Personal Kanban and some goodies about your brain

Kanban board

Sharing some thoughts around my weekly homework from my neuroscience studies

Knowledge work is all about attention. Unfortunately that is a scarce resource, easily high jacked by any distraction. Multitasking, i.e. using focused attention on two different targets basically does not exist. What you are able to do is to do a lot of things on autopilot (i.e. walking, breathing, looking) while your executive network (incl. working memory) is doing something else (i.e. discussing). When you think you are multitasking you are actually attention switching, with a high cost in performance. For this you will allocate attention toward or away from interference, maintain relevant memory in mind, and reactivate representations if the maintenance of what you are doing is disrupted (Clapp et al, 2010). So when you are working with a need for cognitive logical thinking, minimizing any distractions is a great preventive method.

Kanban is a method for managing knowledge work with an emphasis on just-in-time delivery while not overloading the team members. The core mechanisms in Kanban is to start where you are at, work in an evolutionary and incremental way to develop the system, limit the work in progress, and finish one thing before starting another. (Wikipedia, Kanban, 29.10.2014).

While Kanban is used on a team/organizational level and longer time spans, the same logic applies on personal level and short time spans, too. From a neuroscience perspective, Kanban is too interesting to fit in a 300 words homework.

A couple of Kanban-insights from the neuroscience perspective

  • Limiting the number of similar things you work on will lessen the cost of attention switching and thus positively impact performance on the task at hand. (a no brainer) (Clapp et al, 2010).
  • Focused attention means you are using your long-term learning mechanisms (Medial temporal areas) to encode the experience. This makes the knowledge accessible by conscious thought later on (vs. using striatal habit learning, creating more unconscious and automatic learning). (Forde et al, 2006)
  • A “healthy” backlog is genius from a neuroscience perspective. Attending to an issue (backlog item) then leaving it with the knowledge of that you will return to it, seems to activate your unconscious processing. So while you are consciously focused on your work in progress (WIP), your unconscious works on items, which you know you will attend to later. (Backlog) (Ritter & Dijksterhuis, 2014)

Kanban definitely requires more in-depth analyzing from the neuroscience perspective. My hunch is that Kanban fits many of our biological & neuronal requirements, so I will definitely be dissecting Kanban some more in my studies.

Where’s the scalpel?



  1. Clapp, W.C, Rubens, M.T., Gazzaley A. ,(2010),  Mechanisms of Working Memory Disruption by External Interference, Cerebral Cortex, April, 20:859-872
  2. Foerde, K. , Knowlton, B. J., Poldrack, R.A.(2006), Modulation of competing memory systems by distraction. PNAS, August 1, 2006, vol. 103, 31, p 11778-11783.
  3. Ritter, S.M., DIjksterhuis, A., (2014), Creativity – the unconscious foundations of the incubation period, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, April, Vol 8:215, p.1-10.


Picture: Photo credit: o.tacke / Foter / CC BY

Let’s implement agile, tick in the box, done!


…This is to all of you corporate agile coaches out there. Hang in there…!

Some days ago I chatted with one of the smartest persons I know, let’s call the person Leslie. A brilliant engineer with several years of experience in coding and developing software for the medical instrument industry. This is serious, life-saving code, and she is enthusiastic about the bigger meaning of her work. She enjoys the respect of her fellow colleagues, because she really knows her science and her code.

Leslie has always been great with people, and quite recently she started working as a Lead Scrum Master, helping other Scrum Masters do their jobs, teams to collaborate and communicate across boundaries, countries, time zones and professions. She told me stories about how she helps teams communicate and find solutions together. These narratives explain the value of having a coach, the value of caring for and facilitating the people-side of agile.  But the thing is: she can’t put a measure on what she does.

How do you incentivize the fact that because she asked three very important questions a month ago, the teams across two continents were successful in compiling the last pieces of code for the groundbreaking technology they are about to release? How do you objectivize or measure her job when her daily activity may include speaking with 5 people, helping 4 people understand each other, sitting in on 3 meetings as an observer, and preparing how to facilitate a team to think creatively on novel ideas around their delivery.

What did she accomplish during that day? NOTHING, on paper.

But maybe the twenty daily small interventions on the people side could save a year of development time. She does not know. And she never will. She is lucky she has a boss who gets this. Who experiences the impact of her work.

“Let’s make your work more tangible and measurable”

Unfortunately, others higher up in the hierarchy do not. They are asking her what she is working on “exactly”. They want to add some project roles to her, to make the role includes enough work, and make it “more tangible and measurable”. As if trying to help tens of highly qualified, highly skilled and experienced individuals (across different time zones) create something novel and ground breaking was not complex and difficult enough.

This is only underlining further what I’m hearing all along from the agile field. The lower you go in hierarchy, and the longer the person has experienced working hands-on in an agile team, the better the person gets what agile is (or could be) for that company. (…ok, yes. That was a no-brainer…)

For most people up the ladder “agile” is just another tick in the box. “A new method”, which everyone uses. Let’s implement this. Ok, done. Now, let’s sell, estimate, manage, measure, evaluate and report as we’ve always done. Why change something that works, right?

These people have currently absolutely no idea why competitors who get agile/lean are able to pick and choose the most profitable customer cases from the market. (Maybe the competitors have “implemented” agile better?)

These people will have no idea what hit them, when sometime in the future a CEO will come in who really gets agile/lean. A British CEO of a successful agile organization told me, “if I would take on a role in an “old-school” corporation, the first thing I’d need to do is to get rid of the middle manager layer/s almost altogether, because it mostly useless in an agile system”.

These people have no idea, that the agile paradigm turns most corporate assumptions upside-down, and even if they did, would they have the balls/ovaries and support to start changing the whole system? They are heading heads on towards the biggest surprise of their careers. Uselessness. In ten years, maybe less?

Meanwhile, Leslie is working her cognitive capacity off, trying to help adult, socially restricted “I already know it all-IQ-superstars” (**) develop into talented communicators, listeners and collaborators. She will develop hard core experience in influencing people, she will have gone through the ups and downs of agile, hit her head multiple times against corporate impediments and thus will know how to build systemic changes to support agile and lean kind of work.

Who would you recruit up the ladder in ten years?  A Leslie or the tick-in-the-box manager?


Agile coaches. Prepare yourself for intensive attraction attempts to leadership positions within ten years.

Thanks for reading.


(** Please, you smart, fantastic coder/developer/engineering professionals out there, please don’t feel offended. I like you, and like to work with you. But to be kindly honest, you are a certain breed of genius, and not always the most socially talented or -considerate communicator, especially when communicating outside your in-group.)


Picture: Photo credit: h.koppdelaney / Foter / CC BY-ND

A skeptic little bitch, Tony Fernandes and Nordic Business Forum 2014

I have on Friday 10. October 2014 experienced the “professional-me” falling in love. I did not know that existed. Watching Tony Fernandes, the CEO of AirAsia on stage was just pure professional love. I saw the corporate ivory tower crumble to pieces and die. I saw a CEO that I’d want to follow. This is a strong statement from little me, I am very critical of “my gurus”, let alone people I’d follow.

It was not what he said. It was what he is.

Dealing with a very strong internal emotional journey after his speech, and needing to recalibrate some stuff internally was a bit tough, though.

I started to believe moving towards modern organizations will happen sooner than I believed before. This 50-year-old man with a t-shirt and a baseball cap is like he is, does what he does, and tells about how he thinks, without a hint of status awareness, and without showing any explicit or hidden signs of power (body language). The curious professional in me, who has been thinking about organic and healthy ways of leadership and organization since she entered work life was somehow released from a baggage.

The baggage I carried was the skeptic little bitch (SLB) sitting on my shoulder, assisting me in not getting disappointed at work life. Some examples where this SLB has helped me:

  • Status-related situations (SLB decides: Right, it says VP on your card but I haven’t met anyone as ignorant as you. Carry on arsehole, I won’t help you succeed with anything).
  • Control-related situations (SLB thinks: Are you kidding me, you are telling me how to do coaching after I just got certified with great grades? And you want me to go against ethical rules of coaching, which you of course are not aware of, since you are not a certified coach, for heaven’s sake! Well, I’ll pretend I’ll listen and then just do as I know is ethically correct anyways. You act like an incompetent sucker, and I disrespect you for this).
  • Sexist people (SLB laughs: So, you (a male VP) thought it is appropriate to look surprised after I return from maternity leave and the first thing you say to me is “Look at you, I’m surprised you have gotten yourself back in great shape” (and then look at my behind). This is a great story I will tell everyone, you pathetic old man. And forget about me helping you professionally. )
  • Narcissistic people (SLB is amused: Oh wow, I know you are lying about this, and you don’t know I have gotten information directly from the CEO already. Let’s see how you play this one out, I’ll try to spot any bodily signs of lying while you are at it, just for my own amusement…I’ll just play along, you sorry piece of a disturbed person, and let you think I bought that lie, and that lie, and that lie…)

This skeptic little bitch -part in me has helped me a lot in some traditional settings. She is a witty friend, a humorous storyteller, and a skillful shield. When Tony Fernandes was speaking, I realized, I won’t be needing the skeptic little bitch that much anymore. She has been with me since I was ten, because that is when I needed her the first time.

I am self-employed right now, which is great. I already work with people, customers, projects and companies where I don’t need the help of the SLB very much. What I realized from Mr. Fernandes speech was that when I go back into the corporate world, I can choose. I can choose a company, where the skeptic little bitch is not needed. Those companies exist, grow, and are created by like minded people right now. The way we work, lead and do people-related things in organizations will change and disrupt faster than any of us think. More of us can soon start working without these protective shields (like my skeptic little bitch), and just give our best to leaders we want to follow. So, maybe there is a way back for me, into building healthy, modern organizations also within a company…who knows?

Relief. A tear or two. Oh.. right…I’m at a business forum… “Get yourself together, wuzz” says the SLB and I continue networking. On the other hand, maybe it is good having the SLB on stand-by call, but not on duty.

Thank you Tony Fernandes and NBF 2014. Mr. Fernandes, I’ll work for you anytime.

Consultant is a swearword!

The lines between being an employee, leader, academic, consultant or freelancer are getting more and more blurred. As long as you know your stuff somewhat well, you can jump into any of those roles. I have trouble speaking about myself as a consultant. The connotation is very contradictory in my own head. I have tried to explain to myself “I am a freelancer”. “I am self-employed”. Why? Because I can dig in, if needed. Because I don’t want to put myself up on a pedestal of “knowing more”. Because I don’t want to be treated like one of “them consultants”. But mainly because

I don’t see the world divided into internal employees and external resources anymore, but partnerships, relationships, experts and networks.

This is the traditional caricature of a consultant:

Consultants who come in, crunch numbers, spit out a report of your problems and leave you dealing with the sh*t. Consultants who make their living on BS-bingo and high-fly visions, who haven’t really digged in dirt in a loooooong time. Consultants who read a couple of books and present themselves as coaches or experts of X, Y or Z. Consultants who do not know what it is like to work in a REAL company. Consultants who are paid way too much. Consultants who think they know better, but have no clue about the reality.

These are who I have come across in the consulting field, meet my network:

Really amazing, knowledgeable people, who have a higher passion on creating healthy workplaces, and developing organizations with customers. They spend hours and thousands of euros of (own) cash in digging into their field of expertise or on broadening their scope of work. They need to stay on top of the field to be able to work at all.

They have deep client relationships, are clearly very talented communicators, inspiring and helping other people think in new ways. They inspire other consultants and professionals by sharing, commenting, discussing, meeting without thinking they need to get something out of it. Some of them have “jumped the ship”, left the corporate world because of its current old-school command-control nonsense, and created their own work. Some work in healthy consulting environments. They are pretty courageous risk takers who are able to deal with their feelings of insecurity, failures, not knowing where to get their next paycheck or when to land the next project. Many are not prospering at all economically, but instead driven by purpose and vision. They contact, sell, discuss, negotiate, propose, co-create, try to impact client’s thinking, teach, analyze, facilitate people’s collaboration. They mostly get feedback on their performance often as if it would be a stand-alone thing, not connected to the way the client works. By default, most of them are pretty agile. Some of them are running companies with own employees. The crazy thing about it all is that they are expected to create all of that value to the customer without a single inch of traditional status or old-school power relationship over anyone. (I’d wish to write with the customer, but that is still rare…). Some of them are inspiring, some analyzing, some doing. Some of them can do all of those.

So tell me, why is consultant still often a swearword?

The best consultants I know would be the best managers/leaders in modern organizations. I’d work for them anytime.

Dear corporate person: If you as the client first decide what your business needs/wants, then you use transactional thinking (give-take) instead of partnership thinking in your consultant relationships, then you choose a consultant who wants to work this way, and then you pay him hellofalotofmoney. I think you can figure this one out yourself.

The caricature consultants exist because…?

Kind regards,

Riina, inspiring and hard working consultant in modern HR and brain-based organizational development professional. ICF certified brain-based business coach, experienced and fun facilitator with deep knowledge about HR, HR system development and neuroscience for leadership, and with medium level knowledge about agile & lean. My clients do not have to know. I often don’t. But we can figure it out together. My longer project (HR-system dev.) is ending in December. I’m looking for possible new clients who would like to do something smart in a partnership.