Agile is a mindset. Agile is behaviour.

Ahmed Sidkey’s agile mindset image is one I remember fondly when I was presenting at the Agile Alliance conference 2014 in Florida USA. Sidkey depicted a continuum from values to principles and practices.

After seeing it again a few years later when I was presenting at the Agile NZ 2016 conference, and looking at it’s linear flow, I’m now not so sure.

I’ve recently talked with some people across a large program who are now focussing on being agile. I think it’s amazing that they are considering what it means to be truly agile so early in their agile evolution, rather than turning agile frameworks into yet another mindless, follow the proverbial bouncing ball, process and methodology. This form of doing agile, turning it into yet another corporate process, just doesn’t reap any significant benefits in my experience.

An Agile mindset is the combinations of actions and behaviours that result in an agile culture. Encompasses  values, principles, and a disciplined focused approach to using the agile framework as part of contemporary way of working. It is a shift from linear plan driven ways of working towards an adaptive, value driven, customer centric approach.

This mindset is the environment within which agile teams flourish. It isn’t a prerequisite for an agile adoption, nor is it required for a functional agile team. But if this mindset is cultivated and nourished, the teams (and therefore the company) will experience amazing results – happy employees delivering great value and making customers elated with the results.

How to you measure Agile Mindset?

Agile IQ® assesses software and non-software teams on both their actions and behaviours.

But as I dug deeper into what people were doing when they said they were being agile, I’ve found the strangest things:

  • Scrum is too hard, so we’ll just say “we’re being agile” and everything will be ok.
  • We’ll reinforce we’re being pragmatic about its use and we “take what works”, even though we have no real experience to base our judgement on “what works”.
  • Being agile is somehow superior to doing agile, so I’m better than you.
  • Agile has too many meetings, so I’ll just say we’re “being agile” and that will excuse us from being in Sprint Planning or going to the Daily Scrum.

Ultimately, most often, what was being heralded as an Agile Mindset was really an excuse not to change the way they worked. They labelled things as “agile” without actually exhibiting any of the expected behaviours.

The strange push of this Agile Mindset phenomenon seemed to fast becoming the Descartes of agile: “I think I am agile, therefore I am”.

Perhaps it was just positive thinking. Maybe if they thought they were agile then they would be agile. 

“The problem with positive thinking is when it disconnects you from reality. If you have achieved your goals in your mind’s eye, studies show you are less likely to consider the concrete actions you need to take and the possible obstacles in the way.”

– Samantha Bordman, M.D. “Positive Thinking? Overrated

In behavioural psychology, we see values, motivations, and intent manifest as action. When these two conflict, we see cognitive dissonance and subsequent action to remove it be changing our minds about an issue or changing our behaviour so the two are in alignment. So, if someone claims to have an agile mindset, and proclaims they are being agile, what sort of behaviours should we expect?

Zen Ex Machina's Agile Mindset - actions and behaviours

If people truly had an agile mindset, I would expect to see:

  • Teams exhibiting Lean thinking of respect for people and removing waste.
  • Real empiricism over showcases at Sprint Review or navel gazing at Retrospectives.
  • User-centred and value-centred focus in Development Teams over UX people working as a separate team or in isolation a Sprint-ahead.
  • Scrum’s values of trust, transparency, inspection, adaption and empiricism in people using Kanban, not just using the easy aspects of visual management.

Agile mindset is nothing without behaviour. To have an agile mindset means living the values through action. Don’t make it an excuse just to tick the box.

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