Psychology of Agility

Psychologie der Agilität - InTheBox Consulting
Psychologie der Agilität - InTheBox Consulting

Everyone is talking about agility at the moment. Birigit Werkmann-Karcher and Michael Zirkler wrote a book on this topic, which was published by Springer Verlag in August 2020. I had the opportunity to support both of them in this project and conducted research interviews for the book at different locations in order to “track down this strange phenomenon of human experience and behaviour in the world of work” (Werkmann-Karcher & Zirkler, 2020). This article is intended to give a brief introduction to the topic and provide insights into our research and the publication.

The term Agility is not new

What does agility actually mean? The term agility is not new. It was already used in systems theory by organizations in the 1950s (Parsons, 1954). Today's understanding of agility has changed. However, the various definitions are still very broad. Agility should be a possibility to meet today's demanding VUCA conditions (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity), which are all presented in the world of Work 4.0. Rose (2018, p.15) provides a simple but accurate definition:

« [Agile is] the ability to create and respond to change in order to succeed in an uncertain and turbulent environment. Instead of relying on extensive up-front planning, solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing, cross functional teams utilising the appropriate practices for their context. »

Doing Agile vs. Being Agile

In the relevant literature and in practice, a distinction is often made between “doing agile” and “being agile”. It can be concluded that there should be something like an agile personality (being agile). However, if you search for the agile personality in professional psychological databases, you will not find it. At the moment there is still no well-founded and tested theory clearly stating what qualities an individual should have to be agile. In practice, people often speak of an agile mindset. In their book Werkmann et al. (2020) show some possible connections to existing constructs, e.g. to the model of learning agility (De Rue et al., 2012) or to character strengths (Seligmann et al., 2004). From a psychological point of view, the agile mindset can currently be referred to as a mixture of different skills (values, orientations, working principles, social skills). Personality traits are also part of it, but they do not exclusively determine the agile mindset (Werkmann-Karcher et al., 2020).

In order to be agile as a team or organization, the mere adaptation of processes and organizational forms is not enough. The «chance» must be lived, animated and energized so that new patterns of thought and behaviour can develop and stabilize. It has to be a holistic process. A pure top-down introduction without corresponding support from the workforce could turn out to be very demanding. Management must have the courage and confidence to hand over centralized decisions to the grassroots. If such framework conditions are created, a room for novel thought processes and agile structures can appear. Laloux (2016, p.59) illustrates this power of agility in a vivid way:

« There can be hundreds of thousands of birds in a flock, flying at high speeds. And in the blink of an eye, when a predator appears, this whole dense cloud changes direction. How do the birds avoid mass collisions? It’s almost a miracle. Hierarchy and centralized decision- making could never master this level of speed and complexity. Coordination is embedded in three rules that all birds play by. Coordination mechanisms, rather than hierarchy, keep the flock agile and safe. »

Learning Agility as the Path to «Being Agile»

In order to put individuals or teams on their learning paths towards agility, psychology would determine the current situation, which could reveal those possible learning paths. Unfortunately there is no empirically tested diagnostic that knows how to measure the construct of agility, therefore this approach cannot be proposed at the moment. On the individual level, learning paths in the 1st and 2nd order can be used. While opportunities already exist in the area of ​​the 1st order (doing agile) (Kanban, Scrum, coaching), in the area of ​​learning of the 2nd order (being agile) it is a question of procedures that must be discovered first, then developed and tested (Werkmann-Karcher et al., 2020). The concept of “learning agility” can offer good access for teams and groups. It is divided into different areas of learning: People Agility, Results Agility, Mental Agility and Change Agility (Lombardo & Eichinger, 2000). 

Agility is not a High-Performance Sport

Agility can certainly be a possible answer to the demanding conditions in today's working world. If misunderstood, agility can also turn into a “high-performance sport”, which can lead to a social and organizational exclusion. It should not be there to displace employees who cannot go along with every change immediately. Rather, it should also serve to accompany and support these people during the change. At the end I would like to quote the following (from my research interview in a company with agile and holacratic structures). It shows well that agility can serve to expand our scope of possibilities, but limitations in the application should also be seen:

«Agility is more an extension of our field of action and our tool boxes than the stone of wisdom. It is often said: That now supersedes everything, be it agility or holacracy or whatever else there was in the past, such as Scrum, etc. We have so much human history behind us, very little of it is documented. I don't believe that we are just now finding the philosopher's stone that will solve all our problems. And adaptivity and agility are beautiful, whatever the next step includes, so it is certainly something that continues without having to proclaim that it is the only right one. »

Dominik Grolimund

Dominik Grolimund

Dominik Grolimund is a trained IT specialist and an aspiring psychologist. He works at the Psychological Institute of ZHAW in the Organization Development and Consulting section and is a member of the Swiss Professional Association for Applied Psychology (SPAP). He is particularly interested in the areas of self-organization, agility, consulting and team development.

Psychology of Agility - a book by Michael Zirkler and Birigit Werkmann, with the collaboration of Dominik Grolimund

Psychologie der Agilität - InTheBox Consulting

Psychology of Agility

The term agility is not new. And yet it plays a major role in the world of work 4.0. So far, we are familiar with the term "doing agile" in the form of Kanban, Scrum or Coaching, but we still struggle with the agile mindset. Here, learning agility can offer good access to “being agile”.

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Game-based training

Learning has to be hard and time consuming to be effective. With the game-based training approach, we create experiences and memories that allow us to learn new knowledge over the long term. There are a few tricks, we'd like to share.

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Game-based training

Game-based training wird seit Jahrhunderten für die Wissensvermittlung angewendet. Die frühesten Beispiele für Game-Based-Training wurden für die Ausarbeitung von Szenarien-Planung in der militärischen Strategieausbildung im Mittelalter angewandt. Eine einfache Definition von Game-Based-Training ist die Wissensvermittlung in der Form eines Spieles. Das Spiel zeichnet sich dabei durch die Anwendung von verschiedenen Szenarien und Herausforderung aus und kreiert dabei eine positive Erfahrung.

Some clues as to why game-based training is so beneficial can be found in most recent cognitive science.

Game-based training and cognitive science

Current cognitive science identifies some key strategies on how to maximize knowledge acquisition and retention.

One key learning is that the most durable training requires effort.

Learning is strenuous and time consuming

But why is that? Why does learning have to be hard and time consuming? Every time you learn something new your brain must change anatomically by creating new neural connections. Your brain stores your learnings, memories and knowledge and each time something new is added it needs to change. This is hard, requires effort and unfortunately does not get easier the older we grow.

Strategies to assimilate knowledge more effectively

Cognitive science however presents us with two key strategies that can support making the learning journey much more effective.
Retrieving your newly acquired knowledge is key to retaining it.

Strategy 1: Retrieving new knowledge

There are three ways that knowledge retrieval can be practiced:

    1. Personal reflection.

Personal reflection on the retrieved knowledge or recalling the knowledge from memory.

    1. Test your knowledge.

Besides measuring your learning performance testing is one of the most successful ways to make you retrieve and retain knowledge.

    1. Repeated retrieval of your knowledge.

Repeated retrieval like repeated personal reflection or testing situations makes your memories more durable.

Strategy 2: Elaborate your new knowledge – build on your associative memory

By transferring newly acquired knowledge in one context enables you to apply that knowledge in a different context. This elaboration helps you truly understand the subject matter and is key to connecting the new teaching to knowledge you already have. There are three ways you can practice elaboration successfully:

There are three ways you can practice elaboration successfully:

    1. Elaboration in a team or study group

Discussions on the newly acquired knowledge with people in the same training allows you to understand the areas you are not sure about and creates a memory and emotions you can connect the knowledge to.

    1. Practically apply the knowledge to solve a problem

Just try to figure it out, if you make mistakes on the way do not worry as this only improves the effectiveness of learning and retention.

    1. Mix it up.

Mix up what you learn, the more you mix up different content and try to apply it to solve a problem the more successfully the knowledge is retained.

The success of the game-based training application is achieved through incorporating the outlined strategies into the training design. Most effective game-based training methods incorporate all strategies:

Wie mit intelligenten Strategien das Lernen erleichtert werden kann.

Emotionen als Katalysator, um sich die Inhalte langfristig zu merken

Besides incorporating the key learning strategies outlined above, game-based training creates, by its playfulness, creating positive emotions that help the participants to achieve the learning goals more easily. It has been observed that in game-based training settings the participants frequently enter the state of “flow” due to the captivating nature of the training. This allows them to maximize the learning effect during the time allocated to the training while enjoying the experience.

Game-Based-Training erhöht die Trainingseffektivität.

Summary: Maximize your learning effectiveness through game-based training

Game-Based-Training erzeugt Erlebnisse und Erinnerungen, die es erlauben, neues Wissen nachhaltig zu erlernen. Schlüsselfaktoren zur Nachhaltigkeit sind die positiven Emotionen, welche durch das spielerische Element erzeugt werden und die Einbeziehung der diskutierten Lernstrategien in das Design des Game-Based-Trainings.