Those who have adopted an Agile way of working, either at the delivery level or across the organisation, would be fairly familiar with “doing agile”. That is, the use of a delivery framework for iterative and incremental product and service delivery. But potentially unaware of the benefits of “being agile”, that refers to a mindset and organisational culture framework.
But what is a mindset? Why is this more important than the Agile ceremonies on a habitual and delivery level? Simply defined a mindset is a series of self-perceptions or beliefs people hold about themselves. These determine behaviour, outlook and mental attitude. Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck identified that in a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. A person with a fixed mindset lets failure or success define them. Whereas in a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work - intelligence and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.
If an organisation truly wants to embed an agile way of working, it has to become a part of the organisational culture. This does not merely encompass the cross functional skills that make a successful agile team member, but rather what drives a person to want to be part of an agile team. This mentality is not only relevant at a delivery level but also across the organisation. It should include the behaviour to learn (even after failure) and to leverage those learnings to continuously improve on what the individual, team or organisation does to achieve its strategic objectives.
But how is an agile mindset different? An agile mindset refers to a set of attitudes that support an agile working environment. This includes respect, collaboration, improvement and learning cycles, pride in ownership, focus on delivering value and the ability to adapt to change. This mindset is necessary to cultivate high-performing organisations, who in turn deliver amazing value early for their customers. But to have an agile mindset means living the values through action and an agile mindset is nothing without behaviour. So, what does this actually mean in practice?
Most people acknowledge respect as a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements. What we think and do often becomes normal for us very quickly, so it can be hard to challenge ourselves. In an agile context, however respect means responding to people, listening attentively, hearing their opinions and not dismissing them even when they are different to our own. It means encouraging and empowering people to have their say. Having empathy for their point of view and trying to see things from their perspective. A critical aspect of respecting people is giving them the delegated authority to make decisions about the work they do and how it’s delivered. To achieve this, it's important to build knowledge and develop people who can think for themselves. People who can think for themselves and are experts in their area of speciality often need to be empowered to feel respected.
Collaboration typically occurs when two or more people or organisations work together to realise or achieve an individual, team and/or organisational goal. Collaboration is very similar to cooperation but collaboration exists when teams within an organisation build off each other’s strengths and knowledge to create something that is exceptional and beyond their individual abilities. It involves negotiating, challenging assumptions well as learning and building on each other’s perspectives. Real collaboration however takes place once the right information is presented to the right people. This means the entire organisation needs to collaborate to discover the best solutions and work towards common goals. Any team or organisation can be collaborative, but it takes motivation and effort from everyone.
3. Improvement and learning cycles
Inspect and adapt is a behaviour that is synonymous with an agile way of working. From an agile perspective, a learning organisation is one that enables and encourages everyone to identify and implement improvements. That is, the elimination of waste, where waste is work that adds no value to a product or service. The outcome hopefully is a more organised state of operation where employees have access to resources they need, they are empowered to deliver continued customer service improvements, cost savings are realised due to efficient processes and workflows, and all this leads to improved competitiveness and organisational results. Continuous improvement should result in product, service delivery and strategy improvements across the organisation. When entire organisations embrace continuous improvement, their employees are more empowered and committed; they also receive far greater organisational support for collaboration and innovation.
4. Pride in ownership
Pride is usually a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one's own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired. When being agile, pride in ownership is about being a champion of your work and the organisation, be vocal and share the pride. That is, build a reputation of good work at both an individual level as well as an enterprise level. Demonstrate your best self, not only to others but the organisation by being enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Show a hunger for learning and a passion for improvement. If you feel that you have ideas that can bring a positive change, share them and engage with customers, stakeholders and of course, senior management. Build a reputation for being the best version of yourself, and take pride in that reputation. People with high emotional involvement identify new opportunities and take decisive action to solve problems because they really care about the success of the organisation.
5. Focus on delivering value
In an agile environment, value, value and value is a preferred a way of thinking. But in order to drive success and realise outcomes, the notion of value needs to be defined. One of the best metrics is using Minimum Viable Product (defined as the maximum amount of validated learning for the least amount of effort). As stated by Roman Pitchler, author of Agile Product Management with Scrum, “Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is a powerful concept that allows ideas to be tested. It is not to be confused with the Minimal Marketable Product (MMP), the product with the smallest feature set that still addresses the user needs and creates the right user experience. The MVP helps organisations acquire the relevant knowledge and redress key strategic risks; the MMP reduces time-to-market and enables organisations to launch products and services faster”. In focusing on delivery, launch the smallest possible product or service that is good enough to serve the early market needs. Then inspect and adapt to achieve product or service market fit and growth. This may require minimal changes like adding or optimising features, adjusting the business model and enhancing the user experience. So think big, start small and fail fast.
6. Ability to adapt to change
The 1979 book “The Micro Millennium” by Christopher Evans states that “intelligence is the ability of a system to adjust appropriately to a changing world. In the digital age, agility is about how organisations adapt strategic priorities into perpetual emergent plans to meet current and future customer needs. It starts with understanding when, how and in what way the competitive circumstances have changed – or are changing – and then understanding how to adapt the organisation’s priorities accordingly. As such, agility refers to mobility, nimbleness and quickness. That is, an organisation’s ability to adapt quickly and effectively to changing environment. Agility can be an organisation’s most valuable asset or, a lack of it, its major point of vulnerability. An organisation which has achieved enterprise agility is also one that operates effectively and with efficiencies gained in all areas of the organisation. It is also one that leverages the next innovative and technological advancement to create a memorable experience for its customers continuously striving for further optimisation.
In summation, an agile mindset is about changing organisational behaviours to be more flexible, focused on providing value, innovation, and doing things fast. It’s about establishing an organisational cultural framework based on customer-centric values and principles, supported by the organisational ecosystem (that consists of leadership, strategy, structure, processes and people) and manifested through personal and organisational habits about how work really gets done around the organisation.
Like any organisational transformational change, it takes time and senior management commitment to build up a healthy agile culture. Being agile is not a destination but a continual journey. The perpetual question of “are we here yet” does not apply when in pursuit of an agile mindset, particularly where continual improvement is at the forefront of organisational practices. Adopting agile requires a level of flexibility, inclusivity and, above all, senior management support. Not every organisation has the appetite and adaptability to go down this path but for those that do so successfully, the reward is a competitive edge in an ever changing economy.