal cortex. This is when we get to innovative solutions. The transparency created when we understand and plan together, means we get the overview, plus we build in a way to become certain about uncertainty (due to revisiting and reprioritizing plans on a regular cadence). This again calms down our limbic system, where our emotions and old habits are, and most importantly where we are acting to just “survive” the situation. When our limbic systems are activated, our prefrontal cortex, where rational, creative thinking happens, is not. Agile works to quiet the limbic system and activate the prefrontal cortex.

If you want to go deeper into the neuroscience of Agile, you may want to read: https://www.infoq.com/articles/neuroscience-agile-leadership/

Human preconceptions tend to be quite strong after some years of experience, do you have any suggestions to break these to try to reset a team as part of the transformation?

You are right, we see what we want to see, and as we grow older, sometimes our preconceptions are strengthened because we don’t see any other way to do things, and actively seek input that only confirms our preconceptions. This is called confirmation bias. Asking people to break these biases and adopt new ways of working that is part of a transformation requires them to let go of old habits.

A place to start is to normalize the difficulty of change by naming it, relating to it with stories about previous experiences with change; repeat the positive messages about what’s in it for each individual person (for example, how the transformation will actually help them long term, even though it may be difficult short term learning all the new ways of working); and finally, reframe some of the complaints or worries people have so they can see another perspective. It’s important in the reframing that you do not force people to agree with that other (usually more positive) perspective. If people feel forced, the natural reaction is to resist.

Then, get people to do things. Use real experiments (with start/end dates, evaluation date, success criteria and conditions listed) to implement changes one at a time. In this way, you involve and engage people. Research shows that when people feel they’ve contributed to the change, they are much more likely to accept the change.

You talk about fear and loathing as a bad thing in a corporate professional environment, but are there also some good ways a manager can use these basic emotions?

Activating negative emotions too often puts people into survival mode – they’re protecting themselves from danger. This is not a state where people are creative and innovative.

Emotions do, however, have an influence on our attention and memory. For example, when we see two co-workers fighting, or watch a video where a child is laughing, those emotional displays catch our attention. We want to know what is happening. Activating an emotional feeling sends a signal to our hippocampus (where our long-term memories are encoded in the brain) that we should pay attention because it is likely important that we remember this event. 

It’s much easier to generate negative emotions (fear and anger) than positive ones (joy and pleasure). And while negative emotions ”burn” memories into the brain, they also reduce creativity and focused thinking. This is because when we feel fear, our prefrontal cortex is turned off and the limbic system is turned on – it’s our survival mechanism. Sometimes making people feel a negative emotion about something that is not ”right” or fair, is a way to help people remember the situation. One example in banking could be sharing stories of customers who were treated poorly – so that employees feel the pain (empathy for the customer, shame about the bank’s response). Then, we need to quickly turn that around to how we can solve the issue – and praise bank employees for their ideas, thus creating positive emotions. 

How to find the right balance for giving control to the teams to not frustrate them or create chaos? Is it somehow possible to measure this or is rather based on the experience/impressions of the manager?

Let me take the ”measure question” first. Listening to the language that people use and measuring how many times certain words are used, also measuring share of voice, are ways to get real data and not just impressions of the manager. For instance, to measure share of voice, simply keep track of how many minutes the manager talks versus the employees. To measure both the language and share of voice, we recommend having an observer in the meeting whose sole responsibility is to track this. For example, the manager may be working on changing her language from ”they/them” to ”we/us.” Just counting how many times those words were used during a meeting is a good way to get the data. Use the stopwatch function on a smartphone to track the share of voice minutes. And then keep the record in Excel from meeting to meeting. In this way, the manager can see her progress. Having this awareness is a critical step to changing behavior. 

Your first question about finding the right balance is about listening to the language employees and managers use. Are people asking for decisions, waiting for permission before doing things, do people say ”I intend to” or ”what should I do?” If people are coming to the manager asking them what they should do, instead of telling them, the manager could ask, ”What do you think we should do? Or ”what would you do if you were me?” In this way, people feel more comfortable, safer, sharing what they think. Then, when they come to the manager saying what they think, the manager can then ask, ”What would you like to do?” And after that, ”what do you intend to do?” 

A useful tool for this is the Ladder of Leadership. (Full disclosure, David Marquet, author of Turn the Ship Around! and Leadership is Language, and I do Intent-Based Leadership trainings together. He has also written the foreword to my new book TOGETHER: How leaders involve & engage people to get great things done to be released this fall.)

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