Chris Gagné

Delight customers. Create value. Do good.

What a 106-year-old psychological law tells us about Agile

Work harder!

We’ve all been admonished to work harder at some point in our lives, whether it was from a well-meaning parent, a sports coach, or a manager facing a deadline.

What many Agilists have come to empirically observe is that the more we can get people to feel happy and have a good work/life balance, their total productivity goes up. We’ve come to learn that “busyness” is not productivity. I have heard managers brag of how dedicated their teams are because they’re working 100-hour weeks on their latest and greatest innovation. Yet, they seem miss out on the fact that had their teams spent 35–40 hours a week on their latest and greatest innovation, it would be less late and even greater.

So, why do some managers insist upon added stress and arousal? Clearly there must have been a time or place where “cracking the whip” made sense.

Hint: It’s not in highly creative fields like software development.

It turns out that there are some times when it makes sense. According to the Yerkes-Dodson law, an “empirical relationship between [physiological and mental] arousal and performance,” performance increases when arousal does but only up to a point. In some cases, further arousal lowers performance.

For simple tasks, more arousal equals more performance, at least up to a point at which it relatively plateaus. For difficult tasks, more arousal equals more performance, until it reaches a peak and begins to plummet at the rate that it rose. This is because stress negatively affects cognitive processes such as attention, memory, and problem solving, all critical for the modern knowledge worker.

Put another way…

Yerkes-Dodson Law

One of the things that I really like about Agile is that it’s all about staying empirical… Transparency benefits inspection, inspection benefits adaptation. And over the years, we’ve come to learn in the business context what many have learned in the psychology and biology contexts.

For instance, a 2007 review of the effects of stress hormones like glucocorticoids found that people’s performance on memory tests and the levels of stress hormones in their blood produced very similar responses to what Yerkes and Dodson found nearly a century earlier. One example: the ability to form long-term memories was highest in the face of small quantity of glucocorticoids were in the bloodstream, but removing the adrenal glands (thus no glucocorticoids) or injected glucocorticoids produced poor long-term memory formations.

Interestingly, this same review found that in order for something to induce a stress response, it has to be perceived as: novel, unpredictable, uncontrollable, and/or possibly leading to social rejection. Naturally, any knowledge worker’s office is likely to be plagued by novelty, unpredictability, and a lack of control (at least from external circumstances like competition).

One of the things Agile teaches is is how to manage these constants well. Rather than stressing out and feeling like we need to “replan” because “things didn’t go the way we planned,” Agile assumes that things won’t go as planned. Uncertainty is embraced. Servant leaders who understand the nature of software development reality deeply understand these things, and so don’t unnecessarily create a culture of fear that produces the sense of a “social evaluative threat” when “the plan isn’t met.” The plan hypothesis was wrong in the first place.

Thus, workers in strong Agile cultures are more productive not only because they aren’t working 80-hour weeks, but also because the whole culture (especially the leadership) is mature enough not to freak out at every single change. These workers experience less stress, therefore they’re producing less stress hormones, and therefore their brain isn’t acting like it’s about to be eaten by a tiger. Keep in mind the tiny amount of time that has elapsed between the constant fear of violent death and the modern 72°F office environment, at least from an evolutionary perspective.

This is your brain on stress.

Truly Agile companies then put A+ talent in environments where they feel autonomy, mastery, and purpose, thus providing strong intrinsic motivation (which does not cause the same sort of stress). A+ talent will not tolerate an environment of mediocrity, fear, or command and control, so any such talent in such an environment exits post haste. This leaves behind giant teams of B and C players who send the company into a tragically-slow death spiral from which few can escape. Further, small teams of A+-level absolutely run circles around giant teams of B- and C-level talent (kudos to Steve Jobs for popularizing this).  Many people have never seen this in action.

It’s easy to feel like a hero or a martyr when you’re working those eighty-hour weeks “for a cause.” Managers can tell their employees that they’re not “strong enough” and need to “man up” and put in the hours. But try as we might to ignore them, rarely can we escape the simple facts of our physiology and biology.

Thanks to Wikipedia for illuminating me on the Yerkes-Dodson law, from whose article I borrowed liberally for my own.

Yerkes Dodson ParodyYerkes-Dodson Law ParodyYerkes-Dodson Law ParodyYerkes Dodson Parody

How to Run a 5 Whys (With Humans, Not Robots)

Dan Milstein shares his advice on how to run a 5 Whys retrospective with humans rather than robots. A great watch!


Slide deck (also shown in the video):

I particularly like his use of humor and contrast in setting the tone for a retrospective.

Rally’s “The Impact of Agile Quantified” White Paper

I’m not normally a huge fan of white papers, but Rally Software has done something extraordinary with this one. They’ve analyzed the process and performance data for nearly 10,000 teams using the Rally platform to extract some rather interesting findings. While there’s empirical evidence to support many of the prescribed Agile behaviors, Rally’s unique access to performance data as a SaaS process tool provides them with the ability to get an inside look across many different companies and teams.

Here’s Rally’s introduction:

Though people have made Agile recommendations for many years, we have never been able to say how accurate they actually are, or how much impact a particular recommendation might make. [Chris: I disagree as many of these recommendations have been made based on other data and evidence.]

The findings in this document were extracted by looking at non-attributable data from 9,629 teams using Rally’s Agile Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) platform. Rally is in the unique position to mine this wealth of SaaS (cloudbased) data, and uncover metrics-driven insights.

These insights give you real world numbers to make an economic case for getting the resources you need, and your people to commit to change. That’s the underlying motivation of this work.

A few highlights that I’ve copied and pasted:

[T]here is almost a 2:1 difference in throughput between teams that are 95% or more dedicated compared with teams that are 50% or less dedicated.

Stable teams result in up to:
60% better Productivity
40% better Predictability
60% better Responsiveness

Teams doing Full Scrum estimating [both story points and task hours] have 250% better Quality than teams doing no estimating

Teams that aggressively control [work in process]:
• Cut time in process in half
• Have ¼ as many defects
• But have 34% lower Productivity

Small teams (of 1-3 people) have
• 17% lower Quality
• But 17% more Productivity
Than teams of the recommended size (5-9)

While these are the summary findings, the white paper is short and well worth a read. Check it out!

You do not get capacity by attempting to forcefully take it. You get it by gracefully creating it.

Agile is exquisitely simple. Empower people and expect high performance. While it’s no guarantee that they can solve all of your problems, they have a better chance of it than you do.

Patterns for Splitting User Stories

I just came across Richard Lawrence’s excellent story splitting flowchart. It’s a poster that offers several different strategies for splitting large user stories into smaller ones, including:

  • Workflow steps
  • Defer performance
  • Simple/complex
  • Major effort
  • Business rule variations

Check out the full flowchart, here. This is an especially useful resource for product managers who are coming from a waterfall environment and are new to writing Agile user stories.

David Koontz, a practicing Agile coach, shared an excellent list of twenty Agile team exercises on his blog, Agile Complexification Inverter. This includes the Marshmallow Challenge I wrote about in an earlier post. There’s some real gems, so take a look!

Some Thoughtful Retrospective Questions

I’ve used relatively standard Agile Retrospective questions to great success over my career:

  • What’s one word that best describes this sprint? (one per person)
  • What were the positive aspects of this sprint that we’d like to persist?
  • What were the deltas we’d like to change?
  • How can we change our behavior, process, or definition of done to address the above?
  • What actions can we take (with volunteered date commitments from one or more individuals) to address the above?
  • And the most important “Big Daddy” that we should ask ourselves constantly… Why? Repeat that one another four times…

While this is a nice base, I’ve been looking for other questions to ask. Here’s several that I liked from Ben Linder’s blog, Sharing My Experience:

  • What still puzzles us?
  • What helps you to be successful as a team?
    • How did you do it?
  • Where and when did it go wrong in this sprint?
  • What do you expect, from who?
  • Which tools or techniques proved to be useful? Which not?
  • What is you biggest impediment?
  • If you could change 1 thing, what would it be?
  • What caused the problems that you had in this sprint?

Here are some nice why examples:

  • Why did you do it like this?
  • Why did this (or didn’t this) work for you?
  • Why do you consider something to be important?
  • Why do you feel this way?
  • Why did you decide to work together on this?

From Debategraph, I liked “What don’t we know yet?”

Are there other questions you like to ask during retrospectives?

Photo from Magnus D on flickr

The Haka Dance

The Haka (plural is the same as singular: haka) is a traditional ancestral war cry,dance or challenge from the Māori people of New Zealand. It is a posture dance performed by a group, with vigorous movements and stamping of the feet with rhythmically shouted accompaniment.[1] The New Zealand rugby team‘s practice of performing a haka before their matches has made the dance more widely known around the world.


Does your team have this degree of ba? If not, what could you do to foster it?

Imagine a team that admits mistakes, reinforces their shared values, forgives one another, and moves on. Do you think such a team would come up with astonishing ideas? I do.

— Lyssa Adkins, Coaching Agile Teams

A Mural from Fred “NoOne” Padilla

Here’s a mural (bigger, please don’t use this for anything commercial) that I commissioned from Fred “NoOne” Padilla.

In the upper-left-hand corner, an art car (“Charlie the Unicorn”) can be seen riding off in the distance. Beneath that, a representation of the cluster of condo buildings I’m living in at the moment and rooftops from a distance. A circle around a fire with elder ones, younger ones, and familiar spirits. Beneath that, a fruit and vegetable stand outside of the Ferry Building. A food stand in the Mission, a view over Bernal Heights to Sutro Tower, a truck and VW bug on 280 South, the docks along the Islais Creek Channel. Broken Glass waves as an homage to The Slanted Door, a map of Golden Gate Park, a nicely set table. A picnic in Dolores Park. Finally, the cosmos represented as a galaxy, but if looked at carefully is a night-time view of the Playa on the night of the Temple burn in 2009.

Mind-blowingly beautiful, Fred. Thanks again. :)

« Older posts

© 2014 Chris Gagné

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑