7 Ways to Improve Agile Practices with Behavioral Science

Agile project management methodologies are no longer confined to software development or technology companies. As rapid innovation creates the need for increased adaptability, organizations have implemented independent agile teams to provide greater flexibility, efficiency, and customer engagement. 

Agile teams manage projects in a series of short Sprints (typically a couple weeks) to produce a product or output. Sprints are iterative development steps toward the final delivery and create many opportunities for calibration with customers and other stakeholders. 

With this organizational shift to project teams comes a shift in accountability. Although agile teams have a Scrum Master or project lead to help facilitate the process, this person’s purpose is to help the team self-manage. 

Agile team members are mutually accountable to each other for how they work together and achieve shared goals. Achievement of team goals are facilitated by agile social practices: Sprint Planning, Daily Scrum (Stand-up Meetings), Sprint Reviews, and Retrospectives. (See The Scrum Guide for more information on the purpose of Scrum Events.) These practices are most effective when the team culture makes it safe to share ideas, disagree, ask for help, admit mistakes, etc. 

Behavioral science is a proven complement to how agile team members work together (teamwork behaviors) and to their actual work (taskwork behaviors). Agile’s team-based approach and use of short Sprints creates many, mini goals and frequent opportunities for reinforcement. All team members have a significant opportunity and responsibility to observe behavior, provide feedback on behavior and outputs (deliverables), and to reinforce productive behavior. 

Here are seven ways agile teams can use the principles and tools of behavioral science to improve their implementation of agile practices:

  1. Pinpoint team working agreements – Establish team agreements by pinpointing the specific behaviors the team members expect from each other. 
  2. Pinpoint deliverables – Decompose the Sprint Backlog into manageable and measurable tasks for each Sprint.
  3. Clarify daily commitments – Improve the specificity of commitments made during the Daily Scrum by applying pinpointing criteria.
  4. Provide positive accountability – Promote team member engagement by providing positive accountability for collaboration and follow-through on the team agreements and daily commitments.
  5. Build psychological safety – Build psychological safety by reinforcing open, respectful communication and productive problem solving.
  6. Resolve teamwork and taskwork problems – Through candid feedback and consequence management, identify and eliminate behaviors and practices that are discouraging teamwork, eroding trust, or creating inefficiencies. 
  7. Celebrate successes – Celebrate successes after Sprints and during the Retrospective.

Don’t limit your project teams’ preparation to learning the basics of agile principles and practices. Foster excellence in teamwork and taskwork by giving your agile teams a working knowledge of behavioral science. 

From pinpointing and reinforcing essential behaviors, to analyzing performance problems from a behavioral lens, agile teams will thrive when they self-manage with behavioral science. 

Contact us to speak with an ADI Consultant and learn how to build behavioral science into your agile practices.

Posted by Tom Spencer, Ph.D.

As President and CEO, Tom actively works with ADI staff and clients to create positive change and achieve desired business goals. For nearly 25 years, his experience and ideas have shaped pragmatic and integrated approaches to applying the science of behavior to the workplace. Tom has written extensively on topics related to leadership, consequence management, performance fluency, and technology development. When not leading ADI, Tom enjoys trail running and following the WVU Mountaineers.