Agile Mindset is a term that has been bantered around the Agile community quite a bit. It’s a nebulous, intangible term that describes a value or behavior necessary for the success of Agile methodology, transformation, process, and practices. Let me try to explain my assessment of what an Agile mindset means and how to recognize it.
Try to think back to when you were first learning something, like making your first scrambled egg. I remember having to repeat the procedure again and again until I finally got it right. Eggs were crushed, dropped, and sometimes catapulted before I accomplished that first effortless crack of an egg without dropping any shell into the mixing bowl. I had to learn how much milk was the right amount to add to make my scrambled eggs just fluffy enough; first by measuring it and then by “feel.” As time wore on, I was able to ready to adapt my technique and add cheese or veggies to the eggs. Today I can make delicious scrambled eggs that my family loves even before I have my first cup of coffee in the morning. It comes naturally. But to get to that point, I had to try and fail. I had to learn from my mistakes and adapt my methods to get closer to a more satisfactory result. In essence, I became “Agile.”
Having an Agile mindset applies as much to making perfect scrambled eggs as it does to software development. It just means that you are ready and willing to learn throughout your life from your own experiences, both positive and negative, and from the experiences of those around you. An important element of an Agile mindset is an individual’s willingness to deal with failure by learning from it and changing how things are done so as not to repeat the failure. Remember, the definition of insanity is continuing to do the same things over and over expecting a different result; the proverbial head beating against the wall. A person with an Agile mindset embraces challenges rather than avoiding them with the understanding that failure does not define. In fact, it provides important information that we need to succeed.
Jim Highsmith wrote an article for the Agile Alliance in 2001 about the history of the Agile Manifesto. He explained all the steps taken by a group of six individuals in a mountain cabin and their efforts to formulate a Manifesto for Agile Software Development. This Manifesto has become the foundation upon which all Agile activities have been formulated and supported. But the Manifesto was not just about software development or methodology. It was about what Bob Martin, a contributor to the Manifesto, calls the “mushy” stuff; “about delivering good products to customers by operating in an environment that does more than talk about ‘people as our most important asset’ but actually acts as if people were the most important, and lose the word ‘asset.’ So in the final analysis, the meteoric rise of interest in—and sometimes tremendous criticism of—Agile Methodologies is about the mushy stuff of values and culture.”
For me, the center of the “mushy” stuff will always be people and the intrinsic values they bring to what they want to accomplish in life. It can be difficult to measure these values, much the same as determining an agile mindset can be subjective and arbitrary. But it’s worth it.
Highsmith also gave an example of the standard “fixed” process mindset that Ken Beck described when a 6-week, two-person development estimate turned into a 12-week, one-person actual development effort. Beck was lectured by his manager on how slow he was. This was causing Beck to feel like he was a terrible programmer until he realized his initial estimate was spot on. This example demonstrates how broken a “fixed” process is because it does not factor in the “mushy” stuff.
Comparisons between fixed and Agile characteristics were described well in a keynote presentation by Linda Rising for the Agile Arizona Organization in 2011.
Ability – fixed, like height
Ability – can grow, like muscle
Challenge - avoid
Challenge - embrace
Effort - for those with no talent
Effort - path to mastery
Goal – look good
Goal - learn
Failure - defines identity
Failure – provides information
Reaction to challenge - helplessness
Reaction to challenge – resilience
Rising demonstrates the intrinsic things that happen when an Agile mindset is set to lose. There are numerous psychological studies on the human mind that cover some of these characteristics, such as nature versus nurture studies on behavior, how praise or punishment affects future self-worth and research conducted by Carol Dweck, PhD., on the effect of the fixed versus growth (Agile) mindset on success. Dr. Dweck described how many people believe that their basic traits such as intelligence and talent are fixed. Some people prescribe to the growth or Agile model where their abilities and talents could be improved or changed based on their willingness to learn and their tenacity to accomplish a goal.
When applying an Agile mindset to the business world, we may experience a complex challenge. For example, perhaps you personally have an Agile mind, but you are in an organization that does not do business in an Agile way. Perhaps the organization has ingrained methods of traditional project management with command and control attributes, and project over people tendencies; quite a combination of obstacles for an agile mind to handle. My first reaction if I were in such an organization would be to update my resume and find a job that would better fit my open, Agile mind.