Brain-based coaching & agile


Why should we be interested about the brain? And why coaching?

Our brains have evolved over millions of years for a very different environment than our current world. By default, we are not at our best in thinking clearly and in collaborating with others when we are under pressure. To make matters worse, under pressure we are unable to notice we might be acting in dysfunctional ways. The good news: seemingly small changes can have a surprisingly large positive effect. A coaching approach in problem solving is one effective way forward.

This was the description of my 3,5h workshop at ScanAgile 2019. To my delight it attracted a large number of participants. There were 12 alternative talks and workshops one could have picked at the same time. Before starting, 10 or so of the participants told me they would need to leave at lunch. All but one came back after lunch. That meant a lot to me.

Here are some highlights from that workshop:

One fundamental insight about the brain we should pay more attention to

There is an intriguing balance between our stress level and our ability to think clearly and get stuff done. Too little or too much stress is bad. The delicate balance in between is what we are looking for. Surprisingly little stress kicks us out of balance.

From an anatomical perspective, there is a particularly interesting part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (PFC). It´s proper functioning is needed for sustained attention, understanding, inhibition, empathy and self-awareness. A surprisingly accurate metaphor about the brain is an elephant and its driver. The PFC is the driver, and is needed for complex thinking. The rest of the brain – the elephant – is very strong at executing learned routines. Sometimes these two are referred to as the “thinking” and “emotional” brain, but that is inaccurate.

When talking about complex tasks, what we want to see an integrated brain, i.e. a calm and alert driver working together with the elephant to get the job done. This balance is ridiculously sensitive to too much stress. The elephant is strong and easily gets rid of the driver when we perceive too much pressure. That is when we lose sustained attention, understanding, inhibition, empathy and self-awareness. What´s left is learned routines coupled with a false sense of a laser sharp focus as we are unable to question what we are doing. Possibly a lot of action without much deliberation.

There is more to this, but this is the key take-away: it would really make a lot of sense to pay more attention to the driver-elephant interplay. The active ingredient here is a curious, investigative mind paying attention in a non-judgemental way to what is going on. This practice strengthens the collaboration between the elephant and the driver. Becoming a keen observer of the quirks of our minds and brains is a practice for a lifetime.

A very practical “tool” for this is labeling emotions. When facing something unpleasant, ask yourself: “What am I experiencing right now?”. This activates the PFC and dampens arousal in deeper parts of the brain.

The vast majority of what we do on a day-to-day basis can be perfectly well performed by the elephant: One can wake up in the morning, snooze the alarm a couple of times, get up and get to work without much conscious attention at all, and that´s fine. The PFC is energy hungry and gets tired easily, so operating on autopilot in tasks that do not require higher cognitive functioning is OK. The tricky part is when we operate on autopilot when we should not. Generalizing, making assumptions, not paying attention to other people´s points of view. Wild elephants running about have a tendency to collectively create outcomes nobody wants.

The neuroscience of succeeding together

The human brain is primarily social. Pretty much everything that really matters in life is social. Getting significant stuff done at work is a social endeavor. So it makes sense to have some lens to observe and to make sense of the social dynamics we are all involved in.

There appears to be a number of drivers that affect us. The acronym SCARF sums these up:

  • S like in status, although I prefer significance. Do I have the perception that my contribution is valued?
  • C like in certainty. Do I know what happens next?
  • A like in autonomy. Do I have a say?
  • R like in relatedness. Are we in this together?
  • F like in fairness. Do I perceive exchange as fair?

If you think of any really cool thing that has happened to you, I´m pretty sure it took place in an invitational, inclusive and mutually supportive atmosphere. SCARF may help in fostering this kind of atmosphere. When things go right or wrong, this model gives us a tool for making sense of what happened (or is happening in real time, which may require a bit more practice). I can guarantee this: useful insights will be abundant.

How about coaching? One really easy way to increase efficiency – from “why” to “how”

When things go south, we have a tendency to get annoyed. If we get really annoyed, we want to find out whose fault it was and might even want to punish the culprit. By default, we might ask: “Why did this happen?” and “Whose fault is this?”. When exposed to this type of questions people tend to become defensive. If they didn´t, we should probably get worried. Instead of laying blame, a far more effective question is “How can we fix this?”. Complex and/or personal problems are best solved without focusing on the problem.


How about agile then?

My work focuses on the Individuals and Interactions aspect of the Agile Manifesto. My understanding about agile coaching is it´s mainly about helping others apply agile practices, where the coach is a subject matter expert. Brain-based coaching is more about helping people think, and ideally support people in solving their own problems. These two approaches complement each other beautifully.


Interested in brain-based coaching? Check out our training options!