The Science Of Agile Transformation

When doing Agile transformation, we are not only dealing with the mechanics of the framework that we should be work on, but our brains have their limitation too, Identifies how our brain works and mechanics could provide valuable insight which may result in better approach in doing the transformation.

Everybody is doing Agile now, or at least they are trying to do so, trying to transform and become Agile. Software development service firms and Startups are the pioneers in adopting and making their working cultures around Agile values.  Most of them are attracted by the big name of Scrum, and I would argue that this is one of the best ways to become and be Agile.

Now, why is everybody trying to do Agile and adopting it to their working cultures? The answers may vary based on what team you are asking to. The best team will answer something like “it increases my development team ownership of the product”, “after doing Agile, my team became self organized and high performing without getting overworked”, “the team has been producing cleaner code and a higher quality product after doing Agile” or there are also teams that answers “we saw success has been achieved by many other teams that are doing Agile, so we intended to replicate those” this actually is not the worst answer you can get, this means that they are learning and following what has been proven, while transformation is different in every instance, they need a starting point.

So what is the worst? Or worse shall I say. Some of it that I have found myself was “we are trying to implement Agile to speed up our development”, “we are doing Agile to cut costs”, and so on, maybe you have found worse than these two, you can share in the comment, it will be interesting, and maybe we could learn a thing or two.

Many times people are mistakenly taking wrong conclusions about Agile when introduced, one might wonder, why do people ask whether they can speed up their development by doing Agile? Of all questions and take away points they could come up with, why do they choose this?

Waterfall vs Agile, Common Workflow Comparison

Maybe because of the way we introduce Agile, in the common case many times we compare how Waterfall needs to pass through a long sequence of processes, Agile does the very same processes but in different manners, instead of doing it sequentially Agile does this iteratively.

It was a surprise to me when someone asked me “so in Agile you do all documentation, development, design, testing, in parallel? So I guess this is the reason you can be faster right?” When I asked them back, why do they come up with such way of thinking? it was then clear for me, for their answer shows how bad source and poorly written articles have misled them into this kind of thinking.

Maybe it is because the success stories that we share in the meetup. Maybe be the way we shares has misled the audience, maybe this may be that. The thing about success stories are, people focusing on the goods, the speed-ups, the cut costs and the other.

Let me give you an example, FBI Sentinel project, the project was started as VCF back in 2001, USD 375 mil, Waterfall, expected to be delivered in 2 years, suffered and shut down by 2005. Restarted as Sentinel in 2006 with more plans, more tight requirements, more controls, USD 425 mil, USD 120 mil was allocated for PMOs, Waterfall, 3 years time.

Can you guess what happened to Sentinel post-2006? Does USD 120 mil PMOs successfully delivered in 3 years time? Does this answer matter? what if I told you that the same thing happened, those PMOs have proven their worth, no production ready despite the time and cost. And what if I told you in 2010 FBI decided to use Agile instead, and managed to produce useable production ready Sentinel by 2011, and by the second release in 2012 agents started using it in real cases, they went full production by 2013, spending only a fraction of the other two, USD 114 mil.

Now, can you blame people? brain is likely to process the thing they recognize faster than the unknown. If you look closely, what is the unknown? Exactly, the Agile transformation, they don’t know the processes, the things that those team learned before, during and after the transformation and how they continuously improve.

Next question, what are the things that they recognize? cost, time, success. As the meetup continues their brains start spawning new Neurons of these newly learned “Agile Transformation” and connecting Synapses to this new Neurons Dendrites. The thing about brains, they are very efficient, this newly learned thing will be mapped to the closest possible related memory.

From the two mentioned Waterfall vs Agile, I would argue the new “Agile Transformation” Neurons will pretty much relate to “waterfall failures”, “cost effective”, “insanely faster delivery”, “more successful approach to manage and control people”. This is however not the aim of Agile, not even one of Agile Manifesto values relates to their conclusions.

“Agile is more a “direction,” than an “end,” a philosophy and mindset at board level.”  ― Pearl Zhu (Author of “Digital Master” book series)

Agile is a Mindset, it is not the result we are a looking at, you may be faster by doing Agile, or maybe slower, your code might be cleaner or might be not, your team might become a self-organized high-performance team, or might not. These are just sidekicks, to be Agile itself is a journey of transforming mindsets of the organization from the executives to the very people doing the development and all within that.

This is where people failed to see through, they are stuck with their mindsets, the one that they have already recognized and has been years inhabiting their minds, just like in the 80’s when we were made to believe that our brains consist of two separate parts, one dealing with logic and the other dealing with arts, and one cannot be both at the same time, you are either one or the other.

Right Brainer or Left Brainer?

However, this is no longer true, with the advancement of technologies, scientists have been able to observe the brain to the extent that we have never achieved before in human history. They have proven that there are no such things called right brainer or left brainer, our brains work dynamically. They also disprove that our brains stop developing when we reach adulthood and insist that even when idling our brains are active and sparking between nodes and synapses.

Today, scientists believe that brains consist of layered consciousness, each piece is unique, they are triggered by different causes and they behave differently, each unique part is what makes us who we are, the character of ourselves. Working dynamically as we are faced with the situations we encounter.

Reptilian Brain

Situated at the very core of our brain, the brain stem, it is where we are dealing with our survival behavior. It is not that we actually have a reptilian brain inside our head, it is a term borrowed as a representative of the oldest evolution. We could though behave primitively to some extent.

When facing survival mode this part of the brain will trigger our true selves, the three months old us, whether we are the fighting type which will render us as an aggressive person, or flight / flee type which results in anxiety, or freeze type which translates to helplessness.

Humans are unique beings, we are the only one that can enter survival mode without any real danger. What do I mean by that? Yes, we are the only one that can be enraged and by perceiving danger, this danger might not happen in the future or maybe not real altogether.

In this modern era where life threatening events are less likely to occur, human survival mode can also be triggered by stressful situations, it is non-life threatening situations but activates humans survival mode through “perceived danger” situation.

Human Brain: Reptilian (Red), Paleolimbic (Dark Yellow), Neolimbic (Yellow), Preforntal (Blue)


Deal with self-confidence, trust, survival of the group. This part of the brain is where mom got enraged when her kids are treated badly. Where you resist a new odd member of the groups.

Paleolimbic defines our position towards the group how we trust others and our confidence, too much trust will render into axiality, lack of trust will render into marginality, whereby too much confidence will reflect on our dominance, and lack of it will result to submissiveness. Dominance is not always reflected in overpowering others, in its mild form it can translate to manipulation and seduction, a dominant person can be charming and nice, but it’s not genuine, they do so to get what they want.

As I mentioned earlier activating this part of the brain will result in something similar to mom got enraged when her kids are threatened, it’s about the survival of the group, people will behave territorial and resisting changes, people, or anything new that will threaten their group survival.


This is where we mostly exist, Neolimbic deals with emotion processing, reward processing, motivation, and most importantly our memory lie in this very part of our brain.

Every time we are facing a certain situation, our brain simultaneously looks for clues, when it recognizes familiar clues, it will search for related behavior that is proven to be successful. When triggered, we will enter autopilot mode and continue doing the related routine. Our brain is very effective, by doing this it will be able to free up resources to do other, simple things, for example driving while texting.

Another example is addiction, cigarette addiction, alcohol addiction, a smoker will find seeing a cigarette and a lighter a clue for him to light up the cigarette and start smoking because, in their memory, it is proven to calm them down and lighten up the mood, this same clue will not trigger non-smoker.

Smokers push even further the mentioned association, they relate to how smoking relieves their stress, get along with friends, socialize, a company to work overtime and others, which further increase the number of clues and reward along with motivation to trigger smoking autopilot, this is the reason why it is very hard to exit addiction, they have successfully carved their brain to accommodate the addiction.

Prefrontal Cortex

The marvel of Humankind, this part is where we are making decisions, planning, stopping bad behaviors, understanding people, self-awareness. More of it, when triggered it is the champion of adaptation and creativity and specially suited for unknown and complex situations.

This is where you want to be, you want the transforming team to be using this part of their brain most of the time. Because only then they can accept changes and deal with unknown and complex situations that have never proven to work. The indication that this part is activated is our emotion, we feel calm serenity and full control, one might say that we are “in the zone”.

But many times this is not what happens when faced with unknown and complex situations, our other part of the brain is activated, defaulting to usually proven routines and searching to recognize the pattern to do effective autopilot, or worse.

Forever Forming Team

I don’t know whether anybody else mentions this “forever forming team” term before, but I use this for teams that cannot move into their next stage.

Every team will go through a certain cycle before they truly are able to find their best form and become a high-performance team. The first time the team is formed it is called forming, they are trying to get to know each other, their colleague’s character, they tend to inhibit themselves from conflicts.

If they are able to move from this forming and get along with the colleague, they will start the next phase which is storming, which requires a bit of conflict and many disagreements during the process, to be a high performing team, they should be able to pass the barrier. But many teams fail to do so, and they will revert back to form the team.

One of the main reasons they cannot pass the storming barrier is because of the conflict and disagreement needed in this phase. I am not suggesting that you should confront your colleague for whatever reason, but to be able to disagree with your colleague means you understand their works, you put your time and thoughts to know more of your colleague, only after that you can really disagree properly and plan accordingly as a team.

Why do people avoid conflicts and disagreement? Based on our Neuroscience knowledge the answer may vary depending which part of your brain is triggered:

  1. I don’t know, I have never seen disagreement lead to better teamwork, let’s just do our responsibilities, and help each other if possible
  2. I think disagreement could lead to the disintegration of the team, so I would rather keep the team as is, and it is currently working fine.
  3. I don’t really have much time to be spent on other’s work.

Can you identify which part of the brain gives which response? 1 is definitely triggered from Neolimbic, the resistance was more of refusal due to unknown condition and the current system was working well, they help each other without needing disagreement, if this is the case, even though they are obeying you at the time, later when you leave the team, they will be reverted back and defaulted to their auto pilot mode.

Number 2 can be triggered from both Neolimbic and Paleolimbic, only if the resistance was so high, that you feel people start behaving awkwardly around you, that means that it is triggered from Paleolimbic, if this happens then you will feel the team is rejecting you.

Many times number 3 is triggered from Neolimbic which controls motivation and rewards, but if you keep pressing and the guy starts to become aggressive and avoids you, then you might want to be careful before he is turning into surviving dinosaur.

So what is the proper response that comes from Prefrontal Cortex? It should be something like this “I understand that we need to know each other more so we can plan better, but if we have to disagree, we have to respect each other”

So this is where the scrum values kick in, it consists of five key values: commitment, courage, focus, openness, respect.

  • People personally commit to achieving the goals of the Scrum Team.
  • The Scrum Team members have the courage to do the right thing and work on tough problems.
  • Everyone focuses on the work of the Sprint and the goals of the Scrum Team.
  • The Scrum Team and its stakeholders agree to be open about all the work and the challenges with performing the work.
  • Scrum Team members respect each other to be capable, independent people.

These five values create safe ground rules and expectations for the transforming team, as they’re progressing, they start to create more Neurons which retain good memory about the processes, bit by bit changing their mindsets and become better with each phase passed.

So it is not about the result, it is about the process, by the time the team is able to live up to these five values, they most likely will be ending up performing better than they used to, code cleaner code, and become a high-performance team. These results are just side effects of the mindset transformation itself. The journey doesn’t end there, the team has to keep improving because improving and changes is what triggers prefrontal cortex and this is where we want to be all the time.

“Without deep personal transformation, collective transformation is not possible.”  ― Chris Corrigan

January 17, 2017 Hugo Tags: agile, agile transformation, scrum Categories: agile

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Post Published By: Hugo

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