Monthly Archives: August 2012

The CI Vaccine

It’s probably fair to say that most folks have had little to zero experience of Continuous Improvement (CI) at work.

Let’s use the analogy of a vaccination to explore what it might mean for an organisation to first dip its toes in the CI waters.

When an organisation adopts CI, it’s essentially attempting to boost its immunity to germs like waste, rework, quality problems, inefficiencies, and the pernicious effects of trying to do business-as-usual in an ever-changing world (a.k.a. the status quo). In principle, the antibodies to these germs, arising from the introduction of CI, should stay with the organisation for a long time.

Understanding CI

First off, there’s the question of whether people understand what CI is about, what it’s going to mean for their organisation and their work, and whether they even need to know. I can still remember being vaccinated at school, many years ago now. Standing in line in a draughty corridor, half-dressed, waiting for a “vaccination” – something that no one had explained to us, apart from the fact that it involved a needle, a (probably) painful injection, and a bonbon. And that it was compulsory.

Selling CI to the Workforce

Change specialists, and some managers, often take this stage for granted. Their relative familiarity with the principles of CI can blind them to the possibility that other folks don’t know what CI is, what the implications may be, and how it’s going to be introduced. All too often it’s assumed that CI is so obviously “a good thing” that people will jump at the chance to help adopt it and make it work. Generally, nothing could be further from the truth.

Resistance and Avoidance

As (yet) another management change initiative, folks are likely to be at best skeptical, and more often downright hostile (in an understated, job-preserving, passive-agressive way). Some parents reject vaccinations for their children, after all, despite the best medical advice.

Life with CI

Another aspect of CI rarely considered is the way in which it changes employee participation and collaboration. It’s very hard to realise any benefits from CI unless and until folks are intimately involved in spotting the dysfunctions in their ways of working, and in finding or helping find solutions or improvements. Yes, introducing CI can be driven by management edict, but at some point that approach has to give way to consultation and collaboration for CI to deliver its real benefits.


Here are the steps that you might like to consider when approaching the introduction of CI into an organisation.

  • Introduce the idea of Continuous Improvement to folks across the organisation, along with the new elements of vocabulary inevitably required.
  • Discuss, or at least communicate, the reasons for (the likely benefits of) its introduction.
  • Help people understand the timeline for CI’s introduction, the scope of the likely changes, and the names or job titles of the folks likely to be involved.
  • Share the practical day-to-day changes its introduction is likely to bring to the organisation and the people working in it.
  • Discuss the possible knock-on effects for e.g. suppliers and customers.
  • Make an effort to understand people’s reservations and their buy-in to the whole idea of continuous improvement – do they think there’s any point to it?
  • Consider and share the impact CI might have on existing standard processes and procedures.
  • Tell people how they’re going to have time to learn about and then implement this stuff alongside the demands of their normal day job.
  • Explain how things are going to get worse for a time, whilst the CI changes bed-in.
  • Make it clear that each and everyone’s participation is voluntary, not compulsory.

Whether all this information is “pushed” at the workforce in e.g. briefings, emails, workshops or one-to-ones, or whether there’s more dialogue and debate, will be a question of the cultural norms already in place in the organisation in question.

Typically, we’ll automatically trust someone in a white coat (like a doctor or a nurse). Trust in the folks involved in “pushing” the CI implementation can help things go smoother. (Absence of trust can make the whole thing more difficult).

[Update: 20 October 2014]

Recent neuroscientific research suggests that trust is not as important for the introduction of change as we may have thought. Rather more important, it seems, is normative learning a.k.a. experiential learning. The argument, in a nutshell, is that if someone experiences the postitive impact of an improvement – an improvement they have chosen to try out for themselves – then they are likely to adopt that improvement, long term. And place more trust in the person who suggested it, too. See: Changing Behaviours.

And like a vaccination, there’s the possibility that the patient is going to feel a little unwell for a while, after taking the needle.

How about you? Do you think your organisation needs CI? Or is the status quo good enough?

– Bob

Further Reading

What is a Vaccine and How Does it Work? – Online article
How to Make Change Happen – Theory Of Constraints on implementing change
Kotter’s Eight Step Change Model – Online article

On the Radar

Pawel wrote a nice blog post recently about using radar charts (a.k.a. spider charts) to visualise the maturity of a Kanban implementation.

In formulating a treatment plan (forthcoming blog post) at the outset of an organisational therapy intervention, it can be useful to visualise how the organisation sees the world of work, i.e. how it thinks that work should work. At the very least, this visualisation allows each person to relate their own personal beliefs, ideas and assumptions about work to the collective viewpoint.

Further, we can use visualisation as a basis for encouraging dialogue on the direction in which folks would like the organisation’s perspective to evolve in the future.

Starting Out

When starting out on mapping an organisation’s perspective on the world of work, it can help to come up with a starter-list of “dimensions” or axes to bound the visualisation. How any one organisation arrives at such a list will, of course, depend on how that organisation believes how such things should be done – autocratically, by an expert or experts, through a special team, via collaboration and joint discussion, etc..

In any case, I’d expect this list to evolve as people discuss and decide what’s important, and as priorities change.

Here’s a sample list of dimensions (also used in the later examples):

ABCCo Mindset Dimensions [Top Level Critical Dimensions]:

Note these are not yet defined in more (quantified) detail
Version: Initial illustrative list, rough draft 23.08.2012 by RWM, author
Owner: Bob Marshall,

    • Breadth of participation in decision-making
    • Alignment of preaching with practice
    • Regard for happy, healthy staff as a business advantage
    • Focus on customers
    • Collaborative, win-win approach to customers
    • Use of quantification
    • Accounting principles (0: Cost accounting; 5: Flow/Throughput accounting)
    • Conformance to process (0: Irrelevant; 5: Essential)
    • Workflow model (0: Big batches and queues; 5: Single piece, continuous)
    • Team longevity
    • Rapid feedback
    • Respect for the individual
    • Use of appropriate measurement and metrics
    • Understanding of principles
    • Emphasis on learning
    • Mutuality
    • Emphasis on product quality
    • Flatness of management structure (hierarchy)
    • Explicit risk management
    • Importance of due date performance
    • Tolerance of cost issues
    • Emphasis on continual improvement
    • Eagerness for change
    • Perspective on change initiatives (0: entirely local, 5: systemic, holistic)
    • Eagerness to seek out new ideas, methods, thinking tools, principles
    • Clarity and ubiquity of shared purpose
    • Self-awareness (as an organisation)
    • Organisational health
    • Purposeful discussion and mutual learning

Note: I’ve described/labelled each dimension so that we can represented each data value by a single number in the range 0-5, where 5 is ‘best’. This makes plotting, reading and comparing the charts simpler.


Here’s a simple sparkline-ish chart showing a (current) consensus view of an organisation’s perspective on how it believes work should work (a.k.a. mindset). Note: order of the columns corresponds to the list, above:

Following discussions and/or deliberations, we might imagine another chart illustrating the desired target-condition (a.k.a. mindset), say at a point in time some  months hence:

Of course, if you’re using e.g. a spreadsheet to make these charts, you could slice and dice the data in other ways, to show e.g. the dimensions of greatest difference (and thus maybe requiring greatest effort or attention).


One thing to look for: how will the organisation in question (here: ABCCo) respond to this kind of visualisation and quantification? It may not appear too contentious, but for severely left-shifted organisations, even these simple formalisms may be too much to stomach.

Conversely, for devoutly Analytic-minded organisations, this simple formalism may prove insufficient. And for significantly right-shifted organisations, entirely other approaches may find favour.

Know thy client!

Further Reading

Competitive Engineering ~ Tom Gilb
Spider Chart Alternatives ~ Jon Peltier

Dumb Fraud

This post (*link amended to a Wayback Machine archive) – and its assenting commenters – illustrates why Agile is screwed. For as long as folks are dumb enough (ignorant of the facts) or fraudulent enough (in possession of the facts but choosing to ignore or suppress them) to believe that we can improve organisations without regard to the issue of local optima, Agile implementations will continue to fail by a ratio of 3:1 or greater (*link amended to a Wayback Machine archive).

So, I’m kind tired of dumbsters and fraudsters whining that the issue of local optima doesn’t matter.

Here’s just one note from Ackoff on the subject: “70% of Business Improvement Programs (TQM, Downsizing, Benchmarking) Decrease Performance“. If you think the same issues do not apply to Agile, then you’re dumb – or in denial, which is much the same thing in my book. And if you think they do apply to Agile, but you’re not going to mention it to your customers and clients because it’s, ahem, inconvenient, then you’re a fraud. Or worse.

If you’re looking for a non-ranty, reasoned explanation of the subject, may I refer you Ackoff, Senge, or most relevant I think, Goldratt (Theory of Constraints)?

But perhaps despite the opening, the aforementioned post (re: Bitching about local optimisations) was more about making a start, doing what you can, and gaining data from experimentation. Well, I’m all for that, with the important caveat (irony of medical analogy not lost here) of doing no harm.


And if you’re hoping (for indeed it is much more of a hope that a certainty) that “making the true bottleneck apparent” to your paying customer or client will have a positive effect, then maybe you might like to exhibit the integrity, courtesy (and courage) to place the risks and possible outcomes (scenarios) on the table before deciding whether to play the cards you’ve been dealt – or to fold?

I think Argyris would approve of that.

– Bob

Further Reading

The Goal ~ Eliyahu M Goldratt
Agile Coaching – Maybe All You Can Do Is Send a Hallmark Card ~ Eric Laramée


Hands up all those who read or have read science fiction? I was an avid reader of science fiction in my youth, particularly of the “Golden Age” writers, including: Harry Harrison, Norman Spinrad, E.E. “Doc” SmithFrank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Michael Moorcock, Isaac Asimov, and above all A.E. van Vogt.

In some strange way, these authors and their works helped me make sense of a chaotic youth, and laid some foundations for my future.

The most enduring of these influences was, and is, A.E. van Vogt and his Null-A series. In these books, van Vogt explores meta-systems, and in particular Alfred Korzybski‘s General Semantics, through the adventures of his aptronymous hero Gilbert Gosseyn.

“…he’s at least as great a man as Einstein. At least – because his field is broader. The same kind of work that Einstein did, the same kind of work, using the same methods; but in a much broader field, much more close to human relationships.”

~ Heinlein on Korzybski


For me, one of the core differences between, on the one hand Adhoc and Analytic mindsets, and on the other Synergistic and Chaordic mindsets (see: The Marshall Model), is the kind of logic at work (sic). The former seem to use Aristotelian logic exclusively (on those occasions where logic is used at all), whilst the latter appear to favour some form of Non- Aristotelian logic.

What Does it All Mean?

I’m sure I don’t know. But I suspect the inclination of some folks (and by extension, organisations) to think in black-and-white, zeroes-and-ones terms (cf. Aristotle, Newton, Euclid, etc.), and others to (sometimes) think in probabilistic, many-shades-of-grey terms (cf. Leibnitz, Bayes, Keynes, Zadeh, Cox, Prigogine, etc.) has something to do with it (the ‘it’ here being organisational effectiveness).

“Had Aristotle been a bit smarter, we could have saved a few thousand years of muddle by doing logic the proper way from the beginning.”

~ Mike Alder

What do you think?

– Bob

Further Reading

The World of Null-A ~ A.E. van Vogt
The Pawns of Null-A ~ A.E. van Vogt (a.k.a. The Players of Null-A)
Null-A Three ~ A.E. van Vogt
Aristotelian and Non-Aristotelian Logic ~ Gotthard Günther
An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems ~ Ben Hauck
Fuzzy Thinking ~ Bart Kosko
Non-Aristotelian Logic in Practice ~ Mike Alder (Excellent)
Probability Theory: The Logic of Science ~ Ed Jaynes (‘Unfinished’ online version)

Creating Sane Organisations

Premise: If we want to work in sane organisations, and given that many organisations are quite insane, we are faced with the challenge of improving “organisational sanity”.

What is Insanity?

“insanity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results.”

~ Benjamin Franklin

Whilst cute, and widely quoted, this definition doesn’t quite cut it for me. I prefer:

“In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”

~ Friedrich Nietzsche

or this:

“Insanity – a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.

~ R. D. Laing

And perhaps the best quote I’ve found – in the context of organisations, at least:

“Insanity is knowing that what you’re doing is completely idiotic, but still, somehow, you just can’t stop it.”

~ Elizabeth Wurtzel

So What is Sanity?

Alfred Korzybski wrote in his Theory of Sanity,

“Sanity is tied to the structural fit or lack of it between our reactions to the world and what is actually going on in the world.”

He expressed this notion as a map-territory analogy:

“A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.”

Given that science continually seeks to adjust its theories structurally to fit the facts, i.e., adjusts its maps to fit the territory, and thus advances more rapidly than any other field, he believed that the key to understanding sanity would be found in the study of the methods of science (and the study of structure-as-revealed-by-science).

Organisations and Sanity

Wouldn’t it be great if society and business knowledge had advanced to the point where creating sane organisations was a well-understood problem, with trusted and well-tried solutions? I have hopes that one day we may get there, although I doubt whether it will be in my lifetime, or yours.

“I have found that humans, even ‘insane’, are extremely logical provided you trace their premises – except their premises have no realization in actuality. So that’s the main point, not a problem of logic. From some premises, some consequences follow.”

~ Alfred Korzybski, 1947

Until that far-off day, we must accept that organisations are born, and grow up, with precious little thought to their sanity – or otherwise. This being the case, and assuming that we would like the organisations within which we work to be sane – or at least, saner than they are presently – we are faced with the challenge of improving “organisational sanity”.

What is a Sane Organisation?

Korzybski believed that sanity is the ability to consciously adapt to a changing environment (model it, map it). If the world changes, the sane change with it, while the insane refuse change.

Erich Fromm wrote in his book “The Sane Society” that not only can individuals be insane, but entire societies (and by reduction, organisations):

“It is naively assumed that the fact that the majority of people share certain ideas or feelings proves the validity of these ideas and feelings. Nothing is further from the truth… Just as there is a ‘Folie à deux’ (madness shared by two) there is a ‘folie à millions.’ The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same form of mental pathology does not make these people sane.”

So what is a sane organisation?

For me, it is any organisation which thinks for itself, in context. Which knows itself, and recognises that it needs to continually monitor its context, in case that context changes.

And by “knows itself” I mean something akin to the inscription in the pronaos of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: “Know Thyself”, and in particular in the manner Plato uses the phrase as a maxim for Socrates in describing his motive for dialogue.

“To find yourself, think for yourself.”

~ Socrates

See also: Self-knowledge (Psychology) and in particular, Self-perception Theory, the latter involving as it does validation or ‘testing’ of one’s supposed presuppositions, attitudes, and beliefs through examination of actual behaviours.

Is a Sane Organisation More or Less Effective?

Whilst sane organisations sounds like it might be a good idea, not least from the perspective of the folks that have to work in organisations, can we justify the effort in improving sanity? Do saner organisations have any tangible advantages over their typically less sane cousins? Does it translate to the bottom-line? And is that a sane question, in itself?

Personally, I think it’s self-evident that saner organisations have advantages, both for the folks working in them, and for the folks who have to deal with them (e.g. customers, suppliers). And if we believe (many do not, it seems) that happier employees means more productive employees (and happier customers too, btw) then we can predict a positive impact on the effectiveness of the organisation (and thence to the bottom-line).

Caveat: In an insane world, sanity may be less of a commercial advantage than we might first think?

“We cannot live better than in seeking to become better.”

~ Socrates

Sanity, Enlightenment, Love and Wholeness

In a recent post i wrote about Zen and the enlightened organisation, making a plea for the benefits of bringing “enlightenment” – in the classical Zen sense – to organisations.

“Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.”

~ Erich Fromm

I’ve also written before about the problems of balkanisation and alienation within organisations – both aspects of a lack of wholeness c.f. David Bohm:

“A corporation is organised as a system – it has this department, that department, that department… they don’t have any meaning separately; they only can function together. And also the body is a system. Society is a system in some sense. And so on.”

~ David Bohm, Thought as a System (1992)

For me, these four ideas – sanity, love, enlightenment and wholeness – seem inextricably interwoven.

– Bob

Further Reading

Sanity – Wikipedia entry
Science and Sanity ~ Alfred Korzybski (full book online here, quick intro here)
Korzybski Quotes in Context – Web page
Neurological Relativism and Time-binding – Interview with Robert Anton Wilson (audio)
Symptoms of the Dysfunctional Organisation – White Paper
Wholeness and the Implicate Order ~ David Bohm

Debate to the Death

I’m stupid. Real stupid. Time and again I get sucked into debating with people who quite clearly are only interested in exercising their enormous intellects (and egos) in some internet version of the College Debating Society. Maybe it’s because I’m too interested in others’ opinions that I stick at it. Maybe it’s just politeness. Maybe it’s down to my value system. FWIW StrengthsFinder has told me that one of my signature themes is Includer. In any case, it sucks.

I’d be much happier if we could more often find the charity and humility to do more mutual learning, and less ego-wanking. Actually, now I’ve go that off my chest, I’m resolved to break the pattern. I’ll use the keyword “Squirrel!” to remind myself.

So if you see or hear me say “Squirrel!”, you’ll know what I mean.

And please, don’t try to debate this with me. Squirrel!

– Bob


I’d prefer to have the luxury of being able to share this pain with folks whenever a debate hove into view, and yet I struggle with my Ladder of Inference telling me that the folks who choose the debating route will only continue to debate, albeit on the new topic of whether debating has any merits. If anyone has any ideas about how to get out of this doom loop (a.k.a. bind) I’d be grateful.

Further Reading

Using a Case Study to Learn the Mutual Learning Model ~ Benjamin Mitchell
Towards a Culture of Mutual Learning ~ Ilana Nevill

Speaking at Lean Agile Scotland 2012

My thanks to Karl Scotland for allowing me to (re)use his blog post.

I am delighted to have been invited to speak about “Organisational Effectiveness: Rightshifting and the Marshall Model” at the upcoming Lean Agile Scotland, which is being held September 21-22 in Edinburgh. In fact, the whole Saturday morning looks like being a Rightshifting-fest, with Ian Carroll talking about Systemic Flow Mapping in “Rightshifting in action, using Kanban for organisational change”, and Torbjörn Gyllebring talking about reciprocity in “Faith, Science & Rightshifting”.

If you want to go, I have a code which gives a discount of 10% on the ticket price. However, this will expire on the 6th of September. Let me know if you want the code, and then go to and and follow the eventbrite steps.

– Bob


Why Does Agile Work?

From the response to my recent post, Barking Up The Wrong Tree, it seems like I did a good job of “burying the lede“. So here’s the key thought:

We don’t know why Agile works.

Oh, there’s a whole bunch of theories, beliefs, assumptions and what have you. But no definitive evidence as to the key ingredients, and how to combine them. Like a Christmas Pudding, which ingredients do we need for a good pudding? Which can we safely leave out? Which ingredients simply add to the flavour or texture, and which constitute the essence of a Christmas Pudding? How does the mixing and cooking affect the result? How should it be brought to the table and presented? What ingredients does a software development team or organisation need to be effective, whilst still calling what they do “Agile”?

And most importantly of all, can we have a nice dessert without having a Christmas Pudding? Would Plum Duff or Mince Pies serve us just as well?

It seems like a lot of folks – including consultants, coaches, etc., seem unconcerned over this. “Given that the developers are happier, I don’t need to know any more” seems to be the general position of some. I gasp in astonishment at this. Maybe it’s just me. I was always taking things apart to find out how they worked when I was a child (but see the section “Complexity”, below). And I subscribe to William Kingdon Clifford’s arguments about the ethics of belief, too.

Let’s set aside the issue of why Agile doesn’t work, for another time (more Agile adoptions fail to deliver the expected benefits than succeed, by a ratio of at least 3 to 1).

Instead, let me make the case for why knowing matters:

Why We Need to Know

“He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast.”

~ Leonardo da Vinci

If we have no understanding of why our practice(s) work, we are like Leonardo’s sailor, rudderless and at the mercy of fickle fortune. With even a modicum of theory, however, we can at least begin to make choices about where we’re going. Actually, the thought occurs to me that maybe some Agile consultants and the like don’t worry because they have no destination (future state) in mind. Maybe, for them, just being “at sea in the Agile boat” is all they need. Especially if there’s wonga in it. Sounds like being “all at sea” to me.

And maybe some know the waters in which they sail, and the regular tides and the winds, well enough to arrive where they intend. All very well for the knowledgable, in familiar waters.

Do you need to know?


Of course, a development team or organisation is a social system, not a machine. So we’re in the realm of complexity, and complex adaptive systems. This means that we can’t simply take the system apart, to examine how it works by considering its individual constituents. That would be Analytic thinking, in any case.

So I don’t propose it’s easy to understand why Agile works (when it works, if it works), or even that it’s possible, in any absolute, mechanistic, definitive sense. Nor do I claim to understand it myself.

But I do claim to understand some of the attractors and barriers involved, and so, some of the ingredients of our Christmas dessert. And in my experience, there’s only a limited overlap between those and the ingredients of the Agile Christmas Pudding.

We all know the proof of the pudding is in the eating, but what proficient chef would not want to know the likely ingredients involved?

– Bob

Further Reading

The Ethics of Belief (1877) ~ William Kingdon Clifford

An Open Letter to the Project Management Community

Occasioned by this discussion on LinkedIn, I wanted to write to Project Managers everywhere…

Dear All

Dear Project Managers everywhere,

I hear you have mixed views about the recent, er, “developments”, in the field of Software Development, commonly referred-to as “Agile Software Development practices”. I won’t call them “advances” as we may not be able to agree that they have, in fact, advanced anything. Incidentally, I share some of your likely skepticism on that front.

I am writing to you today to share some opinions and observations about the changes in train in the software development field, globally. Whilst patchy in their uptake, changes are afoot. I can relate to your professional concerns that we retain the best of what we have learned from decades of successful project management (this also, we have to admit, being very patchy, too).

Many who look to advance the field of software development also have concerns. Concerns that some of the received wisdom of project management professionals has been rendered redundant or even dysfunctional by recent advances in fields such as psychology, neuroscience, sociology and evidence-based management.

These bilateral concerns have lead to understandable, yet vexing, tensions and misunderstandings between the various communities. Nowhere have these been more evident, perhaps, than between ‘traditional’ project managers and the Agile crowd.

I find it helpful to characterise this conflict as a clash of world-views. In a nutshell, a clash between what McGregor has called “Theory X” and “Theory Y”.

I hope I’m right in thinking that we all share a common objective – a desire to see better outcomes for our customers, delivered within timescales and at a cost that delights everyone involved. Oh, and maybe improving effectiveness of the organisations within which we work, too.

Whilst it may appear the arguments and contentions arise from our different ways and means for achieving this objective, I’d like to suggest that the conflict – as a product of conflicting world-views – is more deep-seated, and all the more pernicious for that. We can hardly expect folks, of any persuasion, to change their world-views overnight, if at all. Nor blame them for that aspect of their humanity.

And given the fundamental differences between these world-views, it seems overly optimistic to expect these world-views even to coexist peacefully and productively.

All we might hope for is a little more understanding, a little less fractiousness, and a future where we can all at least agree to disagree.

More optimistically, we might also realise that everyone has much to learn – and unlearn – from each other. That, perhaps, is something we can all work on together.

Thanks for listening,

– Bob

Further Reading

Power And Love ~ Adam Kahane
Power and Love – RSA video

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Blind Faith

What if we’re wrong? What if we’re all unwitting participants (and victims) in a mass delusion of biblical proportions?

“Not creating delusions is enlightenment.”

~ Bodhidharma

What if the past thirty years of so-called progress in the field of software development has all been one vast waste of time?

What if we’ve fooled ourselves by one huge placebo effect? Or by a combination of placebo effect and other similar pernicious delusions and cognitive biases?

“It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know.”

~ Henry David Thoreau

What if what we think we’ve learned turns out to have no validity at all?

Scrum, Waterfall, Agile, Kanban, Xp, etc.. “Process” itself. Could these all in fact be no more than the most egregious of red herrings?

What if it’s really some other factor – or factors in combination – that accounts for some, or indeed all, of the differences we observe from improvement initiatives? Honestly, I don’t think we can discount this possibility. Personally, I am coming round ever more to this belief.

Let’s take a look at some of the pernicious delusions and cognitive biases that may be at play here:

The Hawthorne Effect

The central idea behind the Hawthorne Effect is that changes in participants’ behavior during the course of a study may be “related only to the special social situation and social treatment they receive”.

The Feedback Effect

Improving folks’ performance by improving e.g. their skills may be a consequence of their receiving feedback on their performance (and not as a consequence of any improvement in skills per se). An “agile adoption” may give folks feedback for the first time in their working lives.

The Observer-Expectancy Effect

The observer-expectancy effect (also called the experimenter-expectancy effect, expectancy bias, observer effect, or experimenter effect) is a form of reactivity in which a researcher’s cognitive bias causes them to unconsciously influence the participants of an experiment.

“Any of a number of subtle cues or signals from an experimenter can affect the performance or response of subjects in the experiment.”

Sounds pretty much like agile coaching or scrum mastering, just about everywhere? Of course, the role of a coach or Scrum Master is indeed to affect their team(s) in such ways (at least, for the better).

The John Henry Effect

The John Henry effect is an experimental bias introduced into social experiments by reactive behavior by the control group (i.e. a group of people, not the subject of the experiment, used as a “control” against which progress in the subject group can be compared.)

As applied to organisations adopting agile, this effect may account, at least in part, for the improvement (if an) in teams, and other departments, not immediately part of the agile adoption (a.k.a. pilot).

The Pygmalion Effect

The Pygmalion effect, or Rosenthal effect, refers to the phenomenon in which the greater the expectation placed upon a group of people, the better they perform.

In agile adoptions, managers typically place a great deal of expectation on the first agile team(s). According to this effect, these teams may improve simply as a consequence of those expectations (and not, for example, as a consequence of any changes to the way the work works).

The Placebo Effect

The placebo effect refers to the phenomenon in which people receiving a fake or otherwise intentionally ineffective treatment improve to more or less the same extent as people receiving a real, intentionally effective treatment.

“Placebos have been shown to work in about thirty percent of patients. Some researchers believe that placebos simply evoke a psychological response. That the act of taking them gives you an improved sense of well-being. However, recent research indicates that placebos may also bring about a physical response.”

The Subject-Expectancy Effect

The subject-expectancy effect is a form of reactivity that occurs when someone, e.g. a research subject, expects a given result and therefore unconsciously affects the outcome, or reports that expected result.

When people already know what the result of a particular “improvement” is supposed to be, they might unconsciously change their reaction to bring about that result, or simply report that result as the outcome – even if it wasn’t. Some researchers believe that people who experience the placebo effect have become classically conditioned to expect improvement from a change. Remember Dr. Ivan Pavlov and the dog that salivated when it heard a bell? In the case of people and placebos, the stimulus is e.g. the “ceremonies” of the new development method, and the response is real (or perceived) improvement and feelings of well-being and positivity.

“The expectation of pain relief causes the brain’s pain relief system to activate.”

The Novelty Effect

The novelty effect, in the context of human performance, is the tendency for performance to initially improve when a new approach to work is instituted – not because of any actual improvement in learning or achievement, but in response to increased interest in e.g. the new approach.

Self-determination Theory

Self-determination theory is concerned with the motivation behind the choices that people make, absent any external influences. The theory focuses on the degree to which an individual’s behavior is self-motivated and self-determined. Key studies that led to emergence of this theory include research on intrinsic motivation.

In effective Agile adoptions, for example, increased self-determination (self-managed teams and the like) may be a causal factor in increased motivation, and thus in increases in e.g. productivity, quality, or what have you. Note here I’m saying that the benefits accruing (if any) are not the result of any material changes in the process (the way the work works), but in the social, motivational context for the work.


Just as in the Hawthorne experiments, we who (merely) observe are part of the system too. Objectivity is delusional. How much else of what we induce and convince ourselves to believe, is delusional too? And how would we know? As part of the “system”, could we ever know?

The Hawthorne experiments – contention over their validity and interpretation notwithstanding –  stand as a warning about us viewing even simple experiments on human participants as if the people are only mechanical systems.

“If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience?”

~ George Bernard Shaw

Given all the research into how our brains work (and more often, fail to work), should we not be at least open to the possibility that the results we think we have achieved in the world of software development have little or nothing to do with the things we think are important?

What do you think?

– Bob

Further Reading

The Nocebo Effect – A Contributory Factor in Failed Agile Adoptions?
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