Cognitive Recycling

I teach #Agile teams that when gathering requirements, it’s best to intentionally leverage the “back of mind” of all the participants. This is what I call a cognitive leverage point in team learning. To make use of this, you must restructure your meetings, to leverage the unconscious….the back of the mind.

…it works like this:

We have all participated in long, soul-sucking meetings without breaks, where we are on a kind of death march to complete the meeting. These meetings are highly demotivating…. and also completely ignore (and therefore do not leverage) the extremely powerful “back of mind” feature of human cognition.

The trick is to STOP having long meetings. Especially when working on sense-making!!

Instead, for any kind of important group sense-making task, like requirements-gathering, schedule several short 1-hour-or-less meetings, 1 per day. The first meeting is short, and highly focused, some work gets done….and then it ends.

However, we ALL KNOW that tomorrow we are doing this meeting again. This is where it gets interesting. The game is just beginning…


Cognitive Recycling

Everyone in the group keeps ‘cycling’ and working in the problem when in the elevator, when commuting home, when winding down at home, AND when sleeping. They “work” on the problem, “back-of-mind”, for 24 hours…even when sleeping. (Participants report dreaming about the work in between meetings.)

They anticipate and expect the next meeting the next day, and because of this, they tend to integrate learning, from the “back-of-mind”,  even when sleeping. They iterate and re-iterate…cycle and recycle…using the unconscious “back of mind”.

The next day, the deeply integrative learning goes to the front-of-mind, where it is accessed and used to advance the task at hand with the group during the meeting. This occurs at every meeting.


Cognitive Recycling and Permaculture

Cognitive Recycling is a way to get people “thinking” 24X7, even while doing other tasks. It leverages your “backchannel” or back-of-mind, by setting up a clear purpose for a meeting, and some anticipation…via a predictable and scheduled rhythm, or cadence.

As a practice it honors several of the 12 permaculture design principles:

  • Catch and store energy;
  • Use and value renewable resources and services;
  • Produce no waste; Use small and slow solutions;
  • Use edges and value the marginal.

My clients report the following:

  • A sense of control, stemming from a set of predictable, short, clear-purpose meetings
  • A sense of progress, stemming from increased daily insights and ‘ahas’
  • A sense of membership in the task at hand
  • Strong feelings of integration and satisfaction with the work and the people doing it with them

Simple Steps for Cognitive Recycling:

To leverage the effects of cognitive recycling, follow these steps:

1. Replace a planned meeting of N hours with N meetings of 1 hour each, on successive days. For example for a 5-hour meeting plan five or 1-hour meetings … on successive days.

2. Schedule the meetings for the same time each day. This is effective, because it establishes the regular period or cadence, which is essential.

Team and organizational learning is NOT randomI teach that we must intend it. Group learning is not automatic. What is nearly automatic is low levels of learning when people gather in groups. Group learning is no accident.

Learning leverage is what you get when you leverage the unconscious processes of the brain. When a group of people actively do this together, leveraging “back-of-mind”, the volume of excellent-quality results can be quite astonishing.

Cognitive Recycling. Give it a try. It’s a technique of  Organizational Permaculture.

(NOTE: This and other strong techniques for group learning are described in detail in my book, THE CULTURE GAME.)


Please investigate and consider joining the Organizational Permaculture Facebook group. In this group on Facebook we are mixing people from the agricultural permaculture movement with folks from organizational development, agile coaching, culture hacking and others tribes who are interested in this concept.