Change the Environment, Not the People

People's behaviors depend on the environment. If you manipulate the environment, you manipulate behaviors.

Agile is all about self-organizing teams. But self-organization isn’t the holy grail of effectiveness. In some situations you have to prevent a Tragedy of the Commons situation, whereby individual people and teams optimize only their own work, not taking into account the “greater good” the organization is working for.

Fortunately, there’s a way to deal with this…

Self-organization happens within a boundary. The environment determines how the system can self-organize. And you can (sometimes) tweak the environment. Therefore, if you manipulate the environment, you automatically also manipulate the behavior of people.

Four I’s Plus One

If you want to influence self-organization by changing the environment, you can consider the following suggestions, based on the Four I’s model of Mark van der Vugt:

  • Information: use information radiators to make people aware of the consequences of their current behavior.
  • Identity: appeal to a higher identity (such as a corporate culture) so that people feel a need to work together for a greater good.
  • Incentives: give small rewards for good behavior, in the form of compliments or tokens of appreciation.
  • Institutions: introduce communities of practice, or other informal institutions, that can set standards for good conduct.

Note: I added a fifth “I” to the model myself: infrastructure, because the tools and infrastructure you set up around people can also significantly influence and guide their behaviors.

B = f(P,E)

Behavior is a function of a person and his or her environment, as was pointed out long ago by Kurt Lewin and his famous equation. In order to change people’s behavior, instead of changing the people themselves (which isn’t possible anyway), you might want to consider changing the environment, and let them work it out for themselves.

(Jurgen Appelo is author of Management 3.0, a best-selling management book for Agile developers. It has a picture of a monster in it.)

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