Agile, Motivation, and the Köhler Effect

A couple of summers ago, while training for some crazy adventure, I was running with a friend of mine who is considerably faster than me on a Saturday morning long training run. Throughout the course of the run we were chatting and moving along at a steady pace but during the last half I noticed I really didn’t feel like talking anymore.

Throughout the run, he had been slowly increasing his pace to a speed he would normally run but at a pace I would not normally consider possible to run at. When we finished, I looked at my watch with astonishment at how fast I was able to run.

In hindsight, I was probably holding my friend back somewhat but either consciously or unconsciously  he was pulling me towards greater accomplishment than I knew I was capable of. The name for when this occurs is called the Köhler Effect, named after a German psychologist, Otto Köhler.

The Köhler effect is a phenomenon that occurs when less capable individuals perform better when performing a task with others, compared to when performing a task individually.

So, is there a way we can maximize the Köhler effect on our Agile teams and Communities of Practice? If we have people who are not performing at high levels, is it possible for stronger teammates to motivate them to greater things? With a little care, I believe it is.

Here are few ways you can use the Köhler effect to elevate individual skills and overall team performance:
Hire and staff effectively. Someone on the team must have a high degree of experience and skill. If you have B and C players on the team, the best you’ll get is B-level work until the B’s become A’s. If I ran with someone slower than me, I would have naturally slowed my pace to match my slower partner. Also, find motivational and positive people to add to your teams.

Establish a Goal. Without having a goal established in the first place, I probably would have never been in the situation to run with my fast friend. Your teams should be driven by a compelling vision and solid sprint goals so the less-skilled has motivation to engage and start moving.

Get Them Started. As Agile methodologies are rooted in accountability anyway, the ceremonies and mechanics should be enough to get someone motivation to start performing. This is the equivalent of following a training plan. I knew I needed to run a certain number of miles that day – I just didn’t realize how fast I could go.

Use Pairing Wisely. Pairing and mentoring work well inside a team. However, endlessly pairing with someone with less skill has the potential of becoming frustrating and will reduce the opportunities for the skilled person to continue to grow and learn. I imagine this would feel a little like pacers or “rabbits” used for elite marathon runners. At some point, they need to run their own race as well.



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4 thoughts on “Agile, Motivation, and the Köhler Effect

  1. Great advice Len! I think this also applies across teams. If you have a healthy and well performing team, it will encourage the other teams to become healthy. This is why I always say as to focus on your top teams first…make sure they are healthy and remain healthy. If you are early in a transition and don’t have a clear top team…spend most of your time with the team that is closest, or would take the least amount of effort to make your top team so that you have a good example to encourage the other teams. Just like as a manager you get the best ROI by focusing on your top performers first, not ignoring them to focus on your lower performers.

    • Great question! Ultimately, for the faster person to get faster they will need someone to be their own “rabbit” – someone who is faster than him or her. As I mentioned in the last paragraph, you must “Use Pairing Wisely” otherwise, to your point, the faster person will burn out or become disinterested.