Jenni Jepsen: High Performance Teams – Neuroscience and Agile

The key to building high performance teams is understanding how our brains work.

What motivates us as individuals?

In this BoS EU 2015 talk, Jenni explains how we can make it easier to harvest all the benefits of Agile working by understanding why neuroscience, how people’s individual brains work, is key to creating and motivating a high performing team.

Jenni’s work focuses is on helping people deliver the right product faster whilst creating lasting changes.


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Jenni Jepsen, goAgile: So when I was preparing for this talk, I took another look at what the title of the presentation would be. Building High Performance Teams – Why Agile Works and How to Make the Adoption to Agile Easier. One part of my brain said, “All right, Jenni, what are you thinking? There is no way you can do that in 60 minutes including questions.” Fortunately, there’s another part of my brain that was stronger and said, “Oh, yes you can.” So we’ll see how it goes.

All right. So, How to Build High Performance Teams – this is it. We create an environment where teams can perform. How to Make Agile Work – the principles and processes enable optimal thinking. I’m not going to go into what is Agile. I’m guessing it’s fairly mainstream. If anyone has questions, I know there are several agilists in the audience. Then the last, How to Make Adopting Agile Easier – these are the things we need to do to make it easier.

By understanding how our brains work and what motivates us we can build high performance teams and we can make it easier to harvest all the benefits of working Agile.

So that’s what I’ll talk about today. I want to start with the high performance teams. I’m not going to go into all the models of what is a high performance team and what are the dysfunctions of a team. But I want to talk about a study that was done by MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory.

It was a seven-year study that came out in 2012. They studied 2,500 people and 21 different organisations around the world. What they were trying to find out is what were the things that these people and teams do that made them high performing – or maybe low performing? What they found out was the patterns of communications were the most important thing to high performance teams. These were the best predictors of team success – not what they communicated, but how they communicated.

The best predictors were the energy and engagement of the team outside of formal meetings. The data also revealed that the characteristics that these teams shared were that they had frequent informal communication, up to about 12 times an hour. This was the optimal number. After that, performance went down. Right around 12, they had peak performance. They talked and listened in equal measure and they went outside the team to explore, to get new ideas that they brought back into the team. These were the three characteristics, the patterns of communications that made for high performance teams.

It’s this energy, engagement and exploration that we’re looking for in order to create high performing teams. How do we do that? We need to create environments that make this happen. Now, Agile happens to be one of the processes that supports this energy, engagement and exploration. But I want to talk a little bit about the physical environment.

How can we create a space where people in teams are more likely to have frequent informal communication?

This is an actual example of a company. I won’t say where and I won’t tell you. I am working with this company. You walk into this floor, and this is what greets you. As soon as you open the door on this floor in this building, you see this sign. Now you can see sort of people around the corner there. I don’t know if you can see on this. I’m actually probably in the way. There are offices there. There are people working. But how much informal frequent communication do you think they are having? I can tell you it’s not very much. Shhh. Actually this rubs me the wrong way. It pushes all my buttons. I’m going to get to that later.

Instead, what we want to do is have spaces like this. These are the kind of environments. So post-its on the wall, open spaces, places where people can easily have conversations or mechanisms that sort of force people or nudge people into having these short, informal conversations. So having Lego models or toys around, things that spark conversation. I’m a naturally introverted person. In fact, on personality tests, I’m way over to the introvert side but I can fake extroversion for about an hour, so we’ll see how it goes.

I understand that sometimes we don’t want to have a lot of noise around us when we are working. Totally right. This is not about a lot of noise. This is about quick things, where we can just quick ask a question and then get back to work or maybe share something or maybe go grab a coffee or whatever. These are things. This pattern of communication is an indicator of a high performing team. If we can create environments that allows us to communicate and collaborate better, then we have that mechanism that forces people to do that. It sort of nudges us into communicating. Longer tables in the lunch room. None of this is rocket science. It forces people. We don’t have a choice. Well, we can still sit there and not say anything. It’s more likely that we’ll actually talk.

So this focus on communication and collaboration is why Agile works. Agile provides a process that nudges us. It’s a mechanism. It nudges us into these frequent informal conversations. It helps enable that energy and engagement. We are involving and engaging the teams in the work, the planning, the actual doing, conversations with stakeholders, all of that. So energy and engagement. And exploration! We’re not trying to figure everything out up front. We need to explore. We need to go out and talk to people outside the team and figure out, OK what can we do to bring the most value?

The thing about this is that the communication and collaboration part is pretty simple. Common sense may not be common practice. I knew this. I’m guessing that you all know this, right? So why is it when we talk about, “Oh, we need to communicate better. We need to collaborate more.” That maybe there are people in organisations – it’s usually at the top where I meet the most resistance – where they say, “Ah, Jenni that’s a lot of fluffy stuff, all that soft stuff. We need to focus on process. We need to deliver. We’re not on time. Our velocity is bad. We need process. We can figure out the communication and working together better later. Sorry.” I was hitting my head against the wall over and over and over again.

My background is in Communication and Change Leadership. It’s not in IT process. I knew that this was the reason that Agile worked. I knew that this was the reason that people felt happy at work. This was the reason why we can adjust to changes easier. So I thought OK they keep talking about we need to have some hard data. We need the science behind this. Come and tell me, show me. Show me that this really works and then maybe we’ll talk about it.

I decided to take a six-month study on the brain and find out why this works and I did. The neuroscience proves that communication and collaboration is the reason why people are happier and more productive and more motivated at work. That’s what we need. We need optimal thinking to get high performance. I want to talk a little bit about how we are motivated and how the brain works. In order to do that, I want to talk about two specific areas of the brain that probably have the most relevance in the work place.

The prefrontal cortex

The first is the thinking region of the brain. Now, the whole brain is thinking, but I’m talking about rational thinking here, the prefrontal cortex. This is the area right sort of here. Your eyes would be right around here. The prefrontal cortex, or PFC, is the place where we have rational thought, goal-oriented behaviour, emotion control, all the things that we want at work. It’s where creativity comes from, innovation. All of that is happening in the prefrontal cortex. The problem with the prefrontal cortex is that it gets tired really easily. I am delighted that I got to go second, because your prefrontal cortex’s are still fresh. At least I hope so. I don’t know. There’s a lot of information coming in to your prefrontal cortex’s at conferences. It’s really hard to focus. If we’re tired, if we’re hungry, if we’re stressed, prefrontal cortex doesn’t work very well. One of the neuroscientists called it the Goldilocks of the brain. A prefrontal cortex needs to have everything just right in order to function at optimal levels.

The Limbic system

The feeling region of the brain, on the other hand, is the limbic system. This is the oldest part of the brain. This is where all our old habits are. This is where our emotions come from. This is where fear is. This is the part of the brain that protects us, where all the survival mechanisms are. This is sort of the instinctual part of our brains. The limbic system is an energy conserver. So when the prefrontal cortex gets tired, the limbic system takes over so we don’t have to think so much. All of it goes into our brain. Old habits, we don’t have to think about that. I used to think that multi-tasking, yeah we can do multi-tasking, no problem. The thing is, we can only do multi-tasking if we are using the two parts of the brain. The prefrontal cortex can only focus on one thing at a time. So if you’re doing emails and on some sort of maybe Link or a web conference call at the same time, you’re not paying attention to both. Your brain is switching. It may be nanoseconds, but it’s enough to get you out of flow and out of optimal thinking. You can, however multi-task if you’ve already got it into your limbic system. You can easily brush your teeth or take a shower and think of some great new ideas because you don’t have to think about those things. So those are the two regions of the brain.

Under stress all the neural connections in the brain become dysfunctional. Our prefrontal cortex’s shut down basically. You can see this on the functional MRIs. Neuroscientists can actually see which parts of the brain are working, where the oxygen, where the blood is flowing under certain conditions. This has been proven that under stress the prefrontal cortex shuts down. The limbic system takes over. Remember, the limbic system that’s where all our emotions are. This is where we’re afraid of things, where, “oooh, this isn’t so good. I don’t really want that.” That takes over rather than the openness, the curiosity, maybe even happiness on the other side with the prefrontal cortex and optimal thinking.
The stress performance curve is maybe a useful tool or at least I hope it’s interesting to show you what is actually happening in the brain. On the Y axis we have prefrontal cortex performance. On the X axis we have the levels of catecholamine release. This is the arousal, the stress that your brain is under. There are two important neurotransmitters. One is norepinephrine and the other is dopamine.

Dopamine, I’m guessing you’ve heard of. This is the pleasure hormone. This is the rush. Cocaine – not that I’m using any cocaine – dopamine is released. That’s what’s happening. People in positions of power, dopamine rushes through their brain and they think they can do anything. This is what happened to Bill Clinton and several other politicians that we won’t mention. The dopamine is affecting how they think. When we’re looking at optimal performance, we want at the top here the prefrontal cortex to be focused and organised and responsible so we can do our optimal thinking. At the bottom, we’re distracted, disorganised, maybe even bored or a little tired. This is where our prefrontal cortex’s are not performing optimally. What we want to get to is this middle part, the high performance part. That’s really tough because there’s a lot of arousal in our environment. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the environment.

In teams, for instance, maybe you’ve got stakeholders coming directly to developers or software engineers and saying, “Now I need you to do this,” instead of going into the backlog. Suddenly you’re being bombarded by things that you don’t need to be bombarded with. Maybe, just maybe your commute to the office was a hellish nightmare. So you’re stressed coming in. Maybe you have free seating where you work so you also don’t know where you’re going to sit that morning. There are a lot of little stressors in our environment that add up to these big stressors that affect how we think. What we want to do is minimise that. What we know is that for most people working today, the stress levels are here. It’s over here in the level. That’s where we’re highly stressed. Not enough that we can’t function, but we’re not functioning optimally. We’re not thinking optimally.

The problem with having people over here on the right side of the curve is that when we’re working hard to meet a deadline or get that feature done just right, we’re already under stress. Sometimes our managers come in and say, “What is going on? I need this. You know that our deadline is next week. The sprint ends. We have the release. What’s the problem? Do we need to get more people? You guys need to work longer hours.” It doesn’t work. What happens then, you’re being pushed into higher stress, where you’re less likely, much less likely to figure out solutions.

We need to go back into the high performance. How do we do that?

Leaders need to support and encourage. Team members support and encourage each other. Instead of, “What the – is going on? Why aren’t you meeting this deadline?” we come in and say, “OK, I can see this is a problem. What part of this feature, which of these features can we get rid of so we can meet our release? How can I help you?” Support and encourage. That gets us to high performance.

On the other side – and this we don’t see very often. Every now and then there’s a development team that maybe is getting too good and then they get a little lazy. We don’t see it very much. Actually you see more of that in teenagers who don’t want to do their homework. What can you do then? We need to push, create a little bit of stress. Those teams that are already performing really well and maybe starting to get a little lazy, what can we do? Maybe we can reduce their sprint length or talk to them about that. How about going from four weeks to three weeks or three weeks to two weeks? Or even two weeks to one week, depending on the maturity of the teams. That’s a way to give a little positive stress. Now, with your teenager, I don’t know. A little push helps and that’ll get up to high performance.

Understanding that this stress performance curve has an effect on how we perform in teams, how we deliver value in the organisation. If we’re constantly stressed, we don’t have optimal thinking. What can we do to change that? We are always on this continuum toward reward or pleasure and away from this danger or threat. The organising principle of the brain is to minimise danger or threat and maximise reward. We are constantly assessing things in our environment to figure out, “Hey what’s good for us? Maybe this over here is bad.” So maybe somebody wanted to go to a training or maybe a manager wanted to send someone to a training and they said, “Inca, you know you really could use this new project management training. I think it would be really good for you to learn about hey, what do you do in an Agile situation.” Maybe Inca’s thinking, “Ah, this doesn’t feel very good to me. They’re forcing me to do this and they don’t think I’m good enough.” Suddenly we’re over here and our prefrontal cortex is starting to shut down. The limbic system where the fight, flight or freeze is, starts to take over. We want to get over there. It doesn’t feel good. We definitely don’t have optimal thinking on this side.

Instead, maybe a way is, “Hey I heard about this really cool training. It could be interesting. You’re already at a high level, so why not go? You can bring it back to us and tell us what happened and share everything. Wouldn’t that be really cool?” Just the way that you talk about things with your teammates is a way to push people more toward reward. Understanding that we’re constantly on this continuum, constantly. I don’t know about you, but every now and then I meet someone for the first time where I think, “I don’t like that person.” How can that be? How can I not like them? I just met them. It’s my limbic system telling me, “Hmm, this person looks like…Their handshake felt like…They’re standing this way and that reminds you of…” Or maybe their tone of voice or whatever, it’s all of these patterns that are happening, connecting in your brain, sending signals to the limbic system telling you, “Watch out! This could be bad for you. This could be really bad for you.” You need to find a way to override that. That’s where the cognitive control comes in. That’s where the prefrontal cortex comes in to help you with that.

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SCARF model

One of the tools that I use quite frequently is this SCARF model. This SCARF model is about the five domains of social behaviour in humans. Understanding these drivers can help you push people toward a reward state over here and away from that feeling threat. The five domains are these. It’s SCARF. It’s easy to remember, at least for me it is. Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.


Where do we fit in this world? Do I have a bigger car then my neighbours? Is my yard nicer? Am I smarter than my co-worker? Am I smarter than my boss? Can I code better? Whatever. We need to figure out where we fit in the pecking order. This goes back thousands and thousands of years. In order to survive, we need to know where we fit in the pack, so Status is one.


Our brains are prediction machines. We want to know what’s going to happen next. Working in an Agile way, for instance, we deal a lot with uncertainty but the way that we deal with uncertainty is just to plan enough ahead and to understand that we’re not going to have all the answers. We help reduce uncertainty by understanding that we will have that. That is part of the process. We’re certain about the uncertainty, if that makes any sense. That’s enough for the brain to calm down and focus and that’s what we’re looking for.


This is the biggest indicator of stress, not just in the workplace, but in our lives period. People who don’t have influence or feel they don’t have control over their lives have the highest amount of stress. This is a big deal in the workplace. We need to have teams that are involved and engaged in change or whatever the work so that they feel that they have influence and control. This will reduce the amount of stress, boost optimal thinking and create an environment where people can have the communication and collaboration that we’re looking for.


This is, “Is this person going to hurt me or help me? Friend or foe?” When I met that one person not too long ago where I thought, “oh, enemy, enemy, enemy!” (my brain was saying), you need to overcome that. Creating environments where teams can have the short and sweet, informal communication is a way to build relatedness. When we build relatedness, that feeling, that connection with each other, trust increases. What happens in the brain is that oxytocin, which is love or trust hormone – it’s the same hormone that mothers, that’s secreted in mothers’ brains when you have a baby so that you can actually like that ugly little thing that’s in your arms – this is what happens in teams as well. When trust goes up, oxytocin goes up and engagement isn’t an emotion. Engagement happens when people feel they are in a trusting relationship.


We will go to great lengths to punish people who we think are unfair. Sometimes we even get that rush of dopamine if we can make sure that they are punished. Whether it’s when you are driving home and somebody cuts you off and you can speed up and cut them off, that’s one way. Maybe it’s that other team got that great new product. They got to work on that. We have to do this maintenance work. That’s not very fair. What can we do to balance it? What can we do to increase the amount of transparency in the workplace? That’s another thing that Agile does. Everything is transparent. Even if we feel like it’s not fair right now, we’re pretty certain it will be corrected later and things will be OK.

SCARF is a very useful model for understanding where people are at.

We all have different triggers. It depends on the time of day or what’s just happened, but these are the motivators in general, the intrinsic motivators that we can use to help push people or design our interactions so it feels more rewarding. Now maybe if somebody was over here on that continuum on that way and whatever, maybe there’s not much that you can do to push them over. There are a few tricks. You can reappraise the situation. Talk to them, but telling them, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s going to get better,” that probably won’t help so much. Instead, let’s see if we can get them here just a little step at a time. So a little step. It’s like what Jess talked about earlier. We need to do this in small changes. So little steps to get to reward.

Why does Agile work?

The methodology supports optimal thinking. Dedicated, self-organised teams, now I’m just going to give you the overview. There’s a lot more and if anybody in the break wants to play a little game about why does this work, what happens in the brain during stand-up meetings or something, I’m willing.

Dedicated, self-organised teams. This is about relationships. This is about autonomy. This is about influence. Having the overview, you get certainty and fairness. You know what’s going to happen next, pretty well. On a big picture scale, you know what’s going to happen next. That helps the brain calm down and get to optimal thinking. Just in time planning and chunking down helps the adjustment, the change adjustment, makes it easier for people.

I love Agile because it supports this optimal thinking. Because it helps create mechanisms or nudges where people can communicate more in informal ways. It boosts energy. It boosts engagement. It certainly boosts exploration. If all this is so great – all this Agile, this communicating and being in environments where people can have optimal thinking – why is it so difficult to get to it? Why is it so hard to change?

People have a natural resistance to change.

It is hard-wired into our brains. We don’t like it. It’s extreme novelty for the brain and it takes a lot of energy for the prefrontal cortex to learn something new. All the other old habits are already in our limbic systems so we don’t have to think about it so much. Suddenly we have to try these new things? Oh, I hate that. Agile. You know, there are lots of cases where waterfall works just fine. My answer to that is, “Yeah, there are.” I don’t know about a lot, but if you’re doing the same thing over and over for 20 years and it hasn’t changed for 20 years and you always have the same cause and the same effect, great. Waterfall works. You don’t have to do Agile.

The thing about the brain is the more we try to convince people of something, the more our brains push back and register threat. What can we do differently? We need to be able to find a way to involve and engage people in the change. What’s in it for them? How do we have influence in this process? A little bit more about brain and change. There are two other neurotransmitters that get released when something new happens to us. Those are epinephrine and norepinephrine. What those neurotransmitters do is shut down the prefrontal cortex. This change for the brain could be dangerous. It’s basically the same as maybe seeing a lion in the jungle. We don’t know what that lion is going to do. If we’re going for a little walk and we see a nice red berry, we don’t want to be so optimistic and think, “Oh, this red berry, maybe this will be really yummy. Let’s have a lot of red berries.” Instead our brain says, “Whoa, red berry! Could be bad. Could be bad. Don’t eat it. Let’s find out if anybody’s eaten it before. Did they die? What happened?” This is what our brains do.

Any kind of change, whether you’re trying to lose weight, start a running program, move to Agile, whatever it is, any form of change is registered in the brain as dangerous. We need to help people get over that. How do we help people get over that? Understanding one that people have a natural resistance to change. It’s just how it is. We don’t like it. It takes energy. It’s hard. We don’t like it. We don’t want to do it. Our brains say, “No, no, no. This is bad.” Then, after we understand that that’s our natural starting point. We’re already here at this away. Ooh, I don’t like this Agile. This sucks. Stand at meetings? All these meetings? I thought we wanted informal communication. Now we have all these meetings. We’re over here finding all the excuses why we can’t do something because we don’t like the change. We don’t want to change. Understanding what’s in it for me personally, not just the team. What’s in it for me personally here? What’s the vision? What are we trying to accomplish? How can I influence this?
What the research shows is that even if people don’t agree – not even agree 100 percent but don’t agree – if they’ve been involved and engaged in it, if they have been asked, if they have had some influence they won’t actively resist. They’re more likely to adopt the change quicker. We need to break changes down into smaller steps, the same way we do in Agile planning. If we take it one little chunk at a time, it’s much easier for our brains to comprehend. Sometimes I get a little resistance when teams are moving to Agile ways of working. Management says, “Oh, we need to do everything at once.” I’m like, “No we don’t. No we don’t. This is how it’s going to work. The teams are going to decide how fast it’s implemented and they’re going to decide what order it’s implemented. You are not going to tell them what to do.” They don’t like me sometimes very much. In fact, I keep waiting to be kicked out. That’s fine, because this is the right way.

What we have found is that pretty much within three months, 12 weeks, teams have adopted all the behaviours. But they have decided themselves. It wasn’t forced upon them. This is the best way to adopt any sort of change, Agile or not. Take it in small steps. Have some mechanisms that sort of nudge you or force you. This is why creating that environment where people can communicate more informally, more often helps. We need the mechanisms to do it. Sort of like if you want to lose weight, you get rid of the potato chips in the house.

Burning platforms

This is a very misused metaphor. I often hear managers especially say, “Oh, we need to create this burning platform so people really feel the need to change.” It’s like great, you want to do that? It’s great for short and specific action. Remember it’s the lion in the jungle. We want to get away from that lion in the jungle. But your prefrontal cortex is not working over here. There is no oxygen, no blood flowing in the thinking area of the brain. Now, do we want to have a lot of fighters or people running away through change? No. We want people to think. We still want to be able to create and innovate and perform well over here where we’re happy and open and curious and interested in this reward side.

How do we do that? We can create this positive feeling, this reward if we involve and engage people in the change. There are so many benefits. You get that high performance. There’s a lot of informal communication happening through this process. There’s a lot of energy. There’s definitely engagement because people get to influence how it’s going to happen, how new teams are set up, how fast we’re going to adopt new processes, the environment that we’re actually going to work with. Having this influence opens up the thinking area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex so we can come up with even more creative and innovative ideas and get to higher performance.

What’s the vision?

We need to know this. What’s in it for me and see the progress along the way. Our brains like that. We like having those sort of goals along the way to know that we’re moving toward it. That’s that certainty part. These are the things that will help us get to high performing teams. We need to see other people’s perspectives. So change perspectives so we have another view. We can’t do that when we’re stressed. We only see danger when we’re stressed. The brain only perceives threats and more threats and more threats. It changes how you think about things under the stress conditions. To change perspectives really requires a space where people are thinking optimally, where their prefrontal cortex’s are open. So change perspectives and build these relationships that increase trust. Create the environments where we nudge people into building relationships, not the shh! environment, but the open, maybe post-its on the wall or everybody’s got a camera for working distributed so we have the mechanisms that force us to communicate. So, this is it. This is what it takes. How to build high performance teams. Create environments where people can have those short and sweet informal communications where they build energy and engagement outside of formal meetings.

Why Agile works

Because the processes support optimal thinking. There are a lot of mechanisms there that support that thinking. How to make adopting Agile easier or any change easier really is that we involve and engage people in this process. We meet them where they’re at. Remember the continuum. Maybe some people are starting way down in the danger end and other people are starting up in the reward end. We have to treat people differently in teams if we want peak performance. Supporting and encouraging through the process. It’s not just managers who need to support and encourage. It’s also fellow team members to support and encourage. All right. Doing all of these things you can reach high performance teams. It sounds super easy and common sense. I’m thinking a lot of you are, “Oh, I knew this already.” Yes. Common sense is not common practice. I challenge you to go out and change the world or at least make small adjustments so that change doesn’t feel so scary. We have time for questions.

Jenni Jepsen goAgile

Jenni Jepsen, goAgile: So the question was to give an example of how we implement Agile in a company. It’s a big question and I’m going to give you a very sort of general overview. There’s a lot more subtleties to it. Basically the process is to go in and talk to team members, the ones affected by the change, find out where they’re out. Try to figure out does anyone have any experience. What’s the resistance level? Just figure out where people are at, maybe even on that continuum. After that then we start with the understanding process. The assessment is also part of that process, but understanding what are the goals. What’s the vision? What’s the purpose of working Agile? Sometimes as management, they’ve heard about Agile and they think, “Oh, this is how we’re going to be able to get to things much faster. We’re going to be able to release more often and faster.” Uh, that’s not enough of a reason for us.

The teams need to understand why we’re doing this. What’s in it for them? How their world can change for the better. Things like, hey we have a backlog, so suddenly we don’t have five number 1 priorities. We force stakeholders to prioritise. Usually teams like that. So things like that. After that, there’s the sharing part. Sharing includes training. It includes workshops. There’s a lot of involving and engaging in that sharing process. So that we can get team members pretty much on the same level in an organisation. After that, then the change can actually happen. The adoption process actually starts. The teams decide, “Hey what do we want to start with first? Do we want to start with stand up meetings?” Some, some want to go all in and do a lot of processes at once. We kind of push back and say, “Hey, let’s just take them one at a time. You can adopt them very quickly if you want to but let’s just take it one at a time. Get good at it.” It’s sort of like not trying to do every feature in a release. Let’s just do the most important one for a team first. Let’s start with that and then go to the next and then go to the next and do reflection on that implementation each step along the way. It’s a lot of involving and engaging in the process.

Audience Question: Hi. I’m Xena. I come from a traditional project management background, although I come from a Communication background as well, so I’m all aboard what you’re saying about informal communication and that the process is the team rather than the other way around. However, in all businesses there are parts of the business that are connected to external environments, like sales and development where the Agile might not always come in handy for obvious reasons. There are deadlines, investors, sales processes, clients’ requirements. My challenge at the moment is how do you match the Agile open environment with those expectations for deadlines that the external part would have in a business?

Jenni Jepsen, goAgile: OK. Thank you for that question. We have that a lot. The way I handle that is that we focus on the principles of Agile. Understand together, plan together, demonstrate results frequently and get feedback and reflect together to learn and improve. When I’m or we’re working in companies where there are other departments or areas or outside the company people who need to be involved in the process, we start with the principles. We don’t talk about scrum or can man, or xkey or any of that, none of that. We just talk about the principles of Agile. Usually – again it’s very common sense. It’s makes sense that we all stand together. If we get all the people in the room and understand what the plan is, what the vision is, chances are we are going to have more success. If we plan together, we all own the plan. It’s not one person’s plan that gives it to the sales department for instance. If we demonstrate results frequently and get feedback, everyone, not everyone but the key stakeholders have an opportunity to see what’s happening and give their thoughts about it. The reflecting together to learn and improve, again all good, right?

Sometimes I’m working with a marketing team or an HR team or a team totally outside of software development of any sort. Maybe we do a retrospective. Maybe we do a stand up meeting. Maybe we have a backlog, but I don’t call it that. The backlog is the prioritised to do list that we happen to revisit every week, very quickly. The stand up meeting is just a quick meeting. Everybody stands up and these are the questions. It’s a facilitation technique. So it’s talking in a way that makes it less scary basically. At some point you can say, “Oh by the way, this is actually called the stand up meeting or daily scrum, or whatever.” Just pick the pieces that make sense. Usually what I see is a prioritised backlog. That makes sense. Quick meetings, maybe it’s not every day. Maybe their stand up is once a week, I don’t know. Just take the pieces that make sense for the team. I’m not a scrum evangelist. Take the things that work well, that make sense. Not everything makes sense for every single team.

Audience Question: I’m Andy Clark. You mentioned the MIT study at the start that talked about frequency of communication and the idea that maybe 12 and hour was a good optimal frequency. How do you balance that with the need for programmers to get into the zone, into a flow where interruptions is another word for communication?

Jenni Jepsen, goAgile: Yeah, yeah. I know, I know. I get that. I’m with you. It’s not about a long, involved conversation. It’s like, “Hey, you want to go get coffee? Great.” It’s the how the communication happens. It’s face-to-face, usually facing each other. It can be, “Hey this code, I’m putting in the semi-colon here. What do you think?” Or whatever. It’s not a big deal kind of conversation. It’s just these little quick things.

Audience Question: So you referenced the SCARF model and sort of the linking to Agile. We sort of covered the S,C,A,R and F. What about sort of Supporting people’s need for status on an Agile team? Is there any type of study around that?

Jenni Jepsen, goAgile: Yup. The craftsmanship part right about Agile software development is huge in terms of status. When we talk about status here from the neuroscience perspective it’s not, “Hey, I’m better than you,” necessarily. We’re not thinking that. Our brains are trying to figure out how we fit in the system. Status in teams, for instance, software and development teams is really around the quality, the craftsmanship. Having the opportunities for team members to do the work that they really want to do and not all these crappy fixes or whatever it is. The craftsmanship is a big part of status in software development teams.

Audience Question: I really enjoyed your presentation and one thing that I find tricky is we’re a fully co-located. People don’t work remote within our company. When I look through a lot of your guiding principles here, whether it’s creative workspace, whether it’s frequent high-touch communications, importance of trust in relationships, it’s hard not to conclude that remote is not going to support a lot of this. I’m not saying it should, but I’d like to know if you have an opinion on that.

Jenni Jepsen, goAgile: Yup. You’re right. Know going into this that if you are working in distributed teams, you won’t have as high performance as you possibly could have. The science shows that it requires co-location. Now are there things that you can do to improve? Yes. Having a camera on your computer and whenever you’re talking to your team members in India or Ukraine or US or wherever they are to turn on the camera. I know that sometimes we don’t want to. “Ugh, maybe my hair’s not so good, or I don’t feel like it today.” But just turning it on and seeing the other person’s eyes even though it’s many miles away, is still better than not seeing them. It’s not ideal and just know that it’s not ideal and we need to work around it.

Audience Question: Hi, my name’s Jeremy. I’ve got a question about the cross-cultural applicability and I’ll explain slightly. Some cultures standing up in the morning and admitting you have a problem and you need help is just not going to work. Do you have anything for that?

Jenni Jepsen, goAgile: Yeah. I’m not sure that I have all the answers but I know that if you think about that continuum in the Toward/Away continuum. Where are people at on that continuum? Depending on the culture, there’s certain sort of intrinsic motivators that are more important than others. The fear of making mistakes, for instance, puts you in this sort of Fear/Threat my prefrontal cortex isn’t working. I just want to be told what to do. There are some people who just want to be told what to do. No. That’s a habit. That’s a habit people have of being told what to do. It feels more comfortable. It feels more safe. They don’t have to take responsibility if it goes bad. When things go bad, we are punished severely. Understanding that these are deep habits, sometimes going back thousands and thousands of years, that carries over from generation to generation. Knowing that if we’re at that point, that deeply embedded here, there’s probably no way we’re going to get them all the way over to the rewards side. But if we can get a little step over, over time and then maybe another little step 10 years later, whatever. It takes a long, long, long time, but just understanding where people are at often helps. You get creative in how you design your interactions. You know that hey, they’re afraid of failing. What can I do to make it less bad to fail? Some companies have these failure altars where they have post-its and things up around a special part of the organisation, on the floor where they have their most celebrated failures. It’s one thing they do.

Audience Question: My name’s Jim, computer repair engineer. How could you apply this in a self-employed situation so you keep yourself motivated and on the ball to do the jobs to get a business going? How can you apply these for yourself?

Jenni Jepsen, goAgile: There are certain things, certain triggers. We all have certain triggers, especially around the SCARF model, different things that set us off. I have now this awareness of, “Oh, this is what’s happening to me. Oh, I get it.” Somebody asked me this question and then they told me I was wrong. I get it. It’s the whole status thing. This is why I feel bad about it. Now suddenly I’m not as smart as I thought I was. Now my status is down. Maybe there’s a lot of stuff going on in my life where I feel like I don’t have control over, like starting a new business for instance. What if I don’t have the money? What if this vision is really sucky? What if nobody will buy this product? Certainty goes down. Maybe then I know that my autonomy will go up because I get to decide, maybe together with a lot of other people, where we have influence. That shoots the dopamine up around that intrinsic motivator. Maybe we can’t change everything, but if we can do things that help the other motivations.

The other thing that I have really learned is that I know that when I’m over here where the prefrontal cortex isn’t working sometimes my husband knows it. Actually, often he knows it because suddenly I become this person that I don’t recognise. He’s like, “What is going on with you, crazy lady?” Then I know, you know what? The best thing for me to do is just go take a nap or have a glass of wine or chill. Have a nice dinner and not have any kind of arousal of any kind. No music, no nothing, just zen quiet. I can recognise that in myself much easier, just having this awareness of how that brain works. Understanding how my own brain works, just like I said at the beginning of the presentation about you know, the limbic system was the system…The amygdala, in fact in the limbic system said to me, “Jenni, there’s no way you can do this presentation in an hour. Forget about it.” But then, I knew what was happening. I was like, “No, no, no, no. Come on prefrontal cortex! Get in there!” Having that awareness helps. Thank you very much. Thanks for all the great questions.

Jenni Jepsen
Jenni Jepsen

Jenni Jepsen

Jenni Jepsen is a partner at goAgile, a Denmark-based Agile consulting firm.

Her focus in on helping people deliver value faster and create lasting change. By getting to the core of WHY Agile works and helping people thrive through change, organizations become Agile – increasing motivation, effectiveness and transparency.

Jenni has extensive experience in change leadership and communications, and integrates NeuroLeadership concepts into her coaching, training and sparring with leaders at every level. She consults and speaks worldwide about leadership, teams, and how to make Agile work.

More from Jenni.

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