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Agile – a chemical romance?

By alison whitehouse, PA agile expert and craig lucia, PA agile expert

Think about how you feel when you tick something off your to-do list or – if you work in an Agile environment – when you move a task post-it to ‘done’? You feel good right? This natural ‘high’ is due to a hit of dopamine: a chemical reward from your brain designed to keep you focused on the end goal.

A recent report stated that higher productivity and team morale are in the top five benefits of Agile ways of working. What could it be about Agile working that has that effect? Could it be chemistry? We’ve checked out the connection between some of the body’s ‘happy’ chemicals – and one ‘unhappy’ one – and Agile working techniques. It’s clear those techniques could make any organisation more successful.

Dopamine

The neurotransmitter dopamine has a strong association with motivation and rewards. Dopamine is released in order to encourage us to react, either to go after something 'good' or avoid something 'bad'. (In contrast, people with low levels of dopamine lack the ability to concentrate on tasks and so they procrastinate). Evidence-based successes are key to igniting this mechanism, so you won’t get the full benefit if your organisation has subjective metrics in place – for example red/amber/green status reporting. There’s a potential pitfall here too: in organisations that are heavily performance-driven individuals could seek a selfish dopamine hit at the expense of their team or company goals.

The Agile techniques that help:

  • Setting regular goals with short-term timescales
  • Celebrating milestones to reinforce positive feedback
  • Making sure metrics are fact-based and tracking true progress.

Oxytocin

Often referred to as the selfless chemical, oxytocin is released when we experience trust and friendship and this makes us feel happier and more valued. Oxytocin is even released when we simply witness an act of kindness. It has long-term effects which grow deeper the more we bond with people. 

Ideally Agile teams stay together for as long as possible – and form these bonds. Even team members working remotely will feel this connection. Remember the last time when you spoke to a friend or relative in another country? Chances are the close bond between you was still there regardless of distance.

Other Agile techniques that help:

  • Developing emotionally intelligent leaders who put the needs of others first
  • Holding regular one-to-ones with team members simply to ask “How are you doing?”
  • Building trust amongst team members by being honest, transparent and consistent
  • Creating an environment where it’s OK to learn from failing
  • Praising people often and in front of others.
agile transformation and delivery

Serotonin

Serotonin affects confidence, happiness and motivation. It’s released when you feel proud or valued and through helping others. One of the Agile principles is designed to have just that impact: “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”

A key for Agile working is for teams to have an inspiring vision of what needs to be done and then the autonomy and trust to deliver to the best of their ability. It means team members are invested in achieving the goal and feel a great sense of achievement and pride. 

Other Agile techniques that help:

  • Periodically reflecting on past significant achievements
  • Encouraging team members to pair and learn from each other
  • Creating a ‘Kudos’ wall to give thanks to team members – make thanking people part of any regular meetings
  • Creating a high quality working environment – making sure there’s plenty of natural light will boost serotonin, for example.

Cortisol – the unhappy chemical

This is a stress hormone. It brings the ‘fight or flight’ response to danger that increases blood pressure and heart rate, and shuts down non-essential systems. Our bodies can’t distinguish between life-threatening danger and non-life-threatening stress at work so our body releases cortisol either way. And increased cortisol levels can reduce oxytocin levels – which means people are far less likely to help others and can feel disconnected from their colleagues.

The Agile techniques that reduce stress:

  • Breaking large projects into a series of smaller, more manageable, projects
  • Giving people autonomy
  • Making priorities and progress visible to all stakeholders
  • Spotting problems early on through continuous iteration.

The appliance of science

We think these connections further demonstrate that Agile working is a powerful tool for creating and sustaining successful organisations. We’ve seen these techniques make a real difference to clients in various sectors – and it’s the way we work ourselves. Whether you take them on wholesale or in part, the chemistry suggests it would have a positive impact on your people and their productivity. Sounds like a win-win to us.

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