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Agile and the Knowledge Worker

The interplay among human nature, a heavy workload, and the expectations for knowledge workers

6 April 2016

The motivation for this article was a piece by Shankar Vedantam for National Public Radio (NPR): "Hidden Factors in Your Brain Help to Shape Beliefs on Income Inequality." He discussed how hidden factors in the brain shape the way people think about hierarchies and relationships. To explain, most of our early relationships, such as parent-child or student-teacher, are hierarchical relationships. A parent tells a child what they need to do or a teacher tells a student what they must learn or study.

As we grow older, we learn to think of relationships in more egalitarian terms. Before we do something, we want to understand the why. However, the things we learn first end up in the core of our brains, meaning that the hierarchical ways of thinking are primary, because we learn to think that way first. So even though we might like egalitarianism more as we develop, we still have that initial leaning toward hierarchy.

To test whether egalitarian thinking is secondary to hierarchical thinking in the brain, Laura Van Berkel of the University of Kansas did a study with people who were drunk. The thinking was that when people drink too much, they reveal hidden attitudes because alcohol tends to make people feel disinhibited. The rationale behind the experiment was that when you are drunk, you resort to a set of natural, childlike feelings. To put it simply, when you are inebriated you have a hard time standing up straight, so you have less energy to demand to be treated as an equal and are more susceptible to someone telling you what to do without asking why.

The researchers stood outside bars in downtown Lawrence, Kansas, and those who agreed to participate in the survey used a breathalyzer to measure their blood alcohol and were questioned about how much they liked hierarchy and equality. Those with a higher blood alcohol content (i.e., those who were more inebriated) were more likely to prefer hierarchy and power over egalitarianism.

To be fair, it is also possible that for some reason, people who endorse hierarchical thinking are also more likely to get drunk. Therefore, to further test the conclusion, they conducted several other experiments. They found that when people are distracted or under time pressure, they also tend to fall back on their primary ways of thinking: preference for a hierarchical system, someone telling them what to do, and what is right and wrong.

The term "knowledge worker" was first coined by Peter Drucker (1957). According to Drucker, "The most valuable asset of a twenty-first-century institution, whether business or nonbusiness, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity." In his article "Thinking for a Living: How to Get Better Performance and Results from Knowledge Workers," Thomas H. Davenport provides this definition of knowledge workers: "Knowledge workers are workers whose main capital is knowledge . . . it's clear that most people in these jobs think for a living." Examples of such workers are software engineers and architects.

One reason companies hire smart developers, designers, testers, and analysts and pay them handsomely is because they are an important component to the success of any company. Based on the study as described above, it doesn't make sense to put these smart people — your team — under a lot of time pressure; you run the risk of their falling back on primary ways of thinking, including hierarchical thinking. I have seen this in many different companies where I worked. The moment staff has a high workload, many look toward management and ask, "What do you want me to do?" I have also seen that when a team has a normal level of time pressure, the quality goes up (code and end-product), and the effectiveness of the design also goes up (architecture and user experience).

My advice: Listen to your team when they say they are under pressure or when you hear them ask, "Tell me what to do." Have an honest conversation about the workload, and remind the team that they were hired to think. Expecting management to tell them what to do is not an option. As former Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously said, "It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do."

To close, I would like to highlight the following 3 of the 12 Agile principles related to what companies expect when they hire staff, as well as the impact a high workload has on their effectiveness:
  • Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  • The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
  • Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.


Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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