Cueing Agility – Creating a Supportive Environment for Agile Teams

In Blink : The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell, there is a chapter that describes a number of fascinating experiments. These experiments show how we can be influenced by very subtle cues in our environment. This is a very important lesson for us to apply in our work environments and in particular in our agile work.

In one experiement, researcher John Bargh designed a scenario to test how sensitive we are to written cues that are structured in a way that we are not consciously aware of being cued. Bargh created two lists, each composed of five words per list item. Of the five words, four were chosen to form a sentance, and the fifth word was selected so that it would not fit with the other four. Then the five words were jumbled.

For example:

rang phone peace the loudly

The people who came as subjects of the experiement were given one of the two lists and told to go through their list as quickly as possible and un-jumble the sentances.

Unbeknownst to the participants in the experiment, each group of five words also contained a word that was selected to suggest a feeling or attitude. In the first list, each group of five words contained one word that would suggest impatience, rudeness and aggressiveness. The second list contained words to suggest patience, politeness and calm.

All the subjects of the experiment were also given additional instructions to come to a particular office once they had completed their lists. At the office they were to receive final instructions. At the office, each participant encountered the experiment administrator deep in conversation with another person. Neither the administrator nor the other person acknowledged the just-arrived subject. Now the real purpose of the experiment was tested: how long would the subjects wait before interrupting the ongoing conversation?

The results were astonishing: those people who were cued with the list containing words suggesting impatience, rudeness and aggressiveness

eventually interrupted – on average after about five minutes. But of the people primed to be polite, the overwhelming majority – 82 percent – never interrupted at all. If the experiment hadn’t ended after ten minutes, who knows how long they would have stood in the hallway, a polite and patient smile on their faces? (p 55)

Gladwell gives several more similar examples in his book. I strongly recommend reading this book to see just how powerful this cueing or priming effect can be.

For organizations, teams and even individuals, this effect can be harnessed. The most obvious ways include using posters, screen savers, banners etc. to constantly impress people with positive messages about teamwork, effectiveness, creativity and other values and qualities that might be deemed valuable. This should obviously go hand-in-hand with a conscientious removal of all negative messages.For agile teams, there are some particular values that should be emphasized: truthfulness, courage, creativity, teamwork, trust, cooperation, hard work, learning, adaptability.The message can also be communicated in more subtle ways – and this is actually likely to be more effective! Incentives, the power of exemplary behavior, and the physical environment itself all can contribute strongly. In Built to Last : Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by Collins and Porras, there is a whole chapter dedicated to the idea of “Cult-Like Cultures” where everything in an organization is focused around that organization’s core values. The authors found the following four characteristics of successful, visionary companies:

  • Fervently held ideology…
  • Indoctrination
  • Tightness of fit [for employees]
  • Elitism

(p 122)

Interestingly, agile methods do tend to require “buy-in”. In order to fully feel comfortable in an agile environment, people need to understand and fully accept a small number of very important beliefs:The Agile Axioms(These are the generic, non-software version of the Agile Software Manifesto.)

See also: Optimizing a Team Room

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