Agile is more than a management buzz word: it’s hard-wired to enhance performance

Test-and-learn works

Agile is defined by a collective commitment to delivering outcomes based on a test-and-learn approach. In environments characterized by uncertainty, that seems like plain common sense. Yet many organizations struggle to make the shift from a legacy of command-and-control approaches, which thrive under stable environments, to this more fluid way of working

Agile originated in software development, but it offers advantages in many types of business seeking to innovate and flourish in uncertain times. Its benefits are compounded by the effects on us as individuals, thanks to the way our minds work. Agile routines leverage brain activity that facilitates learning at pace. Visualizing a pathway to desired outcomes, combined with a bias for action, encourages curiosity with strategic purpose. This in turn enables learning, which is critical to performance over both the short- and long-term in the complex, unpredictable environments that we all confront.

Visualize outcomes

The brain exhibits the same activity when it visualizes an action as it does when it is performing the action. In other words, the brain is unable to distinguish between imagination and reality. As a result, daily visualization has been shown to help us be more receptive to new opportunities to meet goals.

In agile, the scrum board facilitates such visualization. It provides daily line of sight on goals and the work to which the team has committed. As a result, it is a simple yet effective tool for imagining an outcome and working out what will be done individually and collectively to achieve it. By comparing items at different stages of completion, individuals can also visualize barriers to execution and proactively address them. The daily rehearsal of ‘if… then’ scenarios creates a rhythm that every member in the team can work towards in a harmonious manner. It helps everyone understand how problems are broken down, and invites individuals to explore options to solve problems. In so doing, everyone participates in creating the future instead of reacting to it.

This form of group visualization also helps individuals understand what they may need to give up individually to drive success on higher priority items.

Commit to action

The more that action is taken in line with a goal, the better our brain filters information in line with that goal – allowing us to take in that which helps us achieve it, and filtering out that which does not. Action also helps to neutralize fear, because the brain is focused less on the emotional state of fear and more on the tasks necessary to action. Agile takes a single deliverable – the minimum viable product – and makes it urgent through a sprint. It calls for everyone to dedicate every bit of effort to getting to that deliverable as quickly as possible. As action is taken, individuals are empowered to talk about the things that have not worked, so that others do not make the same mistakes.

The open sharing of ideas underpins a sense of rapid progress and gives agile an edge over command-and-control processes, which can – despite looking superficially like a strongly action-oriented way of working – generate endless meetings with multiple stakeholders that slow down decision-making.

Unlearning and re-learning

In an unpredictable and unstable business environment, decisions are increasingly based on two simple premises: work out what needs to be done, and the easiest way of getting it done with the lowest risk. There are some dangers here, however. The bias towards acting in the best interest of the present self can lead us on the one hand to procrastinate; on the other, it can make us blind to better long-term choices that are available to us.

Agile is able to balance short- and long-term considerations through an orientation towards learning more about a problem in order to increase our confidence about bigger decisions. Test-and-learn therefore makes both rewards and costs more immediate. It surfaces fears and anxieties, and engages with them, seeking to understand cause-and-effect relationships.

Emphasizing action, based on what is controllable, creates a safe environment when unpicking who or what is responsible for a particular outcome. An evidence-based approach that uses clear, consistent measures of progress helps to build credibility and reliability within and across teams. This learning orientation naturally builds confidence to move forward, reinforced by continuous feedback among team members.

Acting to learn

A top-down approach to planning with clear responsibility for decision-making is possible when the environment is stable. But in the face of uncertainty, agile nurtures a mindset that focuses on managing the controllable in order to learn. This helps to build neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to adjust its activities in response to new situations or to changes in its environment.

Agile’s core techniques help individuals and teams to regularly and repeatedly visualize outcomes and ways to overcome obstacles. Combined with timely action, these methods are a powerful basis on which to rehearse moves, to act, learn and repeat the cycle. In highly uncertain environments, acting to learn is the best way to learn to act strategically. 

— Camelia Ram holds a PhD in operational research from the London School of Economics