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How to develop an agile mindset

Did you know that one of the most common reasons for failing agile transformations is a lack of agile mindset?

Although it seems obvious, in many organizations you can see that the teams – and often the management, too – haven’t developed an agile mindset, even if they are already in the middle of the transformation.

But what actually comes first: the agile mindset or the transformation? And how do we develop a mindset in this cultural change? Let’s have a closer look…

How to develop an agile mindset? | scagile blog

Content of this article

Is agile mindset a prerequisite for agile transformation?

An agile transformation is a culture change, nothing less. 

Culture is defined as a set of behaviors and mindsets

And that is precisely what an agile transformation aims to do.

What it aims to do? Yes, you read correctly, and thus an “agile mindset” is not a prerequisite of an agile transformation, but one of your results in case of success.   

This is a fact that is not taken into account in many organizations. I then hear the phrase “They (and this usually means strategic management) lack the agile mindset” again and again.   

The accusation that we require what we actually want to prove was already voiced by the Frankfurt School in its positivism critique in relation to the concept of truth.   

We are therefore in good company when we require an agile mindset for a transformation, even though such a mindset is something that the stakeholders want to form as part of the transformation as one of its outstanding outcomes in the first place.  

On the other hand, and this is also part of the reality, an agile transformation in large organizations is not necessarily an evolutionary process in which the insight slowly matures that agile is a nice element we could add to our lean culture and reap a lean-agile mindset as a result. Rather, it is oftenas SAFe describesmotivated by a “burning platform” a strategic top-down decision. And in the face of the threatening consequences of a “Burning Platform“, this is just as often made in a rather ad-hoc manner.

What impact does agile mindset have on transformation?

 

As a prerequisite, the term “agile mindset” only works if – and this is the real problem in many organizations – it clearly falls short. Namely, if instead of being perceived as a manifestation of a successfully designed cultural change, it is just perceived as a certain acceptance coupled with a rudimentary understanding of “agile best practices”.   

Then exactly what causes the fail happens 

The mindset is no longer developed systematically at all, and thus the sustainability and resilience of a culture can never really unfold.

This is very often seen in the fact that, as a result, trust in agile methodology is lost at the first small crisis, and reflexively “tried and tested” project management methods from the dustbin are resorted to, first and foremost, status reports, all kinds of micromanagement and orientation to fixed budgets and fixed milestones. 

An agile transformation naturally takes quite a while, and crises are bound to happen, especially if a “burning platform” was the trigger for this transformation. Strictly speaking, you do an agile transformation because you already know that there will always be crises and that agile methodology can handle them better because of its high (proactive) adaptability. This sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it is not. It is the fine line on which we carefully and very consciously walk to make our organization fit for the future at full speed.  

But if an agile mindset is not a necessary prerequisite for agile transformation, what is?   

Prerequisites for an agile mindset

An important prerequisite is first of all trust. Trust means assuming the truth of certain things.   

Even better would be basic trust. This term comes from child psychology and characterizes a basic trust in other people and the environment, which children acquire in the early years through positive experiences.   

The core of this notion, and the reason I cite it here, are thepositive experiencesas necessary conditions for acquiring (basic) trust  

We all know the phrase that you can learn from mistakes. I’ve always thought that was just a way of glossing over the fact that we didn’t succeed. One can interpret it in any way one likes, but the following is nevertheless evident:     

You may be able to learn all sorts of things from mistakes (mostly you only learn avoidance), but you don’t learn confidence.  

Trust is, therefore, an important and necessary basis for the development of an “agile mindset”. If this trust is enriched with positive experiences, then we have a good chance to develop this into basic trust: 

The established certainty that agile methodology is suitable to achieve the goals of our agile transformation 

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How does one develop trust?

This trust often starts with the way the term “agile” or the need for agile transformation is explained to the players.   

Too often I see agile being explained to organizations in such a way that – here very simplified – everything was bad before and with agile everything will get better. Unfortunately, it does not translate very well with the participants when they are implicitly accused – often by an external coach – of having done a lot of things wrong before. 

I’ve gotten into the habit here of first describing to the players in the organization all the things they’ve done right, and that we’re now adding a new element to what has gone so well so far;   

So in addition to being highly efficient, now also becoming agile.

In order for trust to go hand in hand with positive experiences, of course, it still needs some things. We will go into this in the next part and see that all 4 parts are very much connected.

Unfortunately, one fail is often enough to bring down the entire transformation.

From this we can see how complex and at the same time sensitive such a cultural change is and why it takes longer.  

After we have built the necessary trust for the agile transformation, we can now start to build a true agile mindset. Here, true to the definition of culture as a set of behaviors and attitudes, we first learn to introduce agile best practices into our organization. For this, it is recommended to rely on common agile frameworks (e.g. Scrum, SAFe, etc.). This is because most organizations are neither large enough nor experienced enough to define their own agile framework, and in over 99% of all cases this is not necessary.

The learned agile ways of doing things should create flow in the organization. I see flow as the measure of all things. It is a bit too long to justify this in detail here. Have faith that if you have really created flow in your organization, everything will be easier. Or to put it another way, first eliminate waiting times and use agile best practices to do so, or first think about how you can use agile best practices to reduce waiting times. So much for agile best practices.   

Now to the mindset.

Again, let’s make this simple for now. The most important attitude that all participants in your organization should develop is to make your customers happy. Customer Centricity is the credo of an agile organization. Not to optimize processes even further, not to grow even faster, not to push the share price to the upper limit, and not to increase the popularity of your company even further. All these are good and important things – no question about it – and they are all there at some point, we will not forget them. But first, let all conversations and all efforts and all thinking be about how to make your customers happy.   

You can really boil it down to this: Agile Mindset is the desire to make my customers happy and the confidence in learning and applying agile best practices to do just that.   

Organizations that don’t build this out across the board don’t have an agile future, but at best spark an agile flash in the pan. 

Conclusion: Why is agile mindset important?

An agile mindset describes a cultural change, a change in attitudes and ways of acting.

The initial prerequisite for this is to trust in agile methodology, not the agile mindset itself. An agile mindset emerges during transformation when trust is followed by positive experiences.   

If an agile mindset has not emerged, i.e. the agile culture has not manifested itself, then an agile transformation has a very difficult time or becomes impossible.   

Mistrust gains the upper hand too quickly and organizations fall back into old behavioral patterns very quickly. 

The first and most important task of an organization is therefore to gain the trust of the participants in the transformation and then to develop this into a basic trust with many small positive experiences.

The core of the agile mindset is “customer centricity” on the attitude side and learning and applying agile best practices on the action side. Both together define an agile mindset as a culture in which an organization can create a sustainable flow of value.

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Klaus Riedel
As an agile coach, Klaus Riedel, together with his team, supports the digital transformation and the introduction of Scrum and SAFe in large organizations such as Deutsche Bank, Conrad Electronics, Volkswagen, PWC and others.

All his gained practical experiences in more than 15 years of agile transformation have been incorporated into the articles of his blog.

In Scagile Academy he trains young Agile Experts and since 2016 he teaches agile project management at the German Faculty of TU Sofia.

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