Is Agile struggling because “they” don’t have the agile mindset? 3 Questions to uncover the truth
Mindset, or rather a lack of it, is often cited as the core reason that Agile implementations struggle. Well, they “never fail” technically — at least on the PowerPoint. However, there is no agility. The situation pre and post-transformation is more or less the same — with new terminologies inducted and everyone around cribbing that we have everything except the “agile mindset”.
What is mindset?
Oxford defines mindset as — the established set of attitudes held by someone: It further defines attitude as a settled way of thinking or feeling about something.
So the mindset is essentially a way of thinking or feeling ingrained in a particular person and is very personal. However, those ways of thinking or feeling often depend on the context, the people, the situation and other factors that influence it.
Though it may not be the perfect one, I like to use the word “the place” to define this space from which a person operates. It is taking inspiration from Dave Snowden’s work on the Cynefin framework. The place is more than just the situation or people we work with. How we are as a person, our core beliefs, rationality, impressions, and past experiences influence how we perceive the place. Our reactions, especially when they are not in line with how other people expected them to, get often branded as “not having the right mindset.”
They don’t have the Agile mindset.
We often hear scrum masters and agile coaches complain that scrum or agile generally is not working in their environment because the leadership or team is not supportive or exhibiting the right agile mindset. If only the leader would think agile, they say, all our problems will vanish, and we would be successful.
But is it really so?
While there are definitely situations where I was stuck with a few difficult leaders or teams, more often, the issue has not been of “mindset”. During my initial coaching days, I often discovered this in retrospect because I, like most other agile coaches, hastily jumped to the “mindset” conclusion whenever there was pushback to change.
Little did I realise during those formative years that I was often operating from a high ground expecting them to be enlightened quickly to the wisdom of the agile manifesto or the scrum guide. How hard would it be to get those values and principles? They seem pretty obvious and logical.
Life though is a beautiful teacher and after having had the opportunity to be part of several transformations, my perspective is quite different. So now, whenever a scrum master or agile coach cribs about the “mindset” issue, I ask the following three questions:
1. Whose mindset is the issue?
Do you as a coach listen to the people — the leadership and the teams you claim are not exhibiting the agile mindset? How well do you understand the context and the people? Could it be that you, not them, operates with linear and biased thinking? Have you already formed an opinion of the leadership or team based on your experiences or others’ viewpoints?
So first and foremost, the scrum master/coach needs to build an objective and impartial analysis of the situation to see if their biases, likings and dislikings, and behavioural patterns are not causing them to arrive at the assumption that the leadership/team don’t have the right mindset.
Getting those clouds out of our heads as coaches is the first step toward solving the mindset issue.
2. Is mindset the issue?
Is mindset the root cause, or are real systemic challenges preventing the leadership or team from moving forward? Have you, as the scrum master or coach, tried to uncover them. The system is often complex, and there are causal relationships at play. Using techniques like causal loop diagrams and others to understand and map aspects of the behaviour and their interrelationship is crucial. Mindset could be the culprit, but it is rarely the only problem.
People’s mindsets are not absolute. They emerge from “the place” they are in, the system they operate in.
Digging deeper and uncovering variables rather than pinning them down only on mindset could be far more fruitful in your search to discover the root cause. Often we see scrum getting forced down on contexts more suitable to flow-oriented — kanban-based approaches (or vice versa). The IT wants to become agile, but the business does not want to be a part of the dance and still operate in the mode of — take my requirements and just get them done. Getting to the root of the real systemic issues is crucial.
Additionally, concluding that mindset is the only or biggest challenge often results in people giving up attempts at interventions. Mindset indeed can be a tricky thing to change, anyway. Given that most scrum masters and coaches operate in environments where they don’t have enough empowerment, even enabling a process change is not trivial. So the mindset change seems a very uphill task and results in the scrum master/coach often giving up in despair.
Going beyond the surface to look for systemic challenges that could be real dealbreakers is more helpful than cribbing about mindset — which often is a symptom, not the disease.
3. What are you doing about the mindset issue?
In the rare possibility that the root cause is a difficult or problematic leader or team who does not want to change, what are our options? Sermonising will not change them, nor will pushing them through hours of training or certification programs have much impact.
The Diffusions of Innovations curve is one of the tools that could help calibrate our response in such a situation. Most likely, the leader is not an early adopter. But where is the organisation in terms of the transformation? Is it in the early stages, or several teams and leaders have already transformed and made the journey? If the organisation is in the early stages, it would be far more difficult to “crack the puzzle” for this leader, and they are better left alone, and we come back to them after we have had some successes with some others who have an “early adopter” disposition. Otherwise, it is only going to drain energy from the transformation program.
If that is not an option, the best shot is to bring the wisdom from their peers and colleagues to give a fair try at it. Escalation is a strict no as it complicates matters more than it solves in these situations.
Working with the leader or team and nudging them to be more open to the agile ways of working instead of expecting them to make an overnight shift often helps them get started on the journey.
Mindset can be the issue, but let us not be hasty to conclude it is. An objective and impartial exploration of the challenge and treating it as a “change management” issue rather than a “behavioural” mindset issue might put us on a better path to success.