Mental health benefits of Agile

Introduction

I am in the middle of a challenging personal project, moving my home from the UK to Spain. The scale of the work involved leaves me breathless but it is giving me insight and I hope empathy for all those who feel overwhelmed by change at work.

I think the biggest source of stress on big initiatives is the pressure to get everything right because this is a forever change. Having to have an answer for every problem, having to have a plan that covers every aspect of our move is overwhelming.

Change overload!

When I train others in Change Management I often talk about the dangers of multiple changes piling one on top of the other so that the person impacted can no longer function.

Our brains love certainty and knowing what is going to happen next. They are pattern recognition machines. There is evidence from neuroscience to show that if the brain is repeatedly hit by changes in direction and continuous uncertainty then it will switch to ‘power save” mode. This means that our brains will follow a set of instructions provided by others but do not (temporarily) have the capacity for the analysis and creativity needed to design the answers.

Agile Change Management

To break myself out of this cycle I am using an Agile approach to moving countries. The first thing I have done is re-frame the outcome. This is not forever, let’s instead think of this as an experiment of one year. If we like our new home after 12 months we will stay and if we do not then we will unravel what we have put in place and return to the UK.

By changing the outcome I am changing the scale of the project. By thinking of it as a one year trial I am taking away the pressure of having to get everything right first time.

I am also removing the risk that as a family we have made the wrong decision from which we can never recover. The change has become a possible future, not a definite future, with clear criteria – it only becomes definite if it meets all our success criteria. This means we have to define what success looks like up front, which is producing useful motivational discussions about the things we are looking forward to.

Benefit 1 – Clarifies priorities

This is really helping us to think about our priorities in a really practical way. For example, if we are going to be there a year before we decide how permanent the move is then we don’t need to organise for all the garden implements to travel with us, we can just put them in storage and find a service to mow the lawn for a year. We can live without all of our own family favourite Christmas decorations for one year so they are not a priority!

Benefit 2 – Reduces the scope of the change

Instantly this agile approach takes the pressure off, reducing the number of things I have to plan and giving me a criteria against which to judge if I am doing the right things – will it make a difference in the next year? If yes, it is a Must Have, if no it is a Should Have, Could Have or even Won’t Have this time. Can we create a temporary fix to cover the next year, then it is a Won’t Have this time. This has definitely reduced the number of arguments and provided a framework to justify the decisions we are taking!

Compare this to the scope of a “forever” move – the implication is that we have to take everything we own. The packing, the moving, the unpacking, the logistics – it is all huge if everything is in scope.

Conclusion

An Agile approach makes sense for so many reasons, but hopefully this blog demonstrates that one of the greatest benefits is the ability to get on and get things done, even when the transformation itself feels overwhelming. Agile encourages us to take the pragmatic approach, to try before we buy, reducing the risk of a “get it completely right first time” approach.

As ever, share your Agile stories, I am keen to learn from your experiences.

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