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The Agile Mindset. After 10 years of research on teams what is it?

Everyone wants an agile mindset. No one can truly define it.

I’ve heard executives, leaders and teams claim that they have an agile mindset. When I ask them what does that mean, there’s rarely a time anyone can explain.

A focus on the customer and value?

Agile practitioners could be said to have an agile mindset when they have a focus on the customer and value. I’ve heard many teams claim their customers are happy and they always deliver, but I also know most of these teams only do iterative Waterfall in 3-month blocks. When questioned about their frameworks, practices, building-in quality, and how they know their customers are happy, they immediately push back.

“You’re just being an agile purist”.

“What you don’t understand is …”

The law of the network

I’d expect small teams working as a single network, as Steve Denning calls it, and embrace both cross-functionality and self-management. Yet, many teams I know who call themselves agile have work that frequently “rolls over” from one Sprint to the next. They tend work in functional silos in their agile teams – software developers taking on large batches of work and then, when finished, throw it over the fence to the testers, in rolling waves of work. As a Sprint nears its end, the software developers claim they have no work to do and so take on more work from their Product Backlog.

At least these have a small team of less than 10 people.

teams silos vs network

The law of the small team

The Scrum Guide was updated in November 2020 to now recommend teams of no greater than 10 people. It used to be 7 +/- 2. I’ve not found any magic number, but I have seen what happens when a team gets beyond 10:

  • Longer to agree on estimates of work.
  • Longer time to plan what everyone will do in a Sprint.
  • More overhead of conversation at Daily Scrum to inspect progress toward the Sprint Goal and adapt the Sprint Backlog.
  • Everything just takes longer.

I’ve also seen what happens when a team is very small – just four people, including a part-time Scrum Master and part-time Product Owner. When a very complex piece of work arose, there was simply not enough cross-functionality, alternative ideas, and breadth and depth of experience to solve the problem. They wasted a whole Sprint and got nowhere.

What about the Agile Manifesto and its Principles?

Written in 2001, the Agile Manifesto is a statement of preference with a dozen principles that describe “agile” behaviours. 

agile manifesto 2001

Sustainable pace is one of my favourite principles from the Agile Manifesto. The idea that everyone should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely if they’re being agile is both great from the perspective of supporting teams – don’t burn them out, but also from the perspective of empiricism. If the whole team only work 8 hours a day for 10 days each Sprint, the amount they can actually deliver together per Sprint becomes easy to forecast. 

I don’t know many organisations, though, that support this way of thinking and behaving. Where Deming wanted managers to take ownership of optimising their systems of work and not delegating it, and to improve “constantly and forever”, 21st century managers in the West still manage teams, hand out tasks to individuals, spread people across multiple projects, and operate in silos that reinforce their hierarchical power. Why? Those are the behaviours that saw them promoted. These won’t change quickly, and yet according to Denning if they have an obsession with the customer they’re somehow “agile”, just like Amazon. With Amazon now over working people with 10 hour megashifts, I doubt their commitment to agile principles that are essentially based on Deming’s principles that revolve around respect for people.

 

Look toward behaviours to understand how people think

There’s a whole branch of science dedicated to understanding human behaviour and using it to predict how people think – psychology. The FBI uses it to profile criminals. The Big Five personality trait levels can be predicted on the basis of six different classes of behavioral information collected via smartphones [1].

 

Industrial and organisational studies of human behavior have seen the most practical use of predicting human behaviours. Dr. Charles Tatum of the National University highlights that “We’ve learned to run organisations and manage people to be more productive pretty well. Studies in organisational psychology have given insights into what motivates people in groups. When managers can resist their own notions and embrace the research, human behavior studies can be put to great use in the workplace [2]”. The outcomes that can be created when managers look to the science includes an increase of 15-20% just by moving from traditional manager-led teams to self-managing teams [3].

What the behavioural data tells us about agile mindset

Our decade of research shows four primary behaviours predict an agile mindset in individuals, their teams, and entire programs at scale:

  • Self-organisation.
  • Agile values.
  • Sprinting.
  • Culture of continuous learning.

When these behaviours are strong:

  • Time to pivot decreases from months to as little as 4 weeks [5].
  • The costs of rework, including addressing defects in software, decrease to almost zero.
  • Overtime decreases to almost zero.
  • Time saved from not addressing defects goes into producing more work.
  • Continuous improvement sees red tape removed, decisions made quicker, and teams get smarter about the way they do their work, resulting in double the output in approximately 3-6 months.

With one of the organisations we’ve been coaching, a traditional, large, and often bureaucratic organisation, after 2 years of their agile journey achieved the following outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

ato jobkeeper anao audit findings

Our decade of research shows four primary behaviours predict an agile mindset in individuals, their teams, and entire programs at scale:

  • Self-organisation.
  • Agile values.
  • Sprinting.
  • Culture of continuous learning.

When these behaviours are strong:

  • Time to pivot decreases from months to as little as 4 weeks.
  • The costs of rework, including addressing defects in software, decrease to almost zero.
  • Overtime decreases to almost zero.
  • Time saved from not addressing defects goes into producing more work.
  • Continuous improvement sees red tape removed, decisions made quicker, and teams get smarter about the way they do their work, resulting in double the output in approximately 3-6 months.

If I was to look for evidence of an agile mindset, these would be the things I would be looking for. After researching hundreds of teams across dozens of industries, these behaviours are reflective of an agile mindset. It’s also what the psychological research shows, especially in the area of self-organisation. Self-organising teams when compared to traditional manager-led teams are [3]:

  • More effective.
  • Faster decision-making.
  • Increased productivity 15-20%.
  • Higher quality.
  • Achieve goals more often.
  • Feel more useful.
  • Feel more challenged.
  • Have greater trust.

IQ for humans. Agile IQ for teams, programs and the enterprise.

When you plug-in the behaviours you see in your teams, our Agile IQ model pops out results from of its model that show you the strength of your agile mindset. The model, like complex weather models, with your team data can predict your ability to pivot, strength of agile leadership, and cost savings.

Ultimately, the data shows that leaders who move to supporting self-organisation and cross-functionality in their teams and across their programs have the strongest agile outcomes. I think this says a lot about an agile mindset.

Learn more about Agile IQ.

References

1. Stachl, C., Au, Q., Schoedel, R., Gosling, S. D., and Harari, G. M., et. al. (2020) Predicting personality from patterns of behavior collected with smartphones. PNAS July 28, 2020 117 (30) 17680-17687; first published July 14, 2020. Online at:  https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1920484117

2. Tatum, C. (2020)  Ask an Expert: Is Human Behavior Predictable? Online at: https://www.nu.edu/resources/ask-an-expert-is-human-behavior-predictable/

3. Loerakker, B. and Kirsten van de Grift, K. (2015). The effectiveness of self-managed teams and self-leading teams measured in performance , quality of work life and absenteeism
Online at: https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/The-effectiveness-of-self-managed-teams-and-teams-%2C-Loerakker-Grift/29e29e3f140987bb91669b2bec6c4587406fe89c

4. Dailey, N. (2021) Amazon workers’ group in Chicago demands changes to new 10-hour ‘megacycle’ shift. 4 Feb. Online at: https://www.businessinsider.com/amazon-workers-demand-accommodations-for-megacycle-shift-2021-2?r=AU&IR=T

5. Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) Auditor General Report No 24 2020-21. Performance Audit.

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