Structure Influences Behavior: 2 Pennies

Structure Influences Behavior: 2 Pennies

One of the most powerful insights from the field of Systems-Thinking is, “Structure Influences Behavior”. 

Yes, and AGILE structure influences AGILE behavior!  Here’s one of my favorite examples:


2 Pennies.


This is an exercise I usually do over the evening dinner in between the 2 days of a retreat.  Give everyone 2 pennies (in the photo above it was a 50 cent coin in Haiti) and ask them to “go spend a penny” with 2 people that evening who they don’t know well and/or don’t have a comfortable relationship with.

Here’s the process:

  1. They present the coin to the person they want to say something to.
  2. That is the signal to that person receiving the coin to quiet themselves. They don’t do anything else. Nothing more. Period. In so doing, they create the time and space for the person giving the coin to say what they want to say.
  3. The person giving the coin then speaks the “strength centered comment” they wanted to speak … a strength, quality, attribute they noticed during a specific incident when the receiver of the coin said something (or didn’t say something), did something (or didn’t do something) or handled something a certain way. Most crucially, its not a generalization, a platitude or flattery and the easiest way to avoid the risk of that is to speak to a specific incident (when this happened, you said/didn’t say (which it would have been so easy to say) did/didn’t do (which it would have been so easy to do) handled it a certain way/didn’t handle it a different way (which it would have been so easy to do).
  4. When the giver has finished, the receiver says, “thank you”. Nothing more. Period.
  5. When you receive coins, what should you do with them? Reinvest them! Thinking of others you can give them to for whom you can give strength centered comments based upon a significant incident. If you will look around the team, you can always surface a significant incident for more people from which you can deduce a strength centered comment. Its that normally we don’t bother, because we are moving too fast, we don’t appreciate the value impact it has and the return-on-investment it creates.

So that’s how the process unfolds.  By the way, I normally pocket a handful of coins, so that I never run out. I want to be able to give a lot, with no expectation of receiving any. That way, I can be a first mover to get the process started. People see me giving coins and so a few others follow and the snowball effect grows from there. Whenever I see if slowing, I do another round to get it rolling again. I might do 3 or 4 rounds of an evening as we progress through dinner proceedings.

The following morning we debrief as part of the recap & review to start that day. I ask people:

  • How was that experience with the coins yesterday evening?
  • What was it like to receive?
  • What was it like to give?

Invariably, people loved it. They talk about how enriching it was to receive, which they rarely do. They talk even more about how much more enriching it was to give, which they rarely do. They talk about how they started to bond some relationships they don’t normally invest in. They talk about how much more appreciation they have for each other. They talk about how they appreciate feeling so much more part of the fabric of a team.

Then I ask them, why did I give them the 2 pennies? Why didn’t I just explain what I wanted them to do, which I could have done without needing to give them the 2 pennies. Why did I go the extra step of giving them the 2 pennies? This usually takes a while, but we get around to the point that “structure influences behavior”. The 2 pennies were a “structure” which influenced their behavior. If I hadn’t given them the 2 pennies, the likelihood is that they would not have done what I had asked them to do. They would have forgotten about it. Instead, when they went back to their rooms to get changed, as they emptied their pockets of their keys and wallet etc, they were reminded of the 2 pennies and probably put them in the same place. As they gathered their wallet and keys to go out again they were reminded of the 2 pennies and took them with them.


In the absence of the 2 pennies, this probably wouldn’t have happened.


As the evening got started they saw me presenting pennies to some individuals. The pennies made it visible. In the absence of the pennies it would have been invisible. It would have looked like I was just mingling and having ad-hoc conversation.  As others followed my lead, it was increasingly visible and the snowball effect kicked in. Whenever it slowed, they saw me again in a very visible way, to restart it and keep it going.


In the absence of the 2 pennies, this probably wouldn’t have happened.


The presence of pennies jangling in their pockets was a physical reminder that they needed to make some investments, in particular if they had been receiving some. The pennies made a market, which was self-sustaining to some degree, in particular when I injected some new liquidity into the market, resulting in positivity and appreciation flowing.

Micro cash-flow caused conversation-flow!  When I ask people, what did it cost you to give appreciation? They answer, “a penny”, i.e next to nothing!  When I ask them, what was the value of giving appreciation? They answer, “enormous”, enriching the receiver and even more so the giver. In other words, when I ask  people, what was the ROI (Return on Investment). They answer, “huge”. And yet, in our normal day to day flow, we don’t do this, typically, do we? With which there is typically universal agreement.

All facilitated by the simplicity of 2 pennies! The pennies were an elegantly simple “structure” influencing behavior. Most agree, without the structure of the pennies, the behavior of participating in the exercise would have been at a very low level and probably faded to nothing very quickly.  With the structure of the pennies the behavior of participating in the exercise was so much higher and snowballed.

In the absence of the 2 pennies, this probably wouldn’t have happened.

Structure influences behavior!  AGILE structures influence AGILE behaviors. The pennies are an example of an AGILE structure. Something incredibly simple, cheap and readily available (we are surrounded by them) which can facilitate a snowball effect of behaviors in an AGILE way, easy, fast and big.

Breakthrough stuff. 

So next time you are suffering wheel-spin with a breakthrough project. Pause, reflect and seek an AGILE structure which can facilitate AGILE behaviors with a snowball effect.


About Mike Richardson

Agility-Facilitator/Mentor/Coach; Agility-Author/Speaker; Agility-Board-Member/Chairman. All-round Agility Activist in everything I do, every day, everywhere, in every way. Provocative, Profound, Practical. At Eye-Level. With Love/Hate!

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