Author: Drs Jindra Kessener MCM
Agile working is developed to face complex problems in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) context. Agility helps to anticipate and adjust to changes while keeping the purpose ahead. The Agile way of working stimulates us to use all talents and perspectives in our team, which enables us to solve complex problems. When things go well, people experience work-energy and flow.
The paradox of Agile working
In this journey, I discovered the work of Stephen Porges, a neuroscientist. He has done extensive research on what happens in our autonomous nervous system during stress. He developed the Polyvagal-theory, which I will explain just enough to understand the practical use. It explains:
- How our nervous system reacts in stressful situations;
- While being in a stressful situation, how to move from the defense-mode to a mode that enables us to be creative, observe facts, empathize with others and use our intuition.
Our autonomous nervous system…
Porges explains that our autonomous nervous system has three functions:
- Social engagement
What interests me is that, despite good intentions, we don’t always succeed to work Agile, neither always experience work-energy, nor use all talents and perspectives. For the last few years, I’ve been thinking, reading and experimenting and I would like to share some of my experiences with you.
When our social engagement system is active:
- The connection with our neocortex remains fully active, which enables us:
- to observe facts and think logical;
- to learn;
- We can stay in communication with others and are able to empathize, which enables us
- to consider different perspectives;
- We are creative;
- We can stay in communication with ourselves: our needs and intuitive information.
Our defense mechanism (fight/flight or freeze) is activated when a change occurs. It immediately suppresses our social engagement system. This is a very useful reaction when a hungry lion is chasing us: we’re focused on survival and won’t need information nor communication that’s doesn’t contribute to survival.
Suppressing the social engagement system makes us loose some qualities: it lowers the connection with our neocortex (facts, rationality); it reduces our ability to empathize (consider all perspectives); it reduces our creativity (find new solutions); and makes it hard for us to observe subtilities in our feelings (to distinguish emotions from intuition).
…is needed while working Agile
Unfortunately, these qualities are crucial to work Agile. Because we always need to check if the solutions are aligned with the purpose. This means that: we continuously need to challenge our ideas, starting-points, results, assumptions, interpretations, whatsoever; we need to empathize with other perspectives, to have a good view on the subject; we need our creativity to find new solutions. Which we do best if our social engagement system is active (remember, an active social security system helps us to be creative, to understand other perspectives and use the full potential of our neocortex).
Unfortunately, our autonomous nervous system sees changing circumstances and insecurities as stress. As Stephen Porges explained: our defense mechanism immediately gets active when known circumstances and patterns change. Which lowers the activity in the social engagement system.
Which means that we have a paradoxical situation in many current working situations.
We work agile to be able to address VUCA circumstances, but our autonomous nervous system tends to ‘shut down’ as a reaction to change, which prevents us to work agile.
This is where the next part of Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory comes in. “Polyvagal” refers to the Nervous Vagus. Porges discovered that the Nervous Vagus does not only send signals from the central nervous system to the organs. It also sends information from the organs to the central nervous system. The latter is important, because it gives us the tools to calm down ourselves and each other in stressful situations.
This is how it works. Stress, as little as it can be, happens when something changes in a way you don’t expect and aren’t immediately comfortable with. We often think that we can calm down our stress-level by mental activities, e.g. telling ourselves “to let it go” or to “stick to our own space”, etc. But there is an easier way out: our nervous system moves from the defense mode (fight/flight or freeze) into social engagement by doing activities that calm down organs. A few examples: listen to music, listen to each other (calm down the ears), breath slow or sing (calming down through the lunges); to move slowly, bringing attention to your periphery (calming down through the skin), etc. In this way, we bring ourselves back to our social engagement system in case our autonomous nervous system got in a (light) defense mode.
As human beings, we are able to move ourselves from the defense-mode to the social engagement-mode.
The risk to overlook
With his Polyvagal Theory, Stephen Porges invites us to do three things:
- To notice when we need to calm down ourselves when circumstances change;
- To give others time and space to calm down, before running into “what shall we do?”.
- To enlarge the activity in the social engagement system by doing activities that calm down organs.
This is very valuable: his theory encourages us to pay more attention to stress in the workplace, and encourages us to find out which activities help us to calm down. These coping skills are excellent to remain balanced on a personal level, or to bring down stress to an acceptable level.
More and more teams pay a lot of attention to reducing stress. But, when we focus ourselves just on reducing stress, I see a risk of overlooking important information. I will elaborate on that.
Professional stress caused by discomfort and insecurity is useful
Roughly, I distinguish two kinds of stress: stress caused by traumatic and obviously wrong behavior or bad situations. And stress caused by unexpected outcomes and changes that need to happen or are unavoidable. In this article, I talk about the latter. One might call this ‘professional stress’.
This professional stress is caused by a feeling of (at least) discomfort and insecurity. It is tempting to either neglect these feelings of discomfort and/or insecurity, especially under (time-)pressure either move away from this discomfort by ‘releasing stress’.
But, although it sounds too obvious, I would like to remark that, if things didn’t develop the way we expected them to go, there might be something we didn’t realize or see before. Because we didn’t see it or because it wasn’t there…. which often is the case in a VUCA context! We can only move forward if we explore what can be learned, to understand why things didn’t go the way we expected them to be. We need the information behind the discomfort and insecurity.
Because in VUCA working situations, we are on a journey:
- With a purpose that is far away in time, not explicitly defined, working on short-term goals. This means that we often need to challenge our alignment with the purpose;
- Facing complex problems, which implications aren’t always visible from the beginning. This demands us to regularly challenge our view on the issue.
- With new problems and unknown solutions which demands the max of our creativity.
- In a changing environment: we continuously need to evaluate our perspectives, since new facts or perspectives might be relevant.
There is a reason why things didn’t go the way we expected them to develop: we need that information.
The crucial question is not: do we want to learn? Of course, we want to learn! That is the core of Agile: since circumstances are changing and a purpose never can be materialized beforehand, learning is key to Agile working. The question is: are we learning all there is to learn?
How to learn forward in a dialogue
What intrigues me, is how do we manage to handle the discomfort that is necessary to challenge our results, ideas and premises, without our defense mechanism taking over our capacity to think and observe clearly?
I would like to invite us to AND calm down your nervous system AND use discomfort. Which means: to AND do activities to calm down AND use discomfort and insecurity as a source of information. This is a responsibility for project leaders, team members and other stakeholders. How could you do that in a (online) workplace environment?
If you wish to facilitate learning forward, you need to create a context for dialogue: AND calm down AND explore the information behind discomfort and insecurity.
Project leader: create a context and working environment that allows dialogue
As a project leader, you can do two things:
- Create a context around the team that creates transparency in information, opinions, expectations. This means that you create a continuous dialogue with your stakeholders. Considering clients, the interesting thing is that this might be hard when a client trusts you and provides you with lots of autonomy. In those cases, for a positive reason (the client trusts you!), there might be hardly any contact with the client between assignment Too much trust prevents you from having a dialogue.
- Create a working atmosphere that allows AND calming down AND facing uncertainty AND challenging each other:
- After unexpected or disappointing incidents:
- Position the stakeholders’ opinion as useful information towards the purpose, instead of perceiving it as a failure;
- Take a moment to calm down. For example, by playing some music, doing a game that creates a good laugh or perform some physical exercises. Pronounce that no one has been right but that the team is learning forward;
- Use meeting techniques that organizes space for deviating information:
- Listen (!) to each-others point of view;
- As a supplement to the result-oriented activities and meetings: add moments to create a broad view on the matter and context. Sit back and ask each other: what are we missing? How does it feel? Which thoughts are not on the table?
- Start retrospectives with activities that calm down and stimulate creativity: for fun reasons and to activate an important state in our nervous system and delivery.
No one is right, the team is learning forward.
Team member: ‘be a good colleague’
As a team member you have an important role in creating the working climate that is needed to calm down as well as use discomfort and insecurity as a source of information. Our society has a history of hierarchical bureaucracy. In a hierarchical bureaucracy, all responsibility is placed upon the (project-)leader: to be in control and to create a stimulating working climate.
This made us overlook the influence each team member has on the working climate. You can be a good colleague by:
- Manage your stress level. For example, by breathing slowly when tension is rising;
- Speak out when you see or feel that tension within the team is rising. Not to try to smoothen discomfort away, but to see it as a source of information;
- Speak out in an explorative way: If you have an intuitive feeling or if your premises or paradigms are challenged, you could invite your team members to explore your ideas, premises and intuitive images. Exploring gives space to dialogue, without the stress of trying to be right.
Client: give autonomy and trust AND be available for dialogue
We know that hierarchical bureaucracy kills creativity and ownership. That is why we give autonomy and trust to professionals: we give them an assignment and focus on the result, not on the how. Which is good! I think that it is time to add something to this, especially in VUCA environments: As a client, you might create a context that enables team(-leaders) to have a dialogue with you. How could you do that?
- Face two dimensions: Regularly call or meet the project leader, and talk about:
- What is in control?
- What is hard, what feels insecure, what is unclear?
- Search for information that does not match: ‘Walk around’ in the external and internal world and listen with a double attitude:
- What confirms that you are on the right track?
- What does not confirm your point of view? You could ask yourself or people: ‘Is there something that I don’t see or (appear to) not want to hear or know?’
- Be present: If you are conscious of your stress level and don’t want to get rid of stress but ‘embrace’ it, your presence feels calming and safe for people. This gives them the space to speak out and explore.
I hope that I have given you some insights on how knowledge about our autonomous nervous system could be used in Agile practice. Of course, there is much more to write about it. If you would like to react, you are most welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org!