Preparing for Change


The Scrum Master as a Change Agent
Cognitive Bias
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The course is part of this learning path

Cognitive Bias

Course Description 

This module looks at the role cognitive bias plays in business transformation and the importance of a growth mindset. Within this, it investigates the four stages of competence and the Scrum Master’s role in helping individuals move through them. Then it investigates the importance of psychological safety and how the Scrum Master can facilitate a ‘safe’ working environment which can generate higher levels of engagement, increased motivation and better performance. 

Learning Objectives 

The objectives of this course are to provide you with and understanding of: 

  • Cognitive bias and the four stages of developing competence. 
  • Why psychological safety is important in an agile environment. 
  • How psychological safety can be increased. 

 Intended Audience 

The course is aimed at the Agile Scrum Master. However, it’s equally relevant to the Product Owner’s role in the team. 

Prerequisites of the Certifications 

There are no specific pre-requisites to study this course 


We welcome all feedback and suggestions - please contact us at to let us know what you think. 


OK. We’re going to start with the theory in this video. But, before we do, take a look at this story from an organization called Smarter Every Day. It’s about somebody ‘unlearning’ how to ride a bike and then ‘learning’ to ride it in a different way. Sounds a bit odd, doesn’t it…but let’s take a look. 


Hey, it’s me Dustin, and welcome back to Smarter Every Day. 


You’ve heard people say, ‘it’s just like riding a bike’, meaning it’s really easy and you can’t forget how to do it, right? But I did something that damaged my mind. It happened on the streets of Amsterdam and I got really scared, honestly. I can’t ride a bike like you can anymore.   


Before I show you the video of what happened, I need to tell you the backstory. Like many six-year olds with a MacGyver mullet I learned how to ride a bike when I was really young. I had learned a life skill and I was really proud of it. Everything change though when my friend Barney called me 25 years later. 


Where I work, the welders are geniuses and they like to play jokes on the engineers. He had a challenge for me. He had built a special bicycle and he wanted me to try to ride it. He had only changed one thing. When you turn the handlebar to the left, the wheel goes to the right, when you turn it to the right the wheel goes to the left. I thought this would be easy so I hopped on the bike ready to demonstrate how quickly I could conquer this.  


I couldn’t do it. You can see that I’m laughing but I’m actually really frustrated. In this moment I had a really deep revelation. My thinking was in a rut. This bike revealed a very deep truth to me. I had the knowledge of how to operate the bike, but I did not have the understanding. Therefore, knowledge is not understanding. 


Look, I know what you’re probably thinking. Dustin’s probably just an uncoordinated engineer and can’t do it. But that’s not the case at all. The algorithm that’s associated with riding a bike in your brain is just that complicated. Think about it; downwards force on the pedals, leaning your whole body. Pulling and pushing the handlebars, gyroscopic procession in the wheels, every single force is part of this algorithm. And, if you change any one part, it affects the entire control system.  


I do not make definitive statement that often, but I’m telling you right now – you cannot ride this bicycle. You might think you can, but you can’t. I know this because I’m often asked to speak at universities and conferences and I take the bike with me. It’s always the same. People think they’re going to try some trick or they’re just going to power through it – it doesn’t work. Your brain cannot handle this. 


For instance, this guy. I offered him $200 just to ride his bike ten feet across the stage. Everybody thought he could do it. Once you have a rigid way of thinking in your head, sometimes you cannot change that, even if you want to.  


So, here’s what I did. It was a personal challenge. I stayed out here on this driveway and I practiced about 5 minutes every day. My neighbors made fun of me, I had many wrecks, but after 8 months, this happened. One day I couldn’t ride the bike and the next day I could. It was like I could feel some kind of pathway in my brain that was now unlocked. It was really weird though, it’s like there’s this trail in my brain, but if I wasn’t paying close enough attention to it my brain would easily lose that neural path and jump back onto the old road it was more familiar with. Any small distraction at all, like a cellphone ringing in my pocket would instantly throw my brain back to the old control algorithm and I would wreck. But at least I could ride it. 


My son is the closest person to me genetically and he’s been riding a normal bike for 3 years, that’s over half his life. I wanted to know how long it would take him to learn how to ride a backwards bike, so I told him if he learned how to ride a backwards bike, he could go with me to Australia and meet a real astronaut.    


[Child rides bike]. In two weeks, he did something that took me 8 months to do which demonstrates that a child has more neural plasticity, than an adult. It’s clear from this experiment that children have a much more plastic brain than adults. That’s why the best time to learn a language is when you’re a young child. 


Alright, today’s bike log. I can ride smooth, I can ride fast, I’m thinking the experiment is over. OK, now I’m in Amsterdam, a city that has more bicycles than people. The question is, can I ride a normal bike now? I mean, I’ve spent all this time unlearning how to ride a bike, if I go back and try to ride a normal bike will my brain mess up? I’ve tweeted a Smarter Everyday meet up and I’m going to see if somebody brings a bicycle and I’m going to try and ride a normal bike. 


This was one of the most frustrating moments of my life. I had ridden a normal bike since I was six, but in this moment, I couldn’t do it anymore. I had set out to prove that I could free my brain from a cognitive bias, but at this point I’m pretty sure that all I’ve proved is that I can only re-designate that bias. After 20 minutes of making a fool out of myself, suddenly my brain kicked back into the old algorithm. I can’t explain it but it happened in a very specific moment.  


I tried to explain this to the people around me, and they just didn’t get it. They thought I was faking the previous 20 minutes and I couldn’t get anybody to believe me. I felt like the only person on the planet who had never un-learned how to ride a bike, and I couldn’t articulate it to anybody because everybody just knew that you can’t forget how to ride a bike.  


So, I learned three things from this experiment. I learned that welders are often smarter than engineers, I learned that knowledge does not equal understanding and I learned that truth is truth. No matter what I think about it. So be very careful how you interpret things because you’re looking at the world with a bias whether you think you are or not. 


Quite a thought-provoking video and I should probably give the health warning now! 


Cognitive bias can be described as systematic error in thinking that affects the decisions and judgements that people make.  


This causes our decisions and behaviors to be influenced by social pressures, emotions and our own motivations, as well as our ability to process information. In other words, our past experiences affect the way we think and make decisions.  


That’s what you saw in the video. Dustin’s experience of riding a bike influencing his ability to change – and then change back again. Cognitive bias can be useful because it allows us to make quick decisions when we need to. But it can also make it harder to change.  


A growth mindset 

If change isn’t driven by the organization, employees will automatically lean towards more traditional ways of working, which they feel are safe and comfortable. If they’re going to work in a new way, they’ll need to overcome cognitive bias by adopting what’s known as a growth mindset.  


A growth mindset is about the beliefs people have towards learning. Put simply, if we believe we can grow, we behave differently so that we can grow.  


This is vital to support change because: 

  • It opens the mind to challenges and opportunities; 

  • It builds resilience – failure’s seen as a way of learning and improving rather than something negative; and 

  • It inspires persistence and, therefore, flexibility. 


Looking at the traits here, it’s easy to see why a fixed mindset is not conducive to organizational transformation or change. 


As the change agent, you need to encourage a growth mindset within your team and help each individual embrace change as an exciting learning opportunity, rather than something unknown and daunting. 


Conscious competence 

The conscious competence model relates to the two primary factors that affect our thinking when we’re facing change and learning a new skill. It relates to what called the ‘ladder of learning’ and helps us understand the stages we go through when we learn a new skill or behavior. 


The model looks at two areas – consciousness and competence, and the stages of developing competence are mapped against these: 


  • We start at unconscious incompetence where we don’t know what we don’t know – or what we need to learn. At this point we’re actually quite comfortable and ‘ignorance is bliss’. There’ll always be things about our jobs that we don’t yet know we need to improve. 


  • The progression then is to conscious incompetence – we realize there are things we need to learn and we know what these are. This is a crossroads where we need to make a decision whether to live with it and accept we don’t know or to learn how to do it. Depending on how steep the learning curve is, this level can be demoralising and it’s at this point that a growth mindset is essential. 


  • After that, conscious competence is where the learning begins. We’re actively working on the area but we’re still a novice – we try some things and fail, we learn some lessons and we try again. Our competence grows slowly but things don’t come naturally yet – we have to be persistent and determined if they’re going to be part of our DNA. 


  • And then the final level is unconscious competence where we’ve mastered the new skill or behavior and do it by instinct. We’ve built a new foundation and, whilst we’re still learning and growing, we’re confident about our competency in the new area. 


Here’s an example to put all that into context – something you might have done yourself; changing from driving a manual to an automatic car. 


After driving for 20 years, Tom bought an automatic car. He hadn’t forgotten how to drive but enough of his environment had changed to take him from being unconsciously competent to consciously incompetent. Before that he was briefly unconsciously incompetent before he visited the dealership and they told him what driving an automatic car was like! 


Over a fairly short period of time he got used to the car but still had to think about everything he did – so he became consciously competent. With practice – and he does a lot of driving – he got back to being unconsciously competent.  


The Scrum Master’s role 

You play an important role in the second and third stages of this model – moving through conscious incompetence and conscious competence to unconscious competence. 


Where individuals ‘know what they don’t know’ you need to motivate them and promote a growth mindset, making sure they want to learn something new and improve themselves, rather than being satisfied with where they are. 


As the individual becomes consciously competent – they know what they know – you should encourage them to practice using their new skills and ways of working so that they become more confident and move to unconscious competence. And then the cycle needs to start again. 


There’s more information about the growth mindset in the ‘Fixed Mindset vs Growth Mindset’ guide. And more about the conscious competence model in the ‘Conscious Competence Learning Model’ guide. You’ll find links in the Change Agent Resources. 

About the Author
Learning Paths

Tony has over 20 years’ experience in Business Development, Business Change, Consulting, and Project/Program Management working with public, private, and third sector organizations.

He has helped organizations to design and create processes and procedures to align ways of working with corporate strategy. A highly motivated and detailed solution provider, utilizing a wide range of methods and frameworks to provide structure whilst promoting creativity and innovation.

As a confident and self-motivated professional with excellent communication skills, Tony is able to bring people together and get them working as a team quickly.

Tony is an Agile and Scrum trainer with a vast knowledge spanning IT Systems, Business Change, Program and Project Management. With excellent presentation skills and a solid background, he ensures that all clients gain maximum benefit from his training. He has successfully guided those new to the industry through their initial training, helped experienced staff as they progress in their careers, and worked at the director level advising on best use and practice, as well as tailoring courses to fulfil the exact needs of clients.