Becoming Agile: Mindsets over Process

Agile transformation must be mindset driven, not process oriented

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Throughout my career as an org transformation consultant, I’ve spoken to many senior leaders who want their teams to be more agile. They wan’t their teams to work more like the ‘Silicon Valley’ startup instead of the top-down bureaucratic office of the 20th century. There are also countless leaders who are convinced that “agile could never work here” but aren’t exactly sure why. Generally, when leaders think of agile they imagine the scrappy software development teams inside tech giants like Facebook, Apple, and Amazon. However, many leaders and teams across non-technical organizations are adopting agile. So if they’re not developing software, what is it that they’re asking for? 

There are many opinions about what is ‘agile’ and what it isn’t. Many believe it’s a process for how teams work together or mange projects; but originally, agile ideals were drafted as a manifesto created in 2001 that gave a number of guides and principles about how to develop software. The intention was to create a common ground among the existing frameworks for software development including, most notably, Scrum and Kanban. Even after all of these years, the original website still exists and the original manifesto hasn’t changed much. 

So how can we bring agile principles into the everyday workplace — the fashion designers, chefs, bankers, healthcare service providers, and product creators? In this article, I will share lessons around the critical mindset shifts that are have helped large organizations agile principles stick.

There’s no one-size fits all solution

There are consulting firms that will absolutely train people inside of organizations to be Scrum Masters or Agile Coaches; however, most organizations won’t need this level of specificity for the work their doing. Advocates of Scrum and other frameworks will exclaim, “well, that’s faux agile!” unless you’re following their processes to the book. Those same advocates will also blame failure of teams to embrace these processes on their inablility to follow the processes. As you can imagine, teams and organizations under pressure to follow the rulesand make it stick, get frustrated and abandon agile. 

I believe, despite the naysayers, agile is truly a philosophy that can be adopted inside of any team and any organization. It doesn’t have to be a rigid process, but it should help teams achieve focus, boost creativity, improve employee engagement, and drive to better outcomes faster. Instead of focusing on processes within teams, adopting agile principles must start with new mindsets that encourage a cultural shift that embrace uncertainty and adaptability.

Agile isn’t new

Embracing agile inside of our workplaces isn’t new. The principles outlined in the Agile Manifesto come from the basic theory of the scientific method that was used hundreds of years before the 21st century tech revolution, beginning with Aristotle and being formalized by Galileo. Agile principles and the scientific method have many tenets in common: 

  • Start simple and build knowledge as you go,

  • Do small experiments and learn from trial and error,

  • Track metrics to know if you’re on the right track,

  • Pause to reflect on what you’ve learned, then adapt new features or experiments to try going forward

Simply put, being more agile means most teams and organizations will need to think like scientists. This requires experimenting frequently and often, learning and creating the best solutions based on real data (not just targets), embracing failure, and providing teams with the autonomy (and trust) to make decisions on their own based on their expertise and proximity to the work. 

Start by starting, then codify new processes

Becoming more agile means most organizations will need to embrace a cultural shift. Changing culture is hard, it takes time, and it doesn’t happen by simply changing project management processes. Transforming an organization’s culture requires a change in mindsets among teams and it must begin with leadership.

Leadership’s role in cultural transformation requires setting the vision and objectives, showing teams examples what goodlooks like, sharing success stories widely and often, and allowing teams to become more agile in their own way

This isn’t an invitation for an “anything goes strategy” but it doesn’t force a process from the start. This allows teams to do their own experimenting and learning about how agile principles work best in their own projects or business units. Once teams have found something that works for them, then, together, teams and leadership can agree and govern new processes that can be spread across a business unit or the organization. 

Fundamental mindset shifts

Whether you are a leader of a business unit, the leader of your project team, or a team member looking to try new agile ways of working, here are 6 mindset shifts that you can start with today to get on your way. 

Bias for action. From asking your team to spend months developing a clear predicted project plan tostarting with a clear vision allowing the team to get starting by making small steps toward that goal as they go. Don’t throw out planning, just don’t spend too much time on planning. Have you ever taken weeks or a few months creating a project plan that the team never changed once? Exactly! Get something down and get going on the work. 

Safe to try. From waiting until your team has the perfect idea or solution to test with stakeholders and customers tomaking progress and finding what ideas or solutions are “safe to try” that wont cause harm to the business or the brand. When teams aren’t sure how to proceed or are stuck on a decision they get stuck in the “analysis paralysis” of what’s the right thing to do next. By deciding what is safe to try or can keep the team moving forward, teams can make progress even if the next step isn’t the perfect solution. Leadership must become the enabler in these tricky sitations. When a team is stuck, help them get unblocked by providing institutional knowledge or experience that could get the team going again.

Learn as you go. From awkward “post-mortem” sessions at the end of a project that teams tend avoid topausing and reflecting on what’s working and what can be improved regularly throughout the project so that team’s know what to do differently in order to create a better solution. Schedule a 30-minute team meeting at least once per month and reflect using these 3 questions: “what worked? where did we get blocked? what might we do differently?” Framing the questions in this way allows teams to focus on the work and avoid the finger pointing and blaming that happens in a post-mortem.

Meet with purpose. From status meetings and stakeholder one-off “check-ins” that distract the team from doing work to only scheduling meetings that have a clear purpose and intention (e.g. prioritize, make, decide, demo or learn) that keep the team focused and on task. As a leader, allow your teams to thrive with less meetings and less meeting prep. Avoid asking for lengthy beatiful slide decks or agenda prep. Keep meetings short and focused and let your teams get back to work.

Work in progress. From endless 1:1 reviews with managers and lengthly pauses between deliverable deadlines tosharing work openly and frequently to invite continual feedback and avoiding “grand reveals.” Another shift for leadership involves giving clear and direct feedback to teams and allowing messy, scrappy, v1s to be ok throughout the project. Avoid feedback that starts with: “Have you considered…, I think you should try…, I have a feeling that…”Instead try feedback that starts with: Based on the data…, The feedback from customers suggests…, Let’s experiment with…”

Experiment and iterate. From discussing what might be the best solution and putting all our energy and resources into what we think will be right to making small bets by experimenting (mock-ups, prototypes, MVPs, etc) and testing with stakeholders or real customers to be able to continually iterate. We could spend months or even years coming up with a what we think is a the best solution for our customers, but we won’t know what actually will work until our test our hypotheses with out customers . The more opportunities for feedback we get the better our final solution will be. Leaders must allow failure to be part of the new working culture.