Agile, Cognitive Scripts and Diversity

Steve L. Robins, Professor and Diversity Trainer speaks about Unintentional Intelligence:
M1 (mindlessness) + M2 (multiple redundancy messages) = UI (unintentional Intelligence)

He explains that cognitively we can only do one thing at a time. Our brain writes cognitive scripts for what we do, so we can be efficient by not having to spend time thinking carefully about everything. We do this for anything from breathing, brushing our teeth and driving. We have very good cognitive scripts for complex tasks.

M2 (multiple redundancy messages

Because of this state of mindlessness, if we get the same message over and over again we have no defense against it. We can brand products, concepts, professions (i.e. a nurse is a woman a doctor is a man)… we brand people, race. We can get 13 year old girls to want to kill themselves because they are not thin enough.

Robins did the following experiment with us to demonstrate this point: He told us to repeat the word “top” ten times and after the tenth time he asked us the following question, which we were supposed to answer without thinking: “What do you do when you get to a green light?” We all said stop. He went on to point out that if with such a simple exercise he could get us to give the wrong answer, when we all knew the right answer, then a lot of different kind of beliefs about different races can also affect us even if they are not true.

Robins went on to talk about how to change these pattern: Neurons in the brain are connected by synapses, every time we act the body releases a protein in the synapses that when repeated solidifies the pattern down in our brain. In order to form new patterns a person has to have a chance to practice that pattern over and over again.

In our working cultures we have all kinds of cognitive scripts related to how we see and value diversity and these are formed partly by the multiple redundancy messages sent to us by our culture, our own lack of knowledge and experience of different perspectives and ways of seeing the world (because we tend to naturally associate with people who are like us) and our organizational culture that generally tends to value a certain kind of personality over another.

So what does this have to do with Agile? Well, so much of agile is about innovation and amplifying learning. Corporate cultures are not typically examples of thriving places that value diversity (and I don’t mean just having affirmative action programs, but beyond that, having a working culture that allows people to bring their diversity into the work place and rewards it). Diversity is a direct challenge to our mindless orientation towards work. It can challenge us to be more mindful, and mindfulness is an important basis of amplifying learning and being innovative.

I find the concept of cognitive scripts a helpful one for my own approach to Agile Work. Part of the work of a Process Facilitator is to help people to become conscious of their cognitive scrips, nurture diversity in the group so that cognitive scripts can be challenged to give birth to innovation. The key to this kind of change is for the Process Facilitator to work closely with team members to create repeated opportunities for this kind of interaction so that new cognitive scripts can be written.

It is helpful for the Process Facilitator to work with team members to reflect on the relationship between multiple redundancy messages as they relate to Agile Work. For example when starting an Agile project, beginning by reflecting on the fact that Agile Work transforms our competitive orientation towards work into a collaborative orientation. An examination of the multiple redundancy messages we receive in popular culture and corporate culture about these two orientations may be very useful for team members to become conscious of, if they are to make this shift in thinking and practice. As an exercise, a Process Facilitator could simply ask the team to list examples of corporate and media messages that support competition and those that support collaboration.

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