Tag Archives: Edward Thorndike

Take 2 Bottles Into the SCRUM? Conditioning in Project Teams

I’m not sure it makes sense to apply conditioning to management practice (Is that naive? I’d welcome your views). That said, I think an awareness of conditioning can be useful in understanding behaviour, including in a work context.

My understanding of conditioning comes from my study of the thinker J Krishnamurti. I think he uses the term to mean all the stuff you take in without knowing it that changes who you are and how you see the world. Psychologists use the term conditioning in a different way, to talk about learning (changing behavior, based on experience). Classical conditioning refers to the pairing of things you do anyway with new stimulae. There are some great info graphics on this here. In time animals learn that the two go together and will respond to just the new stimulae. Pavlov’s dog, who was conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell, is the most famous example of this. Operant conditioning is where an animal’s behaviour is rewarded, such that it learns to operate on the world in a particular way. Thorndike taught a cat to operate a lever to release it from a box. There have been tales of professors manipulated by their students via operant conditioning to leave the podium during lectures, while being unaware they were being “trained” to do this. One can imagine how these training methods could be extrapolated to apply to humans but that seems plain manipulative.

Ultimately, I think if you are trying to manipulate your colleagues without their knowing then you have a lot bigger problems than low productivity or whatever you are trying to improve. Is there a way to apply an understanding of conditioning to the workplace and projects in particular? Yes, I think there is. Project teams and agile teams in particular are great at shaking things up and trying something new. I learnt in my lecture that Pavlov said that “the laws of classical conditioning are the laws of emotional life”. So, one example of using an understanding of classical conditioning to improve a work environment might be tackling situations where classical conditioning has lead to a pairing of a certain room or meeting format with stressful meetings. You can’t stop meetings being stressful by changing the room but, once the root cause has been dealt with, team members may still associate rooms or meeting formats with stressful experiences. Making simple changes at that point may be beneficial in moving on from stressful situations.

This is the limited kind of role I see for the application of an understanding of conditioning in the workplace to fix problems. I do wonder if classical conditioning can help us understand the effectiveness of the rituals in agile. Do these rituals in part prime our minds to be in a certain state (e.g. alert and focussed on our colleagues at stand-ups)? Not much on the application of operant conditioning here. I’ll have to give that some more thought later but it may be that it is just too manipulative to be appropriate.

Who let the cats out? – Continuous Improvement Part 1 of 2

Sometimes I work in agile environments where work goes in cycles (sprints or timeboxes) and at the end of each cycle we ask “what can we do better next time?”. This is hard to get going in highly political environments or teams that are a mixture of client and supplier staff (people don’t like to rock the boat or accept liability) but where it has worked well, I was struck by how less stressful work became. We weren’t counting on things being right, only better than before.

It brought to mind the work of Edward Thorndike. From what I understand he spent much of his time shutting cats in boxes. You might be thinking he should get out more and funnily enough, that is exactly what he wanted the cats to do. Thorndike’s cats tried any number of motions, at random before triggering a lever that operated the door to open. Having stumbled upon how to operate the door, the cats would be put back in the box (doesn’t seem right somehow) and then take progressively less time to operate the lever to open the door. The mental mechanism he identified is called operant conditioning.  He contributed greatly to the behavioural branch of psychology with his systematic studies on learning. I really like the graph that shows what must have been one of the first “learning curves”. Reminds me of a burndown chart. Likewise, Thorndike’s operant conditioning makes me think of an agile environment with it’s “try things out to see if you hit on the answer” style of continuous improvement.