Beyond the Hype: Growth Mindset and is it the same as Agile Mindset

Separating Fact from Fiction in the Pursuit of Agile Excellence

Hrishikesh Karekar
7 min readSep 29, 2023

In psychology and education, few concepts have garnered as much attention and praise as the Growth Mindset. Coined by American psychologist Carol Dweck, the idea that one’s intelligence and abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work has become a cornerstone in fostering resilience and a love for learning. The Agile Community has often made Growth Mindset synonymous with Agile Mindset. Whether it is or not is a matter that requires debate. Additionally, like any influential concept, the Growth Mindset has not been immune to scrutiny and its share of criticism. In this blog, we explore these mindsets deeper trying to separate fact from fiction and perceived notions.

Fixed and Growth Mindset

Dweck in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success introduced the concepts of fixed and growth mindsets to elucidate different approaches people have towards learning and intelligence.

In her own words, from an interview in 2012,

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it

A fixed mindset refers to the belief that abilities, intelligence, and talents are fixed traits, set in stone and unalterable. Individuals with a fixed mindset tend to avoid challenges to prevent failure, see effort as fruitless, ignore useful feedback, and feel threatened by the success of others.

On the other hand, a growth mindset is characterized by the belief that intelligence and abilities can be developed through dedication, hard work, learning, and perseverance. Those with a growth mindset embrace challenges as opportunities for growth, see effort as a path to mastery, learn from criticism, and find lessons and inspiration in the success of others. Dweck’s work suggests that individuals can cultivate a growth mindset, leading to greater resilience, motivation, and a passion for continuous learning and improvement.

Is the Agile Mindset the same as Growth Mindset?

The association between the Agile mindset and the Growth Mindset emerged as Agile methodologies gained popularity within the business and software development communities. The Agile mindset, rooted in principles like adaptability, collaboration, and continuous improvement, naturally aligned with the tenets of the Growth Mindset as defined by Dweck.

The Agile community started equating the two by emphasizing shared values such as a willingness to learn from failures, embracing change, and fostering a culture of continuous learning. Agile coaches and practitioners found parallels in the adaptable nature of Agile practices and the growth-oriented philosophy of the Growth Mindset.

However, it’s important to note that while there are overlaps, these mindsets originate from different contexts — Agile primarily from project management and development processes and Growth Mindset from broader psychological perspectives. The equivalence between the two has been a topic of debate, prompting discussions about the appropriateness of directly linking Agile success to the Growth Mindset.

The Rising Popularity of the Growth Mindset (and its Criticism)

The Growth Mindset gained prominence as a powerful tool for cultivating a positive outlook on challenges and setbacks. Encouraging the belief that talents can be developed provided a fresh perspective in educational settings and beyond. The idea quickly permeated classrooms, workplaces, and popular culture, promising a pathway to unlocking untapped potential.

As with any widely embraced concept, criticisms emerged. One major concern revolves around the replicability of studies supporting the Growth Mindset. Researchers have grappled with challenges in replicating findings, raising questions about the robustness and reliability of the underlying psychological construct.

The Scientific Lens

An article published in the Talent Quarterly, Does Growth Mindset Actually Work? (2021) provides an excellent summary of the critical examination of scientific evidence surrounding the growth mindset. The most critical question posed is whether the growth mindset works. Several scientific attempts have failed to replicate claims about its impact. One study even found lower academic performance for a portion of the population studied.

Multiple scientific attempts have failed to replicate Dweck’s and others’ claims about the impact of growth mindset.

A recent study reported on three failed attempts to prove growth mindset works and found lower academic performance for a small portion of the population studied.

A recent experiment comprehensively tested the claims of growth mindset and found they were not supported. The largest correlation the researchers found was in the opposite direction predicted by growth mindset advocates. In that case, “fixed mindset” students performed better after getting negative feedback on a test.

A 2018 meta-analysis found extremely small effects from growth mindset interventions.

Dweck and her coauthors’ 2007 research has been criticized for reporting results that do not meet typical standards of statistical significance. Another one of her recent articles[23] has been strongly criticized by statistics professors for questionable statistical analysis, with one saying that “They’re using statistical methods that are known to be biased . . . they’re using statistical methods that will allow them to find success no matter what.

A recent comprehensive study on growth mindset showed a growth mindset intervention having no effect on the vast majority of students and a minuscule positive effect (0.1 grade points) on a group of low-achieving students.

There’s no science that shows a growth mindset will make someone a higher performer at work. A meta-analysis of “goal orientation” — a concept related to growth mindset — found no positive effects in work settings.

A rare study that included growth mindset in the workplace (but didn’t directly measure its effect) showed it was leaders with fixed mindsets who had meaningfully higher engagement, and the largest improvement in engagement was due to people trying harder, not to having a growth mindset.

The above is as reproduced from the article. For the appropriate references for all of the above, please refer to the same.

While the criticism may sound very convincing, we need to understand and keep in mind the intricate and subjective nature of human behavior and cognition. Understanding and measuring abstract concepts like mindset can be complex, and nuances may not always be fully captured in research methodologies — the original as well as the ones that find gaps in the theory.

Dweck’s Own Reflection

Dweck herself acknowledged the need for ongoing reflection and adjustment in understanding the nuances of the Growth Mindset. As quoted in a Scientific American article, Debate Arises over Teaching “Growth Mindsets” to Motivate Students (2019), Dweck shared her evolving perspective on the Growth Mindset:

“But then we started becoming aware of all the ways that it might be misunderstood or not implemented in a compelling way. One thing we’ve learned in the past five to 10 years is how the nuances matter.”

Dweck’s acknowledgment of the nuances emphasizes the dynamic nature of psychological concepts and the ongoing need for reflection and refinement.

The Agile Mindset and Its Quandary

There has been a tendency to equate the Agile mindset with the Growth mindset. Agile coaches often draw parallels, emphasizing adaptability, continuous improvement, and a willingness to learn from failure. However, caution is warranted in making this direct equivalence.

While both mindsets share certain principles, they operate in different spheres.

The Agile mindset is deeply rooted in project management and development processes or at least it started there or gets mostly applied there (origins in Agile Manifesto which was built for Software Development), focusing on collaboration, iterative cycles, and responsiveness to change.

On the other hand, the Growth Mindset is a broader psychological concept applicable to various aspects of life, emphasizing personal and intellectual development.

Equating the two may oversimplify the unique challenges and requirements of each domain. The pressure to conform Agile practices to a Growth Mindset framework may inadvertently dilute the specific strategies and methodologies that make Agile successful.

The Slippery Road of Agile as a “Mindset” narrative

That’s where it starts to get tricky and ends up on a slippery road. A lot of agile coaches view agile as a “mindset only” change, and the growth mindset fits their narrative perfectly.

The conversation often goes like this:

You want to be agile? It’s simple. Just start believing. You need to move from the fixed mindset to the growth (or agile) mindset, and it's done.

You are struggling with agile or your implementation bears no results. That is because you do not have an agile (growth) mindset.

You will find variations of these all over the internet with people pinning the failures of agile transformation solely on the inability of the leadership or the teams to transition to a growth mindset.

But is it really the case? Is mindset the only barrier to transforming to an agile way of working and thinking?

Overemphasis on the mindset often prevents an objective and impartial exploration of the challenge facing agile transformations and implementations. There are tonnes of other factors at play for transformations to be successful and yield the business outcomes they intended to deliver. Agile mindset is a piece of the puzzle, not the whole picture.

The Need for Nuanced Promotion

Amidst all these debates and critiques, it’s crucial to approach the promotion of the Growth Mindset with nuance, especially equating it directly to the Agile Mindset. While a “can-do” attitude is undoubtedly valuable, it’s essential to acknowledge that certain concepts, like continuous learning and adaptability, don’t always need scientific validation — they are, in many ways, common sense.

Promoting or pushing a Growth Mindset within Agile should involve a balanced perspective, recognizing that while mindset plays a role, it’s not the sole determinant of success. A growth mindset might have some merit. However, blind adherence and overselling the transformative power of a Growth Mindset may lead to disillusionment and apathy.

The Wrap

The Growth Mindset, while transformative, is a concept in flux. Acknowledging its strengths and weaknesses allows for a more comprehensive understanding, paving the way for a constructive and informed discourse on the role of mindset in human development and prompting a careful reconsideration of its direct association with the Agile mindset. The need for nuanced promotion within the Agile community becomes paramount, ensuring a realistic and balanced approach to mindset adoption.

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