Agility: It’s a mindset, not a process

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When you ask someone to explain you agile product development, you’ll most likely get a description of Scrum or one of the other agile frameworks. Those, however, are only the tip of the iceberg that agility is. In this article, I invite you to dive deep into the icy waters for an in-depth view of one of the foundations of the iceberg: the agile mindset.

The agile mindset is best understood by contrasting it with its opposite, the fixed mindset. This has been done beautifully by Linda Rising in her presentation “The Agile Mindset”, on which the following description is based (1).

The Fixed Mindset

If you adhere to the fixed mindset, you see your ability as a static property, which you cannot change. Do you remember those kids in school that would always say “Oh, I’m just not intelligent enough for math”? That’s the fixed mindset speaking here.

Coming from a fixed mindset, you don’t consider yourself able to change your abilities. You define your identity based on your current abilities. Your goal then becomes to look good with your fixed set of abilities. Failure is something you fear, because it directly impacts your self-esteem. Your worth is based on a fixed set of your abilities, after all. You avoid challenges and if you can’t avoid them, you quickly retreat into helplessness. You see effort as only for those with no talent. You see yourself as gifted for some tasks and unable regarding other tasks.

The Agile Mindset

If you adhere to the agile mindset, you see your ability as a dynamic property, which you can grow. Just like muscles grow when you exercise, you know that your abilities grow as well when you train them. Speaking from an agile mindset, you may say “Oh, this mathematics course is challenging! I’ll have to put in more effort to learn that”.

Coming from an agile mindset, you see yourself able to extend your competences. You don’t define your identity based on your current abilities, because you see those only as a snapshot of your ever-evolving set of skills. Your goal then becomes to learn and improve your abilities. Failure is a chance to learn for you and doesn’t impact your self-esteem. You embrace challenges, because they allow you to have new experiences and hone your skills. You react to challenges with an increased resilience and see effort as the path to mastery. You see yourself as gifted with a set of passions and interests, which lead you on your way of learning and growth.

The Connection between Agile Product Development and the Agile Mindset

Agile Product Development is based on taking challenges, creating products or offering services, collecting feedback and learning from your successes and failures to improve. By making your current abilities and impediments transparent, inspecting your processes and results and adapting them as needed, you walk the path towards mastery through continuous growth.

You cannot do this when the people on your team have a fixed mindset, because a fixed mindset lets people hide impediments and problems, discourages them from taking effort towards improvement and makes them shy away from taking challenges. It also impacts the work results your team members achieve.

Influencing Mindsets

You may wonder now if your mindset is fixed or if it can be influenced. If you are an agile coach you may also ask yourself how you may influence the mindset of your coachees. This has been experimentally researched by Mueller and Dweck (2).

Mueller and Dweck studied fifth-graders, whom they divided into two groups. Both groups started the experiment by taking an easy test. After the test, each student got the feedback that she had done very well on the test. The students in the first group were praised for their ability (“You must be smart at these problems”). The students in the second group were praised for their effort (“You must have worked hard at these problems”).

This small variation sufficed to prime the first group of students towards the fixed mindset and the second group of students towards the agile mindset. This could be seen by the following experimental results:

  • Being asked if they wanted a more difficult test where they would learn a lot or another easy test, 90 % of the “agile” group chose to take the more difficult test. About 80 % of the “fixed” group chose to take another easy test.
  • Facing a very difficult exam, most of the “agile” kids worked hard and enjoyed the challenge, while the “fixed” kids were easily discouraged.
  • Being asked whether they wanted to see the exams of those who did better or the exams of those who did worse, the “agile” group chose to see the exams of those better than themselves, while the “fixed” group chose to see the exams of those worse than themselves. The “agile” group wanted to learn from those who were better. The “fixed” group wanted to feel good by comparing themselves to others who were worse.
  • Taking another easy test at the end, the “agile” kids improved their score by about 30 % compared to the initial test. The “fixed” kids worsened their score by about 20 %.
  • Being asked to write a letter to other students giving advice concerning the test, the “agile” group gave lots of advice and encouragement. The “fixed” group gave little to no advice. Additionally, about 40 % of the “fixed” kids lied about their scores and made themselves look better than they were.

As this experiment shows, even small interventions towards one or the other mindset can radically impact the mindset of a person and influence their behavior and results. Whenever you focus on abilities as fixed and static, you prime yourself or someone else towards the fixed mindset. Whenever you focus on the effort and the work done towards improving abilities and solving challenges, you prime towards the agile mindset.

Applying the Agile Mindset in your work

But how can you work towards building an agile mindset as an individual, coach or organization? The following lists give you some ideas:

Practical Implications of the Agile Mindset for Developers

  • have the courage to work on problems outside of your comfort zone in order to master your craft.
  • be open about the things you don’t already know which can help you accelerate your growth.
  • focus on becoming better, instead of just trying to make your current performance look good.
  • respect the results of everyone’s hard work, done at their current level of experience.
  • commit yourself to a path of continuous learning and growth, instead of arranging yourself in your current situation and capabilities.

Practical Implications of the Agile Mindset for Agile Coaches

  • have the courage to acknowledge to yourself the areas in which you still need to grow to be a better agile coach.
  • be open about your mistakes, share them with the team, and explain to them that you grow; be a role model for the agile mindset you believe in.
  • focus on praising effort, strategies and process instead of expertise or intelligence.
  • respect that it takes time and effort to adapt the agile mindset; don’t expect your coachees to understand it without experiencing it; help them discover the possibility of growth to start them up on their journey.
  • commit to embracing failure, live and teach that it is a way to learn and improve.

Practical Implications of the Agile Mindset for Organizations

  • have the courage to let your employees try out new things, even if they fail along the way.
  • be open about your company’s history; remind your employees how today’s situation is the result of the company’s growth, which was made possible by the effort and the energy everyone put in and also by the learnings taken from failures.
  • focus on the agile attitude instead of expertise when hiring.
  • respect the current capabilities of your employees and at the same time help them see who they can become by having high expectations of what they can accomplish when they passionately grow and learn.
  • commit to supporting your employees in every way possible when they want to reach a goal; even if it means that they will eventually break out of their former roles.

Literature

(1) Rising, Linda (2012). The Agile Mindset. Agile Mindset (Slides); Agile Mindset (Youtube Video)

(2) Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 33-52. Study (PDF)

Patrick von Steht

Patrick von Steht has been working as a devops engineer for codecentric for more than two years. In addition to his technical knowledge he always contributes a good share of benevolence and passion to improve himself and his team to his projects.

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