Exploring Agile, Part II

Published

March 28, 2019

The first part of this article has been an exploration of Agile from different perspectives, concluding that many are doing Agile by focussing on specific frameworks or practices. It also briefly touched upon the holistic perspective on Agile where a shift in mindset is considered the ultimate goal.

To read the first part of this article, click here.

Truly agile organizations are increasingly described as being agile as opposed to doing Agile. They are described as having a so-called agile mindset. But what does this really mean?

There are two definitions that offer an interesting description of the agile mindset:

By comparing these two definitions, we can identify three typical characteristics that describe an Agile organization.

Organizations that have adopted an Agile mindset typically have:

  1. A different way of interacting with their customer
  2. A different way of organizing the people they employ and
  3. A different approach to improving and learning.

A different way of interacting with their customer Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

A different way of interacting with their customer

The Law of the Customer, one of Steve Denning’s Three laws of the Agile mindset describes how some organizations are obsessed with delivering value to its customers and how all of their efforts are aligned towards that goal. Instead of focussing on outputs measured through productivity, agile organizations tend to have a focus on outcomes measured through customer satisfaction.

In his Definition of the Agile Mindset, Simon Powers talks about The Complexity Belief. Fundamental to this belief is the assertion that Agile is solving problems in the complex domain. An important attribute of solving complex adaptive problems (when developing software, changing a culture) is that the end solution is not predictable at the outset.

Organizations that embrace agile through the complexity belief will typically align all of their customer interactions in accordance with this belief. This might involve:

  • Increasing transparency by making conscious choices in their approach to selling, contracting and planning (expectation setting).
  • Have a company-wide capability and willingness to continuously educate their client on specific behaviours or patterns and the beneficial or detrimental effects on Agility.


A different way of organising people
Photo by Helena Lopes from Pexels

A different way of organizing people

Fundamental to the second characteristic of the Agile Mindset is the realization that traditional organizational structures and management approaches (inherited from as far back as Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management principles) are now forming barriers that prevent organizations from upgrading to a way of working better fit for modern-world business challenges. To overcome these barriers, organizations have started to “flatten” their organizational structures and re-define their approach to management, moving from a formalized hierarchy of authority to a more organic hierarchy of competence distributed over a network of small autonomous teams and moving their focus away from micro-managing people towards cultivating a culture of trust that allows for self-management to evolve. These extreme opposites in management approach are illustrated in the infographic below.

From neo-Taylorism to an organic network of teams
From neo-Taylorism to an organic network of teams.

In his definition of the Agile Mindset, Steve Denning refers to these changes in organizational structure as The Law of the small team and The Law of the network. Additional noteworthy resources on these topics include General Stanley McChrystal’s Team of Teams and Jurgen Appelo’s Management 3.0.

Merely aiming for a less hierarchical organizational structure doesn’t necessarily make an organisation more agile. Management approach, or better, leadership behaviour, has a massive influence on building a culture where a truly Agile Mindset can become the norm. Adopting agility starts with individuals and behaviours, not processes or practices (it’s called a mindset for a reason).

Simon Powers in his definition of the Agile Mindset refers to these aspects as The People Belief:

Given the right environment (safety, respect, diversity and inclusion) and a motivating purpose, it is possible for trust and self-organisation to arise. For this to happen, it is necessary to treat everyone with unconditional positive regard.

Nowadays, more than ever before, professionals want to find meaning and motivational purpose in their work and expect to be empowered and trusted by their employer. The largest generation in the workforce will soon be represented by millennials having grown up in a social media-centred gig economy. This has started a shift in people’s perception of employment and career succes, leaving traditional companies struggling to keep up in attracting and retaining highly talented employees.

Learn from failure Photo by Jose Silva from Burst

A different approach to improving and learning

Powers refers to this as The Proactive Belief and describes it as Proactivity in the relentless pursuit of improvement.

Many Agile frameworks are built around the idea of continuous improvement (Scrum pillars of empiricism, Kaizen, Deming Cycle).

When solving complex problems, inspection of both process and outcome should have continuous focus. This inspection can take many forms, from collecting and analysing data, to user testing or retrospectives on group collaboration. Valuable improvements can only be made with learnings from these inspections.

Individuals with an Agile Mindset are typically:

  • demonstrating a natural curiosity and an openness to learn and experience
  • comfortable with being honest about what they don’t know
  • showing an undogmatic attitude and pragmatic approach towards processes, practices, and tools
  • comfortable with constructive disagreement and feedback
  • considering failure to offer a learning opportunity
  • considering innovation to be a survival tool, not a risk

The Holistic Perspective

Having an Agile Mindset could be described as having a Holistic perspective on agile. All collective and individual actions, approaches, practices, interactions and conversations are aligned with agile values and principles that are natural to the Agile Mindset.

The image below shows an adaptation of the popular “Agile Onion” metaphor, representing the different layers of Agility.

The Agile Onion Marc Bruisten The Agile Onion - Marc Bruisten

Can an Agile Mindset be adopted?

Most organisations that are new to Agile will struggle in their journey towards “becoming agile”. There might be a lack of understanding of what truly makes organizations agile. (it’s usually not what they think). Their association with agile is often limited to the shiny outer layers of the Agile onion. In this layer, we can find processes, tools and practices that are typically very easy to learn but very difficult to master.

Most organizations get stuck in trying to reach the deeper layers of the Agile onion. Experienced Agile practitioners with a deep understanding of the underpinning principles and values of Agile practices can support the organisation in their adoption of an Agile Mindset, provided that their roles are well understood and not obstructed by micro-management.

An Agile mindset can surely be adopted but the journey is far from easy and impossible to predict. It almost always requires abandoning old ways of doing and thinking. It starts with people, not processes.

Let’s conclude the article with this great quote from Gunther Verheyen’s book, “Scrum — A Pocket Guide (A Smart Travel Companion)”, 2013:

Agility can’t be planned

Agility can’t be dictated

Agility has no end-state

If you haven't already, don't forget to check out the first part of this article, 'Exploring Agile, Part I'.

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