Messing with people’s minds while giving a speech.

How we normalize strange behavior

Today I was speaking at the LeanKanban Nordic conference. I was talking about our reward system, what we need to get things done instead of starting something new. I was telling about how our PFC, the executive function works linearly and is really easily distracted. And about how our brain actually is a prediction machine. Predicting what will happen. Our brain wants to see patterns, wants to have certainty.

Then I started distracting people’s focus.

I had asked my colleague in the audience to clap once every four minutes. On the clap I jumped up on the sofa (on stage) and tried to continue speaking as if nothing would have happened. I broke all the rules of public speaking I am sure. I broke the patterns. Oooh, it was shameful and just weird, you should have been inside my head then! On three first claps I jumped up on a sofa. On the fourth I sat down. Again, breaking a pattern.

After a while, I asked the audience who were surprised to see me jump on the sofa the first time? Everyone raised their hands. Second? Maybe 50% raised their hands. Third? About 30% hands left in the air. We saw some conditioning happening there.

What I did with this circus was

a)    Mess with the audience’s brains’ executive function, interrupting both their and my own logical linear reasoning.

b)   Create a threat: doing something that they really could not expect at all. I guess the perceived threat quickly turned into amusement (social reward) or just a form of pity (what we call in Finland “co-shame”). (social punishment, distancing yourself from the act).

c)    With jumping on the sofa first, I created novelty/threat, which then formed a pattern. With three times doing something extremely ridiculous 70% of the audience was expecting it, so I almost created a habit (“normalized” a weird event). So, there was no surprise (novelty, threat, reward) anymore with seeing a speaker stand on a sofa. [Which, for the love of mother earth, just should be surprising even after 3 times, so thank you for the 30% still raising their hands!]

d)   I explained to the audience that we’d been through creating some conditioned learning (accepting that a speaker will stand on the sofa when there is a clap = mental model or habit) in just 3 times. About 70% of the audience expected me to be up on a sofa anytime during my speech. Is that not a crazy expectation?

e)    People had different explanations on why I did what I did. Humans are looking for an answer to settle the uncertainty and loss of pattern from strange behavior. Because I sat down the fourth time people asked me, “was there another pattern of the clap?” Some people said, they wanted to “clap themselves to see what would be happening”. “First I thought about why are you doing this, and then I thought you have to have a reason for it”.

  • We all disturb our quality thinking time with a lot of distractions all the time. It is just as stupid as jumping up on a sofa when speaking publicly. You are just making it harder for yourself to finish. Don’t.
  • Non-goal focused distractions in your surroundings disturbing you from getting things done… are you just grown used to them and  habitually accepting them nowadays?
  • How many of irresponsible behavior patterns are just “normalized” in your organizations because they are so frequent?
  • If you see something fun happening totally off your goal focus, would you just want to go there and “clap to see what happens?” (quick reward).

I guess the audience who could concentrate learn and disregard my circus, are probably far with their self-regulation (regulating emotions, good or bad), in directing your attention to what is relevant. The content was relevant and many people found it useful. The circus was not.

The ones who were left with (co-) shame, confusion or irritation – what can you learn from it? Were you able to listen to the content, or were you too confused about me making an idiot out of myself? Now that is the interesting part.

The emotions induced by people around you are real, and can get in the way of being focused and using your best thinking power. If you are able to notice your own emotion (especially negative) and decide that it should not get in the way of thinking, you are exerting your veto power, using your brains braking system.

I want to thank my audience for the trust I got back. I know some of you went home just puzzled, because I did not explain this well enough. Sorry for that.


You can’t opt out. It is people business from now on.

A haunting intuition from an Agile conference

I started to write this post in a politically very correct tone. I got bored after reading five lines myself. That is when a delete button comes in handy. I’m just going to write how I feel, trying to put my unprocessed intuition into words. I went to #tad014 last week. Something started bothering me. Hard to identify what it is. This is the beginning of that thought.

It seems like something went seriously wrong when the agile community started to adopt the agile methodology. Only today they seem to be recognizing that there is a person behind the code. That there are people with emotions, fears, needs, hidden agendas, self-esteems and lovely, interesting, kind, wicked, ever shifting mindsets. People who we would very much like to work well together.

The agile field seems now to be trying to induce “people-thinking” into the heads of logically rational thinking (mostly) engineers, who spent their whole life harvesting the fruits of sharp logical reasoning and technical mastery. The field has its own gurus, “raised from the ranks”, who have come up with an own method of some kind. These gurus are nowadays speaking a lot about people stuff.

Kind of reminds me of the leadership gurus I’ve been listening to for the last 15 years (many of them very good, inspiring and have a lot to say. Don’t get me wrong!). Kind of reminds me of inducing people-thinking, also branded “leadership”, into the heads of rationally conditioned managers during the last 20 years.

Everything has changed and nothing has changed, really

It just all starts from scratch. The pool of clients for us people-consultants or coaches (external or internal) just exponentially increased one level by going agile.

The “manager” in the old-school system can be replaced by the “random engineer”, “PO”, “Scrum Master”, “developer” or whatever engineering-conditioned role you will find in the agile system.

Same, same. But different.

The “leadership guru” in the old-school system (“I was a manager for 30 years, made all the mistakes I could, succeeded in something big, and now I want to share”) are replaced by the “Agile-people-guru”. (“I have been working in the field of ICT for ages, and then I realized that no matter how a good methodology there is, success is all about people. [Please observe, I also did coding, because otherwise I may not be as credible]. Then I dug around a bit in the history of agile and systems theory. When digging around I came across great thinkers’ reasoning about organic systems, complexity theory, psychology, cognition, neuroscience and then it clicked.  I wrote one or two books on this. Now I am trying to let my fellow agilists in on this magnificent thing called “people”). And please, again, don’t get me wrong. Many of the agile field’s gurus inspire me, teach me and are a lot more experienced than me in basically anything!

And the crowd goes WOW!

People stuff! That is so important. And so complex.

Then they are taught some mechanistic stepwise method or an emotionally resonating punchline (which you can crystallize under 140 characters) on how to deal with people issues. And the engineer goes “WOW!”, now I get this.

No you don’t. Sorry.

You are just sniffing on your next possible and motivating step on a wonderful and rocky road. But please start crawling, walking, running, accelerating as soon as possible.

I have been working, thinking and breathing people issues on a more or less conscious level since I learnt how to manipulate my little brother to self-directively choose the worse alternative, to make him feel good about giving me the better one. I’ve played team sports for 17 years, being one of the less talented players (juicy from the perspective of learning about people behavior, but painful from a perspective of personal growth). I have been really thinking, reading, studying, experimenting, experiencing and used my cognitively, intuitively and experimentally built social skills for good, made a career out of it. Now I try to study the “code” (neuroscience) to get a better grasp. If I am well and healthy, people who cross my path leave the situation a bit more positive than they were before. I try my best to make that happen. But I don’t understand any of it yet, I just know a bit how to surf the social landscape to create something good.

The more I learn about people/humans, the more shades of grey there are (at least fifty). The more I experience, the more complex my rationale becomes to give explicit answers to simple questions, and I dare not to answer them simplistically. The more I learn, the less worthy I feel having an explicit opinion, but go more on hunch and gut. Sweet, sweet paradox. I may have a slight intuition on why real gurus  just sit quiet on a cliff somewhere.

Once you’ve thought the thought, you are ruined. It is like the red pill in Matrix.

Just when your organizations thought they had the best practices, processes, policies and rewarding almost in place, the world turns fast on you. Your top-down, controlled system just does not support the future. You know this. You all talk about this. But have you really, really thought it through? Because if you had, you’d changed by now. A person I respect highly said “Once you have thought that thought, you are “ruined”. You see the nonsense everywhere. There is no way back”.

What I do know, is that  the agile system’s foundation requires a very solid, organic, fundamentally respectful human view. The system requires amazing communication and social skills rooted in deep kindness and unselfishness. And damn, we have a long way to go from the mechanistic, linear, logic, reductionist view of human beings, which ingrains most of the processes in our society and organizations. It has been the conditioning environment for most of us. No great method, incentive or retrospective will change that. Shifting human view is a fundamental, deep insight, usually changing only through experiencing a radical life event or developed by long-term conditioning and a supporting environment for the modern human view.

My haunting intuition in as few words as possible: Our (my) work just started, all over, …again. On all levels.

You can’t opt out. It is people business from now on. Let’s start walking.



P.S. 1 Agile community: You don’t need to know coding to know people stuff.

P.S. 3 Agile community: I recommend involving HR in the Agile transformation. There should be HR-people who know a lot of people stuff. There are just some “minor” adjustments, such as teaching about the agile system to HR,  aligning a common, modern, human view and getting rid of most of the constraining HR processes to get fruitful collaboration up and running. How to do that in a socially accepted way may require some other skills than just logical reasoning.

P.S. 4 Isn’t it annoying when there is no P.S.2?