The Psychology Behind Agile Success

Image courtesy Fran Hogan, publicdomainpictures.netYou seemed to have become invisible.  Earlier in the day, your colleague just shot a blank look at you and got back to work as if you did not exist.  Back home, your son who usually comes running to you, mechanically turned his head and resumed his computer game.  What is going on here?  For the record, you are perfectly visible.  Your colleague and your son were too absorbed in their activities. They were having a great time.

Let’s flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychology  professor and former head of  department of psychology at the University of Chicago,  discovered the psychological state of “optimal experience”.  This is a state of deep involvement in an activity, a kind of experience that you look back and say “wow that was a great.”  He called such an experience ‘Flow’, similar to the ‘Zone’ in sports.

Work and enjoyment

Can work be flow? Can it be joyous?  Yes, says Csikszentmihalyi “there is ample evidence that work can be enjoyable, and that indeed it is often the most enjoyable part of life.”  To convert work into a flow activity, however, certain elements must be present.

Even though the authors of Agile manifesto may not have realized it when they published the manifesto, Agile practices spread their hands wide and embrace the elements of flow. Let us look at the elements and related Agile practices.

Agile and the elements

Flow Element:  To promote flow, the activity should have clear goals.

Agile practices: : Agile encourages goal setting at several levels

  • Strategic planning defines the vision and broad goals.
  • Portfolio goals follow the strategic vision.
  • Products within the portfolio will have their own goals as requirements and product roadmap.
  • Program level goals drive various initiatives.
  • Release level goals define major feature sets to be delivered in each release.
  • Potentially shippable product components become iteration goals.
  • Finally, the team decides the daily goals to be achieved.

As you can see, Agile defines goals for every time period and at every level. Leadership has goals.  Product Management has goals. The team has goals.

Flow Element: Tasks must provide immediate feedback.

Agile practices: Feedback is built in to several agile practices, focusing on different time spans.

Practice Feedback Time
Pair programming Minutes
Continuous integration Minutes
Test driven development Minutes
Daily stand-ups One day
Iteration reviews Two to four weeks
Retrospectives Two to four weeks

Flow Element: Perceived challenge of the activity should match the skills available.

Agile practices:  Although this condition looks tricky due to its emphasis on ‘perception’ Agile surprisingly adopt this as well.  The team itself decides about the quantum of work to be taken up. They may consider factors like complexity, difficulty, familiarity with technology and current skill levels.  But they make the final decision on what the they can deliver, based on their perception of the challenge involved and capabilities.  Thus, team’s perception is paramount and work accepted and skills available balance automatically.

Flow Element:   Absence of fear of failure.

Agile practices: Team chooses to bite what it can chew, their decisions are valued, collaboration is a guiding principle and they get constant feedback to make a course correction. In addition, Agile recommends to “fail fast, fail often”.  A powerful combination of factors to take fear out of the equation. In fact, Agile is rare practice that gets a huge number of search engine hits  for “how to fail!”

Flow Element:    Exclusion of distractions, leading to concentrated focus.

Agile practices: Some Agile practices that that reduce distractions and promote concentrated focus are given below:

  • When you are working on voluntarily chosen goals that are clear, challenging, and achievable, you prefer the joy of focus to petty distractions.
  • Endless meetings are forbidden.  Agile meetings are short and time-boxed.  For example, daily stand-ups are limited to 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Visual radiators serve as constant reminders of team’s focus, where they have been and where they are heading.  They also signal to outsiders to avoid interruptions and leave the team to focus on their goals.
  • At another level, the Scrum Master manages and clears obstacles, leaving the team to focus on their core activities.

Joy brings out the best

Elements of flow turn work into a game where there are clear rules of performance, quick feedback and work matches the skills. Who does not enjoy a game played in the real spirit? When you enjoy your work this much, you start seeing beauty in it. And this quality shines through all your output.

Actionable insight

Do your organization’s work practices have flow elements built in? If not, identify a few practices and restructure them. Your efforts will be rewarded by greater productivity and a happier workforce.

Share your insights

1. Have you experienced flow at work?  What practices made this possible?

2. Can you think of other agile practices that promote flow?

Go ahead and leave a comment and share your thoughts with others. They matter.

  • Raj Jupudi says:

    Wonderful Job Sir

    October 12, 2012 at 6:08 am
  • Geoff says:

    Flow state is a great place to be in when you’re doing development.
    It generally lasts for a short time – up to a few hours. After that, you usually get distracted by reality.

    I’ve found that Waterfall development is even better for achieving flow state, for all the reasons you cite – Waterfall, being more boxed in, offers fewer distractions. So, your observations work really for *all* programming development styles, not just Agile.

    If there’s anything to take away, it’s the observation that open-plan office is a terrible thing for developers; quiet space is needed to get into the zone.

    October 12, 2012 at 11:44 pm
    • admin says:


      Good points. When conditions of flow are present, people get into flow regardless of the approach used.

      However, the probability of getting into flow is more when people voluntarily chose an activity or timeline. Independence during execution makes flow more likely as well. In waterfall, time lines are fixed, tasks are pre-determined and generally there is lesser independence than in Agile. People can still be in flow but chances are relatively less.

      I have seen people get into flow reading a book in a noisy train or working on a design in an office next to a factory. But your point is correct: nose does distract and for most of us, a quite space makes it easier to get into flow.

      October 13, 2012 at 9:08 am
  • Hayim Makabee says:

    Great post! I’ve written a similar article analyzing the Gamification aspects of TDD:

    I believe psychology has some of the keys to solve the problems of software development.

    October 15, 2012 at 6:52 am
  • jessika de waijer says:

    great melt betweem the techniques & the human
    love you point off view

    October 18, 2012 at 10:05 am

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