Developing an Agile Mindset

I was asked, during a recent Agile transformation, if Agile was the new flavor of the month.  It’s a funny question, since Agile practices were developed in the 90’s.  After 20 years I think we can safely say it isn’t a fad. 


It really isn’t even new.  A key concept in Agile is making information visible, but that was also a key element of Taylor’s Theory of Scientific Management in 1909.  Part of automating processes was showing everyone current best practices.  Agile leverages the benefits of teams, but Denning explains these same benefits were preached throughout the 20th century starting in the 1920’s by researchers such as Parker, Mayo, Bernard, Maslow, McGregor, Smith, and Casenbach (Age of Agile).  Walter Shewhart applied improvement cycles in the 1930’s which is where Deming got the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle.  Thinking of ways to improve the Ford’s assembly line (starting in 1913) was what led Toyoda and Ohno to create the Toyota Production System.  That system led to Lean manufacturing, which provided key inputs to Agile concepts and practices.


While the concepts may not be new, there is still room to apply them more effectively.  We have seen Agile concepts applied to IT project management since before the Manifesto in 2001.  New principles are paying off, PMI’s 2018 Pulse of the Profession has shown a decrease in the amount of waste from 13.5% of total spend in 2013 to 9.9% of total spend in 2018.  But that’s still close to 10% of project resources being wasted.  It also doesn’t measure how much waste occurred because a project met its scope but may not have provided the value the customer or business really needed. 


Part of the reason why still see gaps in performance is that to get the value, businesses have to do more than go through the motions.  You often hear Agile practitioners refer to this as being Agile vs doing Agile.  For example:

  • Management providing teams with a list of features they need to implement this year misses the importance of teams talking to customers to understand their pain points then testing to learn quickly if they have the right solution.

  • Calling a group of people working on the same problem a team, doesn’t make them a team.  Teams come from individuals putting team goals before their own, trusting those around them to do the same. 

  • Having a project status meeting once a day instead of once a week, doesn’t make you Agile.  Daily standups add value when team members find where problems are and how they can work together to solve them faster.

  • Renaming “milestones” to “iterations” may sound great, but it doesn’t give you the true value – finding out quickly if what you are building works, and more importantly, getting it in front of customers to discover if it’s adding value. 

Practitioners often refer to being agile as having an Agile mindset.  It’s an elusive concept many authors have tried to define.  Pivac and  McIntosh don’t define the concept, but describe the environment when  a company has it.  People show more respect, collaboration, learning, and an ability to adapt.  In developing a mindset, Powers emphasizes the importance of understanding complex vs complicated problems, believing in people’s ability to self-organize and solve problems, and being proactive in learning.  In his book The Age of Agile, Denning emphasizes understanding the importance of customers, small teams, and networks.

I agree with these researchers and feel the mindset comes from understanding the problem and how the principles can provide a solution.    

  • Customer Focus – Denning discusses the mind shift change we are seeing from a focus from shareholder profits to customer value.  In Escaping the Build Trap, Perri talks about the best products coming from a deep understanding of customers.  The problem is companies may think they have the right solution, but not understand customer pain points.  The solution comes from working directly with customers to understand their biggest problems.

  • Experimentation – Traditional project management is built on knowing the right solution and then finding the best way to deliver it.  That may work well for building a bridge, but a 2019 study from Pendo found that 80% of features in the average software product are seldomly or never used.  The problem is companies don’t know how far they’re missing the mark if they don’t measure value (and too many companies are skipping this step).  The solution is testing value after the product is delivered.

  • Small, quick wins – The faster you learn what works and what doesn’t, the less waste there is on the wrong solution.  The problem is too many companies today are applying slow testing – waiting to the end of project before getting customers to use it and see if it works (or just assuming it does).  The solution is delivering something small that can quickly be tested today.  Quick delivery not only allows for experimentation, but reduces the cost of delay for valuable new features. 

  • Importance of teams – As Marquet emphasizes in Turn the Ship Around, all of us are smarter than any of us alone.  The problem is limiting innovation to leadership ideas.  The solution is leveraging everyone.  When you are on a good team, you never know who will have the next great idea (and by the time you get done finding it, you can’t remember who the idea came from). 

  • A change in leadership – The problem is applying the four items above requires a new way of thinking.  That thinking must start at the top.  Instead of leaders considering themselves chess masters, trying to think about where each piece should go, McChrystal suggests leaders move to gardeners, creating the right environment where innovation can thrive.  That is a humbling change.  But it frees leadership from trying to tell everyone how to run the business to focusing on where the company will go and creating the culture that will get it there.

These principles break down to:

  • Identifying the right problem to solve (starting with the customer)

  • Determining a solution (using experimentation to find the right answer)

  • Focusing on quick wins

  • Leveraging the right people and

  • Creating the right environment

Those concepts don’t sound new at all.  It sounds like the types of questions any management consultant would start with when asking how to improve a business.  Like so many great ideas of the past, once explained, they sound like common sense.  But being simple doesn’t make them easy to apply.  That is where the concept of experimentation becomes perhaps the most powerful of all.  Agile doesn’t provide a magic bullet to crush the competition, deliver incredible customer value, and remove all waste from the organization.  Instead, it provides the framework companies can use to find those answers on their own. 

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