An agile mindset or a winning mindset?

I sometimes still say that “agile is a mindset” rather than a set of processes and frameworks. I still think this is true – but I sometimes hesitate because I think people will interpret the word “mindset” as something different to what I think it is.

Defining a mindset as a set of attitudes

For me, a “mindset” is a set of attitudes that someone has. They might have a growth mindset, which means that they believe in learning from feedback and improving through deliberate; or they might have a fixed mindset, which means that they think success comes from talent and that you are born talented or untalented.

But there is more to a fixed mindset than those simple terms and there are more than two “sets of established attitudes” that people might have. So what do I actually mean if I say agile is a mindset?

OK – I think “agile practices” are practices that help a high performing team create value more quickly and easily. An agile mindset is a set of attitudes about what factors will make it quicker and easier to get work done and create value, thus informing us as to what practices will work in our context.

So there is a slight issue here – you might not define an “agile mindset” in quite the same way. Perhaps you would say it is an extension of the Lean Mindset, or a focus on value, or it is an understanding of the values and principles in the agile manifesto.

I believe that the Agile Manifesto is a set of values and principles, that could describe an agile mindset.

However, the frustrated lawyer in me suggest that there are two escape clauses in the Manifesto:

  • The whole thing starts with the words “We are uncovering better ways …” which suggests that we are still learning and that the manifesto is only a summary at a point in time
  • The words “the best … come from self organising teams” which suggests that the team should debate and agree on things, that I would extend to include “working practices”, and “our overall team values and attitudes.”

This means an agile team might agree that they think the Manifesto is wrong and still be agile.

So I have a personal mindset (my own set of attitudes, beliefs, values, principles and assumptions) and when I become part of a team, we debate with each other and through our collaboration and respectful discussions we might agree on a team mindset. In fact a whole organisation might have a shared mindset if they have a strong culture, whether it is positive or even negative (Enron, recent failed political teams and others come to mind).

But does that mean that any set of attitudes that the team agree to will be agile?

I don’t think so. For me all agile teams are biased toward ongoing learning (adapting to change), collaboration and experimentation. Most importantly they are also aligned on how they define (and challenge) value.

Some (Scrum people) might believe in empiricism, others (design thinkers) might believe in wicked problems and multiple definitions of emerging value and others (HR Agile and “modern” agile) might believe in empowering small teams to move ahead of the organisation and fulfilling their individual human potential in a psychologically safe environment. In all of these teams there should be adapting to change, creating ongoing value and collaboration, but there might be significant differences in other areas. Or so I believe.

All this theory might actually make it scary when I suggest to a leadership team that we can be agile without any particular framework as long as our journey is based on the championing of collaboration, defining and redefining value and adapting to new things as we learn them. It sounds like a recipe for chaos with the hope that value will emerge from the primordial agile soup that the changing culture becomes.

So maybe I should talk about a winning mindset instead – a shared set of attitudes which we can agree on, that will help us define the optimal practices, tools, processes and team structures that will help us “win” in our current environment.

If I start by defining what it means to win – then I can talk about what we need to agree on and how we should then behave to maximise our chance of winning.

I honestly believe this works – and we can even define what we think a good starting set of attitudes is.

The mindset of a powerful learner

When my daughter started school – she learned a mindset – that of a powerful learner. This included a growth mindset, as well as some some principles that would (according to her teachers) help her to become a powerful learner.

Self-regulation, circles of engagement (expanding teams), resilience, specific thinking routines (ways of solving specific types of problems) and a growth mindset would lead to powerful learning.

My daughter is now at a new school and there are different sets of attitudes that she is learning. They are similar and, I think, they are important in defining how to approach learning as a student.

The product teams I work with have a different set of principles that, we believe, help them become powerful teams that create great customer value and, thereby, win as a product team.

Early in my career, I learned the importance of both “flow” so the work became habitual and somehow seemed to do itself, and “ongoing learning”, which I later came to see as a growth mindset.

But then, opposing this view, I have worked with Project Managers and executives who believe in “relentless effort”, grit and determination. When I told them that a basketball team can win if they get into a state of flow, they responded that a team wins when they persist in the face of challenge, fighting for each point and constantly challenging each other.

I believe now that that both relentless determination and effortless flow can lead to winning, just as both experimenting and adopting consistent proven practices can lead to success. But at some point these different mindsets clash and something has to be given up to find the focus of the best mindset, for now, for this team, for this definition of winning.

What do I bring to the team then?

My “work mindset” was influenced by my family, by what I learned at school and by what I learned in my first job or two. It is now, most likely, 30 years out of date. That means that I have a legacy mindset, filled with potential work-arounds, biases and assumptions. But it is still a working mindset that seems to help me.

I like to think that my “out of date, legacy mindset” is also a mindset that has evolved through broad and deep experience in working in different contexts and fields. So, like a trusty old mainframe system I bring tried and tested lessons from the past, while still getting some maintenance and enhancements made to my thinking each time I work with a team.

By talking through our different attitudes and doing some maintenance on them, I think we can then agree on the practices we should adopt based on those attitudes and that the practices should then become the best possible approach we have to winning, whatever that means to us.


What do you think?

  • Do you think you and your team agree on what “winning” means? Does it matter?
  • If it does matter (which I think it does), are there a set of attitudes (or mindset) that support your ability to win?
  • Do your team practices, structures, meetings and your team uses align to your definition of winning and your team’s set of attitudes?

I am curious to hear what your attitude is, even if it is different to mine.


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