SCRUM and the Brain — Why Agile Development Works


I just finished reading a great book about how our cranial physiology impacts our behavior and ability to think and interact effectively. The book is called “Your Brain at Work” by David Rock. I enjoyed reading it and found a good number of useful references.

One of the things I started to realize was that the framework presented in this book helped provide a great perspective on why I’d seen so much success with Agile SCRUM. Several things came to mind:

1. In SCRUM, there’s heavy emphasis on letting the “pigs” on the team focus on their work, and not take on too much at any one time. Work is managed in a serial, prioritized stream with individual work items brought to completion prior to taking on additional tasks. In the context of the book, there’s considerable discussion about the limitations of the pre-frontal cortex, where people are best able to take on active thinking tasks, one thing at a time.  In addition, trying to do too many things at once can have a significant effect on your IQ. And not a good one.

2. People naturally crave and require regular human interaction. With it, positive feelings emerge, which are key drivers of success. In SCRUM, there’s a significant emphasis on continuous interaction.  Daily standups, open communications are front and center in SCRUM.

3. People are hard-wired to gain momentum when working towards something (rather than away). With SCRUM, there are always a new set of goals, that are (or should be) well within reach. Teams are encouraged to work towards those goals. Emphasis is on positive accomplishments. Done well, good things become contagious.

4. People crave and require human interaction. As contrasted to waterfall processes, where it’s very easy for someone to go hide in their corner for extended periods of time, there shouldn’t be a day that goes by without some meaningful interaction. Even if its only the daily standup, everyone should have something to say and be collaborating.

5. Good behaviors are learned through modelling and repetition. Everything about agile, and SCRUM revolves around getting into a rhythm and sticking to it. Those repetitions can become ingrained, providing a great environment for acceleration.

SCRUM is certainly not the only place where these things can occur, but I find it interesting the ways in which setting these patterns in the workplace can correspond to the very fundamental characteristics of the human brain. No wonder this stuff works so well! (and even better that people aren’t bashing their heads into one another).

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About Mike Rodbell

I'm a technology leader, engaged in developing software for the telecom, online commerce, and business process/analysis markets. All of the teams I've worked with have had a great deal in common. They need to be good at what they do, listen, share, and collaborate towards a shared set of goals. This blog is dedicated to those activities. I hope you enjoy reading it.
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2 Responses to SCRUM and the Brain — Why Agile Development Works

  1. Ross says:

    Mike – This makes good sense and has peaked my interest in picking up the book. Out of curiosity, how do you manage egos and personality conflicts on teams that have so much interaction?

    • Mike Rodbell says:

      Ross — Great question. No easy answers to that one. There are some things that can help, including:

      – Alcohol can work. (seriously, I’ve had team issues where it was important that people develop a social relationship. Sometimes, seeing someone in a different light can be a huge help.)
      – the BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) concept recommended by Jim Collins (good to great and similar books). If you can get people to agree to, and focus on a shared objective, that can have a tremendous lift. I can recall working at a company where there was tremendous upside to success (oh, I’d love to see a repeat of the upward stock market swing of the 90’s!). That made a huge difference!
      – check your leader. Do you have the right person sending a clear message to the team, rewarding positive behavior and ensuring that there are consequences to destructive activities?

      I’ve also had cases where it made no sense for the people not getting along to work with one another. They’d made up their minds, and that was that. Time to try something different. Think of how well the Miami Heat should be doing by now and they’re not. Team dynamics are sometimes a function of who the team members are. Just because people are talented doesn’t always mean that they are going to work well with one another.

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