The Neuroscience of Agile

Aliens in the boardroom

Let’s do a little thought experiment: Imagine you were an alien. Your people let’s call them the Scrummies (because you are an agile bunch) recently visited planet earth for the first time and captured a few humans, a species which seems to play quite a role on their home planet. Now, because they seem so alien, you decide to study them. After all, you are a senior alien researcher on planet Xtreme and because you are so intelligent (we are talking like 1 million times more intelligent than the humans you are studying) you have been able to decipher human language in a heartbeat. So, you have a conversation with them. Whilst you are chatting away, they recommend you go and visit a boardroom in a large corporate. “To really understand our species, they claim, you have to do this”.

So, off you go. You hop on a spaceship (a completely autonomously flying vehicle) leaving planet Xtreme behind. Because you are so intelligent, you have capabilities which to humans might appear as Superpowers. You are able to be as invisible as a fly on the wall. Plus, very conveniently, you can sniff out the stuff which to most humans would fall under the realm of the unconscious such as hidden agendas, reading between lines and cognitive biases.

Just like humans can see a chair or a table in a room, you (because you have superpowers as depicted in the image above) are able to see the invisible patterns in the boardroom before your eyes: emotions, group dynamics, and unspoken thoughts are all explicitly present for you. They are like physical objects radiating before your eyes. like when pressing and holding an app on an iPhone where suddenly all the apps start to wiggle like there is no tomorrow. All this clutter seems a little confusing sometimes. However, you know how to distinguish the essential from the noise in the data and so you gain a fairly clear picture.

Now let’s further imagine, you have just arrived at a boardroom on planet earth. Nobody can see you (doh you are invisible) and you have just come into a heated meeting debate between senior executives. The first thing you notice is: they all look the same. They are covered in what seems to you like ugly black and grey space suits. They seem like uniforms as if they had to protect themselves. You also sense a mysterious smell in the air. It smells like a mixture of fear and aggression. The boardroom appears cold and sterile. The room represents an image of command and control, you sense the presence of clear boundaries which are not to be overstepped.

If you were just to look at the surface (in other words with the limited sensory perception available to humans), the meeting would be about planning out the future of the company in the next five years. However, if you looked closer (using your Superpowers), beneath the surface you’d notice a world of secrets, a volcano of simmering particles. You’d see the hidden agendas which even the agents themselves would not be aware of. You’d notice the smell of rising panic in a shivery atmosphere, the overwhelming need for belonging in some individuals and the loneliness in others.

You’d also realize that they seem to take forever to discuss seemingly simple problems, which to you encapsulate obvious solutions. However, it is not their analytical intelligence which prevents them from going straight to these solutions. Rather, it is their almost stubborn inability to be vulnerable, transparent and empathetic to themselves and others. Debates in this atmosphere it seems, are mostly driven by what some have classified as cognitive bias and the struggle for group acceptance and belonging. So, political aspirations and unconscious scripts are secretly running the meeting, which is detrimental to real outcomes. This, my dear alien, is the stuff we humans are made of. Instead of bringing the elephants on the table and openly discussing what we are really feeling and thinking, we stick to our political agenda well knowing that this might be poisonous and counterproductive.

Why you may ask yourself, are they doing this to themselves? This seems so counter-intuitive, stalling any productivity and preventing teams from responding effectively to new challenges in the outside world. You feel a little overwhelmed, and it seems unbearable, so you decide to leave. Back on planet Xtreme you chat to your research subjects and report about your experience. They shrug their shoulders and claim it is just the normal stuff of company policy.

Whilst it is easy to distinguish yourself from a situation when you are an objective bystander (like our cute Scrummy), it is a whole different story when you are an implicit part of the system. In other words: we can laboriously contemplate what it would be like to be an alien when in reality we are stuck in a cultural setup which follows certain and often unwritten rules. Company politics is one of these things.

Transitioning from steam engines to an exponential economy

But let’s take a little history class first to understand what’s going on here: In the industrial age, we built large hierarchical organizations, obedient citizens and students, who would sit in rank and file for six hours straight. This seemed to make sense in a society where our economy was geared towards productivity and scalability. After all, we set up large factories, where people had to function like machines. Not surprisingly, it was in this era that a guy called Frederick Taylor (1856–1915) came up with his philosophy which became the foundation of the division of labor. It was a carefully crafted manifesto which celebrated a mechanistic view of our world and humanity. In the tradition of this manifesto, we created departments which were focused on very specialized responsibilities aka human resources, finance, product departments. Whilst the departmentalization supported the goal of mass production and fostered the unprecedented commercialization of our world, it secretly got away with another subtler and perhaps unwanted implication: company politics. Departments inherited clear responsibilities and goals. And by executing on their departmental strategy, they became companies within companies, establishing their own subculture and DNA. This inevitably created conflicts and confusion over what was mine and what was yours. We can observe the manifestation of this up to today in corporate meetings, which often become outlets for endless conflicts over jurisdictions.

But the tides are turning…

In the 21st century, the speed of change is growing exponentially. Ray Kurzweil suggests that the progress of the entire 20th century would have been achieved in only 20 years at the rate of advancement in the year 2000, which is a five-fold increase. This suggests, that our internal change capability will need to match the pace of the external world.

Table 1: The transition from the industrial age to the 21st century by The Future Academy X

In light of our discussion this means three things:

  • We frankly don’t have time for company politics anymore and need to build open communication as an inherent process into the system. Agile methodologies and self-organization models are already doing this to some degree.
  • We need to find new ways of structuring our organizations and optimize them for speed and agility more than for scalability and efficiency
  • In the 21st century, we need to learn new competencies, which may have never entered our school curriculums (such as dealing with social media addictions, discerning the wildly important, practicing mindfulness and digital skills). And yes this means learning how to code should be a fundamental skill in any curriculum.

Unconscious bias ruling the world


This is all easier said than done. Even though we already have pockets of agility in smaller and larger organizations, the majority still operates under old paradigms. The industrial era, its operating principles, and cultural scripts have become an implicit part of our being. However, when the implicit scripts embedded in the DNA of an organization or even a culture are becoming outdated, then suddenly the tribe may be under threat. Old legalities do not apply anymore. Miraculously, the external world has shifted dramatically and kind of forces us to go along with it.

So, the scripts and underlying principles which guided social cohesion and survival in industrial organizations, now become the reason for their potential decline. And because these scripts have become such an implicit part of the human (and organizational) brain structure, it seems virtually impossible to even imagine a different operating manual.

Implicit memory systems

In neuroscientific terms, this is where we are talking about the implicit part of the memory. The ancient area in the human brain serves an important purpose. Because certain habitual things such as driving a car, riding a bike and even moving our body have become ingrained into our system, we don’t need much energy anymore to consciously think about them. We do it automatically. This frees up the energy to focus on other perhaps even more creative tasks. The area in the brain which is responsible for the implicit memory is the Cerebellum. It is here where we refer to our intuitive brain. This area stores implicit memories which ultimately allow us to move, eat and ride a bicycle without consciously thinking about it. This is all well and good as long as the habits we have acquired serve us well. But what happens when mostly due to external circumstances we require new scripts? When many of the intrinsic behaviors we have acquired over the last decades are starting to fail us?

Then we need to start fresh by learning new skills, such as doing agile. In Agile, we plan for uncertainty by prioritizing and planning together, working in short iterations, demonstrating results and getting feedback. This settles the limbic part of our brain down as it senses this is the only way to operate in a complex and uncertain environment. And unlike in the industrial age, we provide people with maximum autonomy and trust, which in turn activates the prefrontal cortex (the executive part of the brain) and provides encouragement to co-create and have faith in the team.

Initially, all of this may feel frustrating. It costs energy and seems pointless. Perhaps it feels a little like going through a major personal crisis, where we initially resist and feel overwhelmed by the amount of change which lies ahead of us. Over time, however, it becomes easier to acquire new techniques and values. We start small by experimenting with alternative strategies. We set up small and deliberate experiments and like a small child is learning to walk, we learn to walk the way of being in the 21st century. Gradually, things we needed to exercise consciously will become an implicit part of our identity. We move from doing agile to being agile, which gets encoded in the Cerebellum and has changed us forever.