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Is the impact of Agile just a Hawthorne Effect ?

By February 20, 2013 One Comment

L1001888The Hawthorne Effect is a human behavioural theory drawn by various social scientists from trials undertaken between 1927 and 1932 at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works.

The trials found that improvements in behaviour, and productivity changes observed after adjusting a workplace, were in fact largely just the results of a placebo-type effect – any change seemed to cause improvement.

There were many changes trialled – the first (and possibly most important) were changes in lighting levels (‘the illumination experiment’) in a factory environment. The objective of the experiment was to find the optimum lighting level for productivity – the results showed that more was at work than just changing lumens, every change (up or down in brightness) caused an increase in performance.

Most theorists since have concluded that the improvements are caused by the act of measuring and engaging subjects.  If you missed studying this in your management 101 course, then read this article or take the slightly incomplete wikipedia catch up lesson and then continue reading.  Lets deconstruct the impact of this theory into its parts:

Measurement

We’ve already written about the impact of measurement before.  It’s also pretty well understood that humans perform against whatever KPI you give them, the way they do it may however be surprising or unintended.

Confirmation Bias

Then there is Confirmation Bias, basically the likelihood that you will both find what you’re looking for, and ignore stuff that you’re not.  Elegantly illustrated by this group of Radiologists who can’t find a Gorilla in their scans.  If a team expects a new process to be better, then their perception will likely match their expectation.

Empowered Staff

Finally the staff in the later trials, more focused on workplace layout and reward were engaged, they were part of the process.  They were made to feel special.  We’ve talked about this a fair bit too – though Dan Pink is more fun. Smart people are motivated by Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. Pink was not the first to the conclusion that money was directly linked to productivity.

In summary, if you measure stuff, look for a change, and then make people feel special – surprise, surprise, you’re going to see a change!  Does this mean that some of the impact of Agile, the dramatic increase in staff engagement and useful productivity are perhaps just caused by the visual changes in the offices and agile rituals, but, in fact are just a ‘Hawthorne Effect’ ? In my heart, I have to say nervously, yes, at least to some extent.

Is this bad ? No.

Ok, but is the change real and sustainable? Yes, the changes and improvement in your team’s performance and culture are real.  Like all placebos, the source of the change might not be real, but the impact is.  If we can come up with better or different ways to achieve the same improvement then we should try them… any good agilista will tell you that anyway.

In the mean time I’ll leave you thinking about a sobering equation Nigel sent me as we’ve been debating this recently.

Hawthorne > Maslow + Deming

hawthorne effect workplace

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