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Agility: go beyond the limits of your brain in front of change!

Our brain likes novelty, but not change. Why? Simply because the primary function of our brain is to keep us alive. It will identify changes as so many threats and send us signals such as fear.

The problem is that this default behavior is sometimes not appropriate in front of the real “threat”. A change in the way of working will be perceived as uncomfortable and dangerous, whereas in reality, beyond these unpleasant emotions, there will be much more benefits (efficiency, professional/personal balance).

How to face these limits and overcome them, then? In these cases, the Agile mindset and tools borrowed from Agility can be very effective.

What are these limits of our brain?

Limit n°1: the brain motivates us by default

As I explained in the introduction, our brain has a default behavior, oriented for our survival. Its job is to do everything to keep us alive and protect us. This is its default design, and that’s why we often react negatively to the changes people want us to make. Our brain sees them as a threat to our life.

It motivates us to:

  • seek pleasure in what we do,
  • avoid pain (physical and mental),
  • preserve our energy (in case we have to fight or flee).
Seek pleasure, preserve energy, avoid pain
Motivational Triad of the brain

So, as soon as it identifies a big gap between our beliefs, our current way of life, and what we perceive the change entails, it goes into high alert mode.

The problem with this way of working is that it prevents us from moving forward, when one of these motivations is threatened. Fortunately, we all have the ability to overcome this process.

When we step back, we of course realize that the threat is not a real death threat (phew!). But being able to step back is a useful skill that can be developed. It is thanks to this stepping back that we will be able to say to ourselves: OK, these new meetings in which I am asked to give feedback on what works or not in the team are perhaps not that dangerous for me. I can even see it as an opportunity to be able to say what is blocking me in my work and to ask for help.

By identifying these negative reactions (fear, resistance to change) in your way of functioning, you have the possibility to question them. A question I love to ask the people I coach (and I invite you to try) is: what do you think about this way of thinking, compared to the goals you have set for yourself?

Limit n°2: the trap of cognitive biases

In its need to preserve energy, the brain uses shortcuts. Among these shortcuts we find cognitive biases.

A cognitive bias is a mechanism that allows our brain to process information more quickly, based on what we already know, on what we believe.

Some examples :

  • the status quo bias: “we have always done it this way” (implied, why should we change?)
  • confirmation bias: for example, we think we are not made for change. Our brain will focus on all the evidence that goes in this direction and completely ignore the opposite examples. It will forget that we have already moved several times, that we have had children, etc. and that we managed to cope with change every time.
  • the negativity bias: “anyway, it won’t work”, without ever looking at the counter-examples that exist.
  • the conformity bias: “others do it like that, why would we do it differently?” change is then perceived as a danger of exclusion from the group. Since humans are a social species, we understand that there can be a perception of threat.

This list is not exhaustive and there are many cognitive biases that can limit our decisions. It is good to keep mechanisms in mind to be able to evaluate situations of change in a more relevant way.

The best way to avoid them is to get to know them so you can identify and overcome them.

Limit n°3: resistance to change

A third limitation of our brain vis-à-vis change is our resistance. We often feel fear of change and it’s interesting to ask why. What are we really afraid of? Is it really change or are we uncomfortable with giving up our well-earned comfort, what is known, or something else?

There can be many causes to the resistance to change and they are related to the survival mechanism of the brain that I mentioned above.

Managing to identify the reason for your resistance and expressing the emotions that run through you at this idea is a first big step forward in managing change.

Moreover, this phase is completely normal and can perfectly be overcome, sometimes with a little help.

Speaking of help, let’s look at how we can use Agility to facilitate these changes in our lives (pro or personal for that matter).

How to overcome limits to change with Agility

Draw inspiration from the principles of agility to manage change

The principles of agility, which we find in the Agile manifesto, allow people and teams to see change from another angle. Adapting to change more than responding to a plan is thus one of the four values proposed.

It encourages cutting change (and projects) into small pieces that are more manageable.

It also suggests developing a growth mindset and becoming a “lifelong learner”.

By realizing that we are not fixed in a certain way of thinking and that we can learn from anything, at any age, it becomes easier and easier to see change as an opportunity to increase our knowledge.

The human brain is also not made for long-term planning. It is based on what has already happened, and already knows. There is a good chance that a project planned well in advance, as in traditional project management methods, will encounter many obstacles that could not have been anticipated.

It is more efficient to plan in the short term and adapt as you experiment throughout the project. It allows you to be much more flexible and deal with smaller changes, which will be more manageable for your brain.

Indeed, the Agile manifesto invites people and teams to iterate and deliver frequently. This method of “small steps” makes it possible to better manage risks because they are less impactful than when a big change happens all of a sudden. The difference between the known and the future is much smaller and allows everyone to manage, in small steps, making change a little easier.

Tools to borrow from agile practices to facilitate adaptation

Several concrete tools, used by Agile teams, can be used by leaders and their teams.

Group facilitation, to increase commitment to change

When a change is coming, it may be relevant to invite the people affected by this change to participate in the decisions of its implementation, in a collaborative facilitated setup.

Indeed, participating and co-creating increase the commitment of those present, who feel heard. It is also preferable to let them organize themselves on how to make this change, once the reason for the change and the expected objectives have been explained to them.

These intrinsic motivation levers are much more effective in the long term than rewards or top-down imposed decisions.

Visual management, to create reassuring landmarks

A second actionable tool is visual management. Creating a physical or virtual board, with the follow-up of the progress and certain indicators, also with the reminder of the vision or the objectives, allows people to have a benchmark, an anchor to which they can refer to in case of doubt.

This visual management also contributes to greater transparency, better decision-making (fact based) and a better understanding of these decisions by people.

Feedback techniques to develop the growth mindset

Then come the feedback methods. These allow teams to better understand how people, for whom they are creating something (whether it is a physical product, software, process, offer, etc.), think and behave.

Internal team feedback techniques, such as retrospectives, are also very helpful for the team to learn from each other and continuously improve. These continuous improvement mechanisms are also an excellent way to learn how to learn and to become more and more familiar with the changes.

A bit like desensitization: small change after small change, people become aware that they are capable of managing them and it becomes easier for them.

In conclusion, if our brain has good intentions and wants to protect us at all costs, these threats are very often “thought’s errors” that can be reformulated thanks to Agile tools. This state of mind invites people and teams to follow a few guidelines that allow them to better experience change, to better live their work and feel better in their daily lives.

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