Especially within the agile community, the belief persists that true agile work requires an agile mindset. In this article, I want to explore why the agile mindset is so highly praised today, why the mindset is neither relevant nor helpful for genuinely agile work, and how attitude, behavior, and mindset are interdependent.
Why Everyone Talks About the Agile Mindset
With the Agile Manifesto, we have introduced new principles of work, particularly the principle of self-regulation, self-organization, and self-management of teams, replacing the classical organizational principle of centralized control by executives and the principle of management. The authorization of teams and the associated decentralization of decisions underlying agile work are economically far superior to the old management paradigms. This is due, on one hand, to a massive increase in work motivation and engagement of colleagues. On the other hand, positional power is replaced by decision-making skill.
Teams that work in this way have economic successes that speak for themselves. Enthusiasm and commitment do the rest: a hype arises! Everyone is talking about agile work, New Work, Scrum, Kanban, and Co. Everyone wants it. All well and good! But it's not that simple.
Working with agile principles at the team level in a classically, centrally managed company creates a system inconsistency, an imbalance. If this is not taken into account, the subordinate principles will have to adapt.
The consequence: Agile work is reduced to tools and methods and can subsequently be practiced without conflict with the Tayloristic principles. Agile principles no longer play a role. System equilibrium is restored. The “rules of the game” are again consistent. Despite using agile methods and tools, economic superiority, motivation, and higher engagement are largely lost.
For people inexperienced with agile, who are confronted with agile tools and methods, this kind of “agile work” often leads to confusion and irritation. For “old hands” who are familiar with genuine agile work, the call for the real agile spirit, agile values, and an agile attitude - summarized: for an agile mindset - becomes loud.
Why the Call for an Agile Mindset is Harmful and Irrelevant
The hypothesis posed by the mindset proponents is: Those who have the agile mindset understand why the agile principles are mission-critical and act accordingly. So, one must spread the agile mindset and regularly indoctrinate a whole community with it! Apparently, this mindset hypothesis is no longer being reflected upon.
This hypothesis is based on several fallacies. My colleague Niels Pfläging recently pointed out the first fallacy on Twitter:
“Whoever talks about ‘mindset’ or ‘attitude’ always means the mindset and attitude of others, which supposedly is somehow not right.” - Niels Pfläging
I think it is intrusive to want to change the attitude, thinking, and mindset of other people. The same applies to values. All these areas are the private matter of every individual person, and no one should want to prescribe thinking, values, or attitude to others. It is unethical and undignified. What's more, unless you are Obi-Wan Kenobi, you cannot manipulate and determine the thinking and mindset of others.
In a company, colleagues come together with various values, attitudes, and ways of thinking. The most successful companies will be those that can not only tolerate and endure this diversity but promote it and recognize and use the advantage in it.
Unfortunately, the urge to have to convince others of one's values, attitude, and opinion is widespread in our society. Diversity is often not appreciated. I don't want to accuse anyone of bad intentions. While the sought-after, deep consensus may be comfortable, consensus also means the end of value creation, which can only be found in dissent and diversity.
The second fallacy lies in the belief that attitude or mindset is the basis for action. Surprisingly: it’s the other way around! Action influences attitude, mindset, and thinking. Forcing yourself to smile for several minutes trains your happy mindset. Complaining about the bad world at the regulars' table every week promotes your German mindset. Meditating motionlessly with "knotted" legs practices Wu Wei. And if you have been working in traditional companies as an employee, executive, or in the management for a long time, you have perfectly cultivated your Tayloristic mindset. Speaking of cultivated, this fallacy also applies to cultural work. Actions influence the culture, not the culture influences behavior. Cultural work is not necessarily intrusive but ineffective.
If you want to read more about how action and attitude influence each other, I recommend reading Alan Deutschman's "Change or Die". In my opinion, this book is a must-read for all those who professionally deal with organizational development, change, and transformation.
Principles Work Instead of Mindset Conformity
Action does not depend on mindset. Instead, we should agree on principles of cooperation.
As a rule, we may not define these principles for others and usually not even for ourselves. They are specified by the management and implemented by the executives. That is management. So what to do?
- If you are in a managing position, you are in the only position to introduce principles that promote new work, higher value creation, and higher engagement. Ensure that the introduction method already adheres to these new principles to be successful. Top-down, roll-out, or change management are not options for introducing contemporary principles.
- Also, note that the often-used term "Business Agility" implies that one could apply agile principles to an entire company. This is not the case. The twelve agile principles are designed for software development and are not sufficient for the corporate context. The BetaCodex offers suitable principles for business aspects and corporate management. The agile principles fit perfectly into the BetaCodex; agile work at the team level is easily possible.
If you are an executive and want to introduce agile work in your area of responsibility, identify contradictions between the principles of management applicable to you and the agile principles. Do not thoughtlessly introduce new principles. Clarify the authorization framework in which you operate and which you can offer. Ensure clarity and consistency. If this is not given, no mindset coaching will help to resolve the confusion for which you are responsible.
If, as an employee, you want different principles and try to implement them bottom-up via the artifice of mindset, that is foolish. Often employees and sometimes executives are led to this approach by Agile Coaches. Quite a few of my colleagues believe that this approach is the only way for a successful transformation. What's worse, Agile Coaches are often sworn to this myth during their training.
Are you an Agile Coach? Deal with principle work instead of mindset. And if you now feel that it would be good to read the agile manifesto again, do it. Please use the English version. Unfortunately, the German translation is deficient in crucial places. Don't forget to deal with superordinate principles. This includes Taylorism and Management, as well as the BetaCodex as a contemporary alternative.