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  • Writer's pictureBella Trenkova

Neuroscience and Agile Leadership

Updated: Feb 25, 2020

Neuroscience and Agility are two seemingly unrelated fields that experienced a significant boom in development and growth over the past 20 years. Is it possible that we as Agilists can learn something from Neuroscience to make us better leaders and change agents?

According to the State of Agile 2019 report, 96% of the responding organizations reported that they are practicing Agile, or at least planning an Agile initiative.

Yet, only 6% reported that “Agile practices are enabling greater adaptability to market conditions.” Basically, only 6% of the respondents have reached the ultimate Nirvana of Agile transformation. Based on this math, 90% of all organizations are in various stages of their Agile transformations (if we count "Planning" as a stage). It’s been almost 20 yrs since the Agile Manifesto was published, and we are still struggling with the transformation.

Change is hard! Especially, when committing to a long-term change with lasting results.

Change is hard on an organizational and personal level. But Why?

There is a study conducted on heart attack patients. These were people who had faced death, dodged the bullet by the virtue of modern medicine, and were told by their doctors they needed to make significant changes to their diet and lifestyle. Virtually, all of them made some immediate changes.

Can you guess how many stuck to their new resolutions after 6 mos?

15% !!! Only 1 in 7 heart attack patients were able to make sustained changes to improve their lifestyle and reduce their health risk.

Even in such high-stake situations – change your habits or die – only 15% of people were able to make a lasting commitment to change.

As leaders, we are challenged on a daily basis with a very similar dilemma – change to adapt to new market conditions or wither in obsolescence. Yet, every time we attempt organizational change, we are faced with strong resistance. Why? And what can we do to combat it!


Recent scientific advancements and discoveries in a seemingly unrelated field may hold the cues to help us. Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system and the brain, in particular. It aims to provide an understanding of the biological basis of learning, memory, behavior, perception, feelings, and consciousness. If we understand better WHY we think, feel, and behave in a certain way, it will be easier for us to find more effective ways for HOW to change that or make it work to our advantage.

Neuroleadership is an emerging new field applying neuroscience to leadership development, change management, education, consulting and coaching. The term was coined in 2007 by David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work and Handbook of Neuroleadership. He and his wife are running the Neuroleadership Institute and building a small community of Executive Coaches. On the grand scheme of things, it is a relatively new and yet-to-be-developed field.


As a Software Engineer by training and a Project Manager, Agile Delivery Lead, and Agile Coach by trade, I have worked for 23 years with highly technical, high-performing teams building complex systems. It struck me that in our field we know so much about how good software is architected and built, but we know so little about how we, the humans, are "architected" and "built."

I have always been fascinated by PEOPLE:

  • What makes them tick to go above and beyond?

  • Why are some easier to work with than others?

  • Why are talent and intellectual abilities not always a good predictor for high performance?

  • Why sometimes a team of average engineers produces a lot better results than a group of brilliant but disagreeable ones?

  • Can a manager “motivate” someone to do something or is motivation really intrinsic?

Yes, Process and Technology are important. But they came naturally to me – trained as an engineer, organized and logical to a fault. On the other hand, People and Leadership were hard to grasp – I had to study them long and hard! I read books and articles, went to seminars, attended workshops, and took tests to understand better my (and others') psychometrics, personality type, and leadership style. I certainly learned a lot, but it struck me that all this literature describes and categorizes how we think, feel, behave, but it doesn’t talk much about the WHY. And as an engineer, I always want to take a peek "under the hood." I wanted to understand the WHY that leads up to the HOWs and the WHATs.

I stumbled upon an MIT Executive Education course on NeuroScience for Leadership. It gave me that initial “A-ha” moment. I read the book authored by the professors, then a few more books, then I read a whole bunch of articles on neuroscience and psychology… It was absolutely fascinating to me to discover our internal biological and evolutionary drivers (quite primal in most cases) and how they underpin very complex individual, social and workplace behavior.

My secondary discovery was how much of the Neuroleadership teachings have direct applicability and correlation to the Agile Mindset and leadership style:

Each one of the above deserves an article on its own, which I am planning to write up and post in the following weeks and months. Stop by soon and check for more neuro leadership content!

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