Agile, Change, and the Placebo Effect: An Interview with Linda Rising


In this interview, Linda Rising, an independent consultant and author, details the power of the agile mindset. She explains how agile is related to the placebo effect, as well as why being fearless is the same as being agile.

Josiah Renaudin: Welcome back to another TechWell interview. Today, I'm joined by Linda Rising, an independent consultant and author who will be a keynote speaker at our upcoming Better Software West Conference. Linda, thank you very much for joining us today.

Linda Rising: It is my pleasure, Josiah. Thank you.

Josiah Renaudin: Thank you very much. First, before we dig into the meat of your keynote, could you tell us a bit about your experience in the industry?

Linda Rising: Oh, my. Do you know that when I was in Rome just a week ago, I celebrated my 74th birthday.

Josiah Renaudin: Oh, congratulations.

Linda Rising: You don't want to know about my long career. We don't have that much time. I can tell you that most of my experience in actually developing software is around, maybe we could even say ultra large projects. I worked on military software, the largest Ada project in the world. You probably don't even know about the programming language Ada. It was popular in the early ‘80s. I also worked on the 777 airplane and on a lot of communications software. Over my career, mostly what I've seen is ultra large projects and of course the struggles that we had in delivering quality software on time, within budget and the failures to do so that ultimately led to all the interest now in agile software development.

Josiah Renaudin: Yeah. Agile is a lot of what you discuss. Again, before we really get into the agile portion of this, I had mentioned you were an author. You wrote the books Fearless Change and More Fearless Change. Could you tell us a bit about the two books you've written?

Linda Rising: The two books I've written are cowritten, actually, with my good friend Mary Lynn Manns. We started twenty years ago on the first book, Fearless Change, because we were interested in patterns. We were trying to get our organizations to use patterns in development. We realized that we were both doing similar things, even though we were in different parts of industry. We thought maybe there could be patterns for introducing patterns. As we began to write those patterns, others who gave us feedback said, "These are not just patterns for introducing patterns. They're patterns for introducing any new idea into organizations."

That caused a giant shift in how we were thinking about that book which was published ten years ago. We spent ten years writing it. Over time, over the past ten years, we've continued to think about and work on patterns for changing not only organizations, but changing how individuals think and how individuals work and maybe even how the world works. Our second book came out after another ten years of writing just last year, More Fearless Change, with some insights into the original patterns and also some new patterns that we've been working on along the way.

Josiah Renaudin: Speaking of organizational change, agile is something that's come along and just had such massive impact on so many software teams. I feel every week I'm writing something new about agile, I'm learning something new about agile. You mentioned, when I was reading through your abstract, that you've wondered if agile's success has been the result of the placebo effect. Can you explain that theory and how you came up with it?

Linda Rising: I talk a lot about science these days because as a result of writing the Fearless Change books, I've become interested in cognitive neuroscience which is just a fancy way of saying how your brain works, because there's scientific evidence that can help us do a better job of thinking and solving problems and making decisions. We should look at it because in software we are not scientific. We don't do real experiments. We just get excited about new ideas because they seem to tell a good story about how things work. We get caught up in stories because our brains love stories. Without proof, we move off in a direction together. We all believe that the path we've chosen is a good one. Now, that sounds like it might work because we believe in it.

That's the placebo effect. Now, people hear that. I have a whole talk on that subject and they think that's a bad thing then. My response is, "No." When you're not doing science ... We don't do it for a good reason. We do it because we can't. It's too expensive to do a double-blind placebo randomized experiment. We'll never be able to do that to show that agile is better than what we were doing before. The next best thing is to share stories about what works, tell each other our experiences. Based on that, to believe that this might be a good thing for us and that if we understood more about the placebo effect, we might not need so many real drugs in our lives.

Josiah Renaudin: Absolutely. Based off that thought, what do you think is more important: Having an agile team, an organization? Having an agile coach come in and make sure that you are "agile," or really having the agile mindset? This idea of iteration and not having as many scrum meetings and everything like that. Is it more about having an agile team or more about thinking agile?

Linda Rising: I think the essence of agile development is learning. That's what agile has brought to the table. That's the closest we will ever get to being scientific is to deliver small increments, to get feedback on that, to constantly learn about what works and what doesn't work in our environment. That's really the message of agile. It's not about doing a daily stand-up or about pairing or any of the other practices. Those are all good things that I believe in, but what's most important for a team is to constantly be learning about what works. A good coach can help with that, but I also believe that small teams working together in a collaborative setting can learn on their own and make progress. It's the mindset that's the most important piece.

Josiah Renaudin: You just mentioned collaboration, which is a great segue here. I would like to know how does this agile mindset, this mindset of learning that you mentioned, how does that impact creativity, estimation, and collaboration within a team?

Linda Rising: You know, that agile mindset affects everything. I'm going to talk about that and the research behind it, but essentially the two differences are that the agile mindset believes in growth and in learning and that yes, of course, we're all born with different talents and different abilities, but that we're not stuck there. We can always get better. That doesn't mean that we can all be Einstein or that we'll all wind up playing in Carnegie Hall, but if we really are determined and we work at it, we can be better tomorrow than we are today. If you don't have the agile mindset, then that category is called fixed. Those people believe that you have what you have and there's nothing you can do about it.

That leads you into a place that says, "Well, we don't want to try anything because we might not do very well and we don't want to look stupid." That's the only way that other people can see how smart we are. We're all about looking good. We want other people to think that we are smart, whereas the agile teams say, "No. We are willing to try and experiment. We were willing to risk. We might even not do so well." I don't like to use the word failure, but that's a possibility. That will teach us something. That will give us a way of learning how to be better. Those two different mindsets affect everything. It's how our organizations work. It's how creative we are. It's how good we are at problem solving. The agile mindset is about everything.

Josiah Renaudin: There are times every once in a while when I feel I ask a question and almost immediately, as I'm asking it, know the answer, but I still want to hear your thoughts on this one. Can the agile mindset be applied outside of work in our daily lives? Can this mindset of change, of maybe even looking stupid in order to get better, can this be applied in just day to day life?

Linda Rising: Josiah, you already answered it. You already said you knew the answer. The answer is of course, because the agile mindset changes everything. The agile teams are made up of agile people. If they had lived their lives in an agile fashion, then that's what they're going to bring to the workplace. It's not that suddenly when they walk out the door they think of the world in a fixed way and they become afraid to live their lives. No, they want to be agile all the time. In fact, there is a new book out. I just lost the citation, but it's about agile families.

It's someone who has taken the notions of agile software development and applied them to a real working situation to his own family. He consulted with some of the better known names in agile development and said, "Well, how would I do that in my own family?" They have little planning sessions. They get together for weekly stand-ups. They've applied all of the agile principles to how they interact within their family. It's an interesting book because the person who wrote it said he didn't know anything about software. He had just heard about it and thought, "Gee, this sounds like it could have application way beyond software," and he did it.

I think it's called Agile Families or something. I should have that source at my fingertips, but I don't. That's the amazing thing about software development now is that software is everywhere. People are more aware of it, but you hear discussions of what's going on in agile development by people who are not in software. Steve Denning, who is a business author, now comes to a lot of agile conferences. Daniel Pink, who wrote the book Drive, talks about agile software development all the time. He has nothing to do with software. The ideas are definitely having a wide impact.

Josiah Renaudin: Yeah. I know that there are people who come to TechWell's conferences that don't have that much involvement with software, like you said, but it's the lessons you can learn from agile. It's the different concepts you can take from that and repurpose in different ways throughout your life. Something interesting I saw that you plan on discussing is that you equate being agile with being fearless. Why do you think these come hand-in-hand?

Linda Rising: If you have a fixed mindset, then you're afraid that if you do fail or if you don't look good, then other people will think oh, you don't have it. You don't have the talent. You don't have the intelligence. You don't have what we're looking for. There are a lot of companies who claim that they hire the best. Unfortunately, that mantra can lead to a feeling among everybody in the organization. Well, am I the best? Am I still the best? Maybe I was the best. Am I still the best? That kind of attitude can lead to some pretty drastic activities within an organization.

My favorite example is Enron. They would do a process called rank and yank, where they'd evaluate people and compare people against one another, constantly looking for who's the best. That means that some people are going to be at the bottom. Those people are always worried about that. That can lead to making others look bad. "I look better if you look bad." That attitude can spread quickly throughout an organization, that now we don't care about the success of others. We only care about how we look and we want to look good. That could even lead to sabotage. "I might go out of my way to make sure that you don't look good, because that will ensure that I look better."

We have to be careful about that comparison, best. That implies we can line people up. We can say, "Oh, here's number one and here's number two." That's an impossible goal. I don't know why you'd want to do that anyway. You want the best out of everybody. My perfect example is Southwest Airlines. They hire for attitude. "We want people who are not afraid. We want people who are fearless. We want people to step out there because they know we're trying to get everybody to do a good job and to think outside the box and make Southwest a better place." There's definitely a connection between fearlessness and the agile mindset.

Josiah Renaudin: Yeah. Looking bad or even looking stupid, it could be very difficult. I remember … TechWell is my first "big boy job" where out of college, you go and do that. I remember just being in all these different meetings. There's business terminology and full-time job terminology that I didn't understand. One of the most difficult things I had to do, but one of the most beneficial things I did, was just at multiple times be like, "I don't know what this term is," or "Can you please explain this?" "Can you explain that?" If I wouldn't have done that and I would have just smiled and nodded, I think I'd be a much different employee at this point who might still be pretending I know things when I don't. Yeah. I know in my job, I realize that fearless mindset is just invaluable. It's something that you can't really put a price tag on.

Linda Rising: Josiah, you are very wise.

Josiah Renaudin: [Laughs] I hope so. I'm getting better. I'm getting better day by day. I don't want to give away your entire keynote, even though I'd love to continue to talk about this. To close this off, more than anything, what central message do you want to leave with your keynote audience? What do you want to leave with them as you get off the stage?

Linda Rising: I've given variations of this talk many times. I was surprised myself. I always am when I hear myself talk, thinking, that really wasn't what I thought this talk was going to be about at all. I thought it was going to be about agile development. What's surprising is the talk turns out to be about children and how you talk to your children. In a way, we're all each other's children. If you believe in God, you believe we're all God's children. In a way, that's all of us, but it's about how we talk to our children and how we encourage them to be agile, because it's children who are going to grow up and be the adults of tomorrow. The message that seems to have the most impact, or I get the most email, is parents who say, "Thank you for helping me understand what I need to do to talk to my children.”

Josiah Renaudin: A really interesting concept. I really appreciate you coming on this interview and talking about this. I'm actually going to be at this keynote. Hopefully, I can maybe get a signed copy of your book, something like that.

Linda Rising: You bet.

Josiah Renaudin: I will definitely be there. I'm interested to hear the entire thing at Better Software West.

Linda Rising: Great, Josiah. I look forward to that.

Linda RisingLinda Rising is an internationally-known presenter on topics of agile development, patterns, retrospectives, the change process, and the connection between the latest neuroscience and software development. An independent consultant from Tennessee, Linda ( has a background in university teaching and work in industries of telecommunications, avionics, and strategic weapons systems. She has authored numerous articles and published several books: Design Patterns in Communications, The Pattern Almanac 2000, A Patterns Handbook, Fearless Change: Patterns for Introducing New Ideas (with coauthor Mary Lynn Manns), and her latest More Fearless Change (also with coauthor Mary Lynn Manns).

About the author

Upcoming Events

Jun 02
Sep 22
Oct 13
Apr 27