The Key Predictor of Agile Mindset

By | November 11, 2017


Who doesn’t talk about Agile these days? Who doesn’t mention that “Agile is mindset” lately? And why not, it’s a powerful statement. As it turns out, however, organizations are generally better with statements than with the actual action behind them. Multiple surveys consistently demonstrate that despite all advancements in new practices, the mindset and the culture of organizations remain largely unchanged and continue to negatively affect organizational performance (see, for example; also our recent survey). So, maybe not everything is so great? Countless enterprises in various industries report being on their Agile journey (some for a very long time) and the result is… what exactly? Yeah, I bet a lot has changed for them with respect to their regular routines (mostly for teams though, to be precise), but not so much seems to have changed in terms of the leadership thought process.

Wait, but changing mindset isn’t easy, is it? No, that’s right, changing mindset isn’t easy. Neither is… treating pneumonia, for example, especially when you don’t know how. Mindset shift, like every challenging task, requires knowledge, skill and mastery on behalf of the change agent whose job it is to facilitate the transformation. In this article we are going to talk about one key discriminator for Agile mindset, something that allows you to determine whether or not you are on the right path to organizational agility. But before we delve into that, my dear reader, I must caution you regarding something utterly habitual in the world of Agile…

Careful with “Iterative and Incremental”

What? But that’s essential to agility. Plus all implementations start with it!

…And that’s exactly where the problem is. See, what happens is the following: we think that “Iterative and Incremental” is an eye-opening experience for leaders and they suddenly get it all. But in reality it actually isn’t. What happens instead is that “Iterative and Incremental” only camouflages the old thinking. If you expect that coming to a demo every once in a while is going to drastically change everyone’s thought process, I would encourage you to think again. In one of the previous posts (Beware of “Hybrid Agility”. It’s a Gift from Hell.) we touched upon the fact that traditional (reductionist) management mindset more often than not finds ways to survive despite the introduction of Agile practices. We also talked about the necessity of the “a-ha” moment and how different people require different triggers for that to happen. As for the iterative and incremental development, leaders often view it as just a “faster way to implement their master plan”. At the same time, however, they would never even possibly question the plausibility of the long-term plan itself. Those “demos” get interpreted exactly the same way as classic milestones in traditional Earned Value Management process. In other words: it changes nothing in terms of mindset.

A Solution to a Problem that Does Not Exist

The problem with most Agile implementations is that they offer a “supply” of practices where the “demand” does not yet exist. No wonder the mindset isn’t changing as a result of the transformation. The leaders are given, in other words, a solution to something that they don’t consider to be a problem. In their traditional view, the environment they operate in is governed by order and certainty. They produce detailed long-term plans, they bind annual funding to a specific scope of work, they hold their teams accountable to executing the master plan. In fact, their plan becomes their “reality”. In their belief system, there’s hardly any need for Agile; they go for this “Agile thing” because everybody else does, not because it is dictated by the actual need.

As for the change agent, “Agile adoption” is not an immediate goal of the transformation. The initial objective is to go after a mindset that creates the “demand” for Agile practices; produces a “pull”, so to speak. So, what that kind of mindset is it that we are after? Expressed in a single statement, it’s as simple as this: the mindset that embraces uncertainty. It’s the mindset that accepts the fact that the enterprise reality cannot be “designed” or “engineered” in a predictable, up-front manner. In this new system of coordinates, we are reasonably skeptical about plans. Instead we accept that we operate in the “fog of war” and our visibility is objectively constrained by the nature of the complex reality we operate in. In this new perspective, we naturally arrive at things like iterative and incremental development. Indeed, if long-term plans don’t work and we know that the development process has inherent uncertainty associated with it, moving in short iterations and then reviewing the results and constantly re-planning, starts to make perfect sense.

Uncertainty: How Do You Get Them to Embrace It?

In a sense, the success of your entire Agile transformation is contingent upon the ability of the organizational leaders to embrace uncertainty. This is a deep topic and in this article we are going to touch upon some aspects of it.

For starters, I hope that our initial conversation about practices did not leave you with an impression that iterative and incremental development should not be adopted. The problem is not in the “Iterative and Incremental”, per se. The problem is that if the leadership mindset remains unattended, “Iterative and Incremental” will make the leaders believe that they “are already Agile” and it will be only harder for you to make the real change happen. The mindset gap in your transformation must be filled and that’s what we are after here.

Secondly, there are specific factors that rigorously protect the old mindset. Without going into much detail regarding those at this point (something we will definitely discuss in detail in the future), let’s just go over what they are. These are the key ones:

  1. Cognitive bias. A very strong force in this matter. Our brain is wired to favor certainty over variability, ambiguity and risk. We survived due to this bias. But when talking about product and systems development, the same bias that warranted our survival, does us a great disservice.
  2. Distorted empirical evidence. Due to fundamental structural flaws, most enterprises tend to favor good news over bad news being delivered to the leadership. This prevents the leaders from ever questioning their initial assumptions.
  3. Flawed motivation. In some cases, even the people that understand the problem with the current operating model, decide to play along rather than put their careers at risk by escalating systemic organizational issues.

All of these are serious problems that we will be addressing in future posts.

For now this is it. And before we are “done-done” today, I’d like to leave you with one important sentiment that every change agent should keep in mind at all times: your transformation doesn’t happen in cubicles, hallways, meeting rooms or corporate cafeterias. The transformation you are after happens inside a human brain. So, ask yourself: what exactly do you do to win that battle? How do you help trigger a new thought process in leaders? Where does most of your change agent effort really go?

Are you satisfied with your answers? … No? Good…