A social neuroscience perspective on why replacing the management can be the best way to succeed in Agile transformations

The cliché “nothing is constant but change” does not hold any longer. Change in current business environment is not constant, but disruptive, massive, unexpected, and rapid. Many industries live through disruptive digitalization, requiring a whole new organizational paradigm to evolve.

Agile and lean thinking and methodologies have evolved in software development and industrial production (1).  The underlying principles in both agile (2) and lean are deeply philosophical and/or psychological, requiring a certain value-based re-evaluation of the most fundamental perceptions of human interaction and business, as we know it.

This human side of the agile and lean thinking is too often reduced to include only the tools and methodology available for agile and lean practitioners (e.g. scrum tools, kanban methods, charts, estimates etc.). The whole paradigm of agile thinking is distorted in many people’s minds, and many seem to be misusing these trendy words without really understanding the systemic changes necessary for agile to show real value and for the organization to become adaptive, agile and organic. At the core of these practices is the idea of self-organizing teams who work at a pace sustaining their creativity and productivity. (3)

In this essay I will try to explain through findings from social neuroscience why it is so hard, almost impossible, for a manager from the “old paradigm” to engage in an scalable agile transformation with a holistic, systems mentality. I will argue that the “old-school” manager’s or leader’s attempt to transform into an agile manager is socially really painful. To succeed the manager should reframe and redefine most of his unconscious habits spanning from what has been experienced and learned during his/her career so far.

Social Neuroscience findings

Recent social neuroscience findings shed light on the social aspects of agile transformations. First, it has been shown that social pain induces the exact same reaction in our brain as physical pain does. (4). Second, there is a lot of unconscious processing involved to identify possible threats and mostly unconscious, automatic networks taking care of avoiding and reacting to any pain or threat (5). What is really striking is how much we work on emotional autopilot, and how little of what we think, act or learn is due to conscious processing with reasoning and weighing logical alternatives (6). The more stressed or under cognitive load you are, the less you exert pre-frontal reasoning, reflection and emotional control over yourself (7) and the more you go on your habitual autopilot and reactive, emotional behavior.

The SCARF Model

On the basis of recent social and cognitive neuroscience findings Dr Rock presents a useful motivational framework for successful human interaction, the SCARF model. SCARF represents status (how you relate to others), certainty (the brain is basically a prediction machine, and our reward mechanisms are a lot about predicting correctly), autonomy (sense of control, even a false sense of control will help), relatedness (“in”-group vs. “out”-group) or fairness (humans i.e. reciprocate fairness and will give up personal gain to punish unfair people). If some of these five domains are dismissed, it has been found to be very harmful for our brain’s performance and our motivation. (8)

Discussion: Old school SCARF is different from Agile SCARF

Comparing the old school system’s SCARF with the agile system’s SCARF reveals so many juicy insights.

If you are a manager in the old school system you have built your view of yourself during decades through the old-school paradigm: Your social wellbeing is flourishing through a higher rank and status in organizational charts, and your opinion is always attended for among your team. There is relatedness and decision-making behind closed doors with your fellow management members on “strategy hideaways”. Your autonomy is high and you can decide a lot yourself. Certainty might not be high, but you tend to create a false sense of it with creating budgets, long term plans and action plans for your teams to follow. You “implement” changes top-down. You know sooner than your team of any upcoming changes. So, your social brain is not violated that much in a traditional hierarchic setting when in a leading position. You are in the center.

What is striking is that according to personal experience the traditional SCARF domains are different in a pure agile system. In the agile system status is earned by competence and open collaboration, great communication skills, helpfulness, service-mindedness, transparency and ability to learn quickly. Status does not equal a position or a title. Certainty is low by default in an agile system, because it builds on constant uncertainty and adapts to value adding changes through the PO’s and team’s decisions. Autonomy is extremely high in a “pure” agile system, with team members defining their level of load, and with transparency steering incremental planning and prioritization. Relatedness is certainly on a higher level in the autonomous cross-functional agile teams, who have a coach facilitating their work, compared to manager-driven teams relying on their manager to plan and direct work. Due to the transparency and clear common social rules, fairness could (in my opinion) be perceived higher in agile teams compared to traditional teams, where manager’s likings may direct freedom and tasks. So, the team’s SCARF domains are definitely heightened compared with a traditional setting! From the social neuroscience perspective the agile culture is definitely very brain-friendly for the team.

Team’s gain & Manager’s pain

Let’s go with the fact that most of the managers’ behavior is directed by unconscious processing. Thus, the manager uses the old “frames” he has created through his learning and experience, as we all do. Many aspects of the agile transformation will feel like pure social pain in the traditional manager’s brain. His status is clearly lowered, he cannot direct work, and he shouldn’t plan in detail (less certainty). He possibly is not on top of the project’s progress because understanding several teams’ visualized backlogs is too hard (less certainty, again). Frequent changes lead to transparent decision making situations with requirements to i.e. re-schedule releases, add resources or even cut sales if management wants to keep the agile system healthy. Instead of keeping senior management happy with high-fly promises, and pushing teams to ridiculous amounts of work to finish on time because your own status in on the line the management needs to decide on helpful actions real time and with full transparency. This probably lessens the relatedness within management teams, since they need to, instead of having consensus of nice-looking power point plans and letting the team’s deal with how to get it together, really take decisions on even contradictory resourcing or investments on the run.

Applying social neuroscience for leadership in agile transformations

What could be done differently to ease the pain managers feel in agile transformations?

I’d say, they would need help with recoding their whole “SCARF” and creating new unconscious frameworks through hard re-design of habits. Management would need some serious help in getting their own insights of  deep lying paradigm differences between the system they have been living in for the last X years and the new, agile system. Managers could certainly benefit from stating out loud how status is earned in the new system, not to feel disempowered when not able to direct and drive work. Management would need some up front real-play experience in how they might feel when they first encounter the social pain the agile system causes them. The emotional brain guides a lot of the unconscious processing and reactions, so learning to recognize the unhelpful emotions on the run, and having emotional control mechanisms is crucial for success (becoming aware, and using conscious processing to overrun the automatic, old reactions). Managers could learn to derive social pleasure from the autonomy, fairness and constant learning their team exerts, and realize that any impediments, failures or wrong judgments are growing the team’s competence and making them more proficient in the long run. They could feel relatedness from remodeling the incentive systems in agile organizations to share success evenly, to incorporate social incentivizing, to share their knowledge and learning in social media, and by networking with other new thinking leaders outside their own organization.

Now that was hilarious, wasn’t it?

Do you really believe the old-paradigm managers would do any of the above mentioned? Neither do I. The majority of status-aware senior managers who fought their way up the traditional ladder are clearly not able to change most of their unconscious emotional framework anytime soon. The biggest paradox is that the senior management is usually initiating the agile transformations. They know their business will die without agile approaches. I find it a bit cynical, actually. After decades of running top-down programs in “change management”, “break resistance”, “create a sense of urgency”, “implement”, the pace of this world and the quick, small disruptive competitors turn the pressure of change back on the management. Unfortunately, they are fully unaware of themselves being the biggest impediment for succeeding in scalable agile.

Management thinks they are “implementing” a new set of tools and methods to make the organization adaptive, but this ignorance backfires in an agile transformation built on the wrong, old paradigm. It is easier for management to think about agile as a set of tools, than sit down and re-evaluate the whole systemic thinking, including their thoughts on how they view a human being and their own capacity of trusting others. When the new system runs into problems, the manager’s brain is under stress, and he acts even less on reflection and more on the old autopilot he has built up during his career. It is easier to sit there in pain, saying: “I’m not really convinced of this agile methodology” when the newly exerted transparency presents some clear flaws of the organization and confronts the lack of important, real time, high level decision making. Sorry guys, I would not bet my cash on you changing!

After studying neuroscience for only some months, I am quite convinced that traditional managers cannot see this through. It is too a big turnaround, requiring recoding most of their unconscious and emotional processing.  Thus, my harsh and clear recommendation is to recruit leaders who already express, think and live according to the new value set. Leaders, who clearly and publicly understand and share the whole underlying paradigm of agile and lean thinking.

Your old-school hotshots are not future stars in the agile system, but impediments. And you don’t have the time to wait for them to recode their innermost selves.


  1. Lean Manufacturing System, Toytota Production System, Wikipedia
  2. www.agilemanifesto.org
  3. Dingsöyr et al, A decade of agile methodologies: Towards explaining agile software development, J. of Systems and Software 85 (2012), 1213-1221
  4. Eisenberger et al, Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion, Science302, 290 (2003). Eisebnerger et al, Why rejection hurts, a common neural alarm system for physical and social pain, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 8 (7), 2004. See also more recent Eisenberg groundbreaking research and articles.
  5. Spunt, R. P. & Lieberman, M. D. (in press). Automaticity, control, and the social brain. In J. Sherman, B. Gawronski, & Y. Trope (Eds.) Dual process theories of the social mind. New York: Guilford
  6. Lieberman, M. D., Gaunt, R., Gilbert, D. T., & Trope, Y. (2002). Reflection and reflexion: A social cognitive neuroscience approach to attributional inference. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 34, 199-249.
  7. Arnsten et al. Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2009 Jun;10(6):410-22.
  8. Rock et al, SCARF ® in 2012: updating the social neuroscience of collaborating with others, NeuroLeadership J., 2012.

One Reply to “A social neuroscience perspective on why replacing the management can be the best way to succeed in Agile transformations”

  1. One would hope that only raising awareness (getting those old school managers to read this blog post) would result in a minor shift? Is that possible? Or would it only be a tiny step of a journey that takes too long to be worth it?
    Loved this post – thanks for making me feel like I’m learning something incredibly valuable each time I read your posts.
    You Rock, Riina!

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