The agile dilemma: mindset or method?

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There’s an intriguing dialogue happening in the world of Agile software development that may be relevant for anyone interested in how business works in a rapidly changing world.

For those readers who are not familiar with Agile, this innovative approach to creating software emerged out of a February 2001 gathering of seventeen software developers in Snowbird, Utah. Among them were Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber, the coauthors of what has come to be known as Scrum, and Ward Cunningham, the originator of the wiki, which became popularized with the explosive growth of Wikipedia.

These software experts were frustrated with the cumbersome practices of traditional top-down management and set about to devise a better way to do their work. The result of their efforts was the crafting of the one-page ‘Agile Manifesto’, which is a set of four fundamental values that provide the foundation for a faster and more effective way to write software:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan.

In fashioning these values, the authors wisely recognized that value selection is often a both/and balance rather than an either/or choice between competing polarities, even if one value is preferred over another. Thus, the manifesto concludes, “while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”

A New Industry Emerges

Upon leaving Snowbird, the authors quickly transformed their manifesto into a movement that spawned an industry of practitioners who developed schools of methodologies based on these four values under such labels as Scrum, Lean, Kanban, and Agile. This movement extensively recast the milieu of software development into self-organized, cross-functional teams that worked in one-to-four-week iterative phases where leaders were more coaches than bosses and each phase was focused on producing a clear customer-driven deliverable.

As Agile grew in popularity, it provided steady work for a new cohort of trainers skilled in the new methodologies of each of the various schools of Agile thinking. Given the commercialization of this new industry, it’s not surprising that the emphasis shifted from Agile thinking to Agile methods, as many practitioners staked out their turf in an intramural foray focused on whose methods represented the ‘true’ Agile way, even though the first value in the Agile Manifesto professes to hold individuals and interactions over processes and tools.

Is Agile Still Agile?

This was the context for a recent panel discussion at Agile Europe 2016 organized around the theme “Is Agile Still Agile?” One of the participants, Steve Denning, chronicled the conversation in a two-part blog series in his column, capturing both the concerns and the hopes of the panelists about the future of Agile.

While the panelists generally agreed with the observation that Agile has become too focused on processes and tools and shared a worry that Agile was being co-opted by the usual business forces as it has grown into an industry, they were encouraged that innovative leaders inside business organizations were adopting Agile as a management discipline for their regular business units. In particular, Denning referenced a key, and perhaps counterintuitive, lesson from the Learning Consortium he had organized under the auspices of the Scrum Alliance: At its essence, Agile is a mindset.

The Agile Mindset Makes Things Right

The Learning Consortium Project, which operated throughout 2015, was a collection of eleven organizations fully committed to the practice of Agile in their software areas, and in many instances, as a general management discipline. Each of the member organizations participated in one-day-site visits at five other members where they shared their innovative management practices.

As each of the visits proceeded, an interesting insight emerged as it became increasingly clear that the core common element that the organizations had in common was not a set of specific tools or practices, but rather a common mindset that reflected a way of thinking that was very different - and sometimes at odds - with traditional management principles.

As Denning explains, “If you have the right mindset, it hardly matters what tools and processes you use; the Agile mindset makes things come out right. Conversely, if you don’t have an Agile mindset, it doesn’t matter if you are implementing every tool and process and system exactly according to the book, no benefits will flow.”

Is Denning suggesting that tools and practices don’t count and that how you think is all that matters? Not at all. Tools and processes are still important. What Denning is suggesting is that the “magic” that Agile seems to hold is not derived from a particular set of tools and practices but rather from a particular understanding of how things work best. Without this understanding, the use of the tools and processes are likely to be of minimal, if any, value.

Denning notes, “a daily standup that is conducted by a manager with a control mindset will be counterproductive: the transparency will create a climate of fear.” On the other hand, almost any tool that is crafted with this understanding in mind can be made to work. That was the essence of the insight into the power of mindsets that emerged from the Learning Consortium.

Mindsets Are Our Pathways to Understanding

Why are mindsets so important? It’s because they are our pathways to understanding how the world works, and more importantly, how we fit into the world. Mindsets integrate the common assumptions, values, attitudes and beliefs that shape the ways of thinking and acting among large groups of people. Mindsets are useful social tools for processing a shared point of reference around which we can organize a shared reality. This shared reality becomes the context in which we develop the ideas, concepts, and perceptions that become the mental models for social and economic relationships.

However, mindsets are not forever. They are held only as long as the underlying assumptions, values, and beliefs continue to be shared and remain a good fit with the context. This is especially true as we move from one socioeconomic era to another. These large-scale social shifts always produce new and radically different mindsets because knowledge breakthroughs and their related new technologies invariably disrupt the generally accepted assumptions, values, and beliefs about the ways the world works.

What Is the Agile Mindset?

Such a breakthrough occurred with the crafting of the Agile Manifesto. Among the seventeen authors were pathfinders fully conversant in the new technologies of a digital revolution that was beginning to change the way the world works. The authors recognized that the old world of top-down hierarchies and their waterfall processes would rapidly be supplanted by a hyper-connected world of peer-to-peer networks that would literally change the rules for how things get done. If you want to keep up with the accelerating pace of digital transformation, you build collaborative networks, not prescriptive hierarchies. This is the essence of the mindset that shaped the thinking of these pathfinders as they created what has become a seminal document for a new socioeconomic era.

There is no one true way or one definitive set of methods when it comes to navigating the ambiguities of a rapidly changing world. The very nature of rapid change requires adaptability and agility - that’s why this new way of working is called Agile. That being said, methods do matter because the only reliable methods are generally those that reflect the mindset that correctly explains how the world works. Fifty years ago, waterfall methods worked because everyone accepted that top-down hierarchies were the fundamental framework for how things got done. In a hyper-connected world whose basic architecture is better explained by the paradigm of the peer-to-peer network, the continued use of these once reliable methods is problematic, and sometimes even fatal.

The tools and practices that work best in a digitally transformed world are those that are consistent with a mindset that fully appreciates that we now live and work in a hyper-connected world of vast networks of people who are able to amplify their voices and drive change in ways that simply wasn’t possible a mere few decades ago.

Should We Change the Agile Manifesto?

One of the questions discussed in the Agile Europe 2016 discussion was whether or not, in light of this insight into the importance of mindset, the Agile Manifesto needed to be updated. The panelists concluded that the document should stand as it is.

As Denning explained, “The Agile Manifesto is a historical document, like the Magna Carta in England or the American Declaration of Independence. There’s no point in going back and rewriting historical documents that were valid for their particular moments in time. We recognize them as historical landmarks but we don’t try to rewrite them. We refer to them, we celebrate them and we move on.”

While the panelists are surely right in their conclusion, it is interesting to speculate how the original authors might have handled this insight. Perhaps they might have added a fifth value: Mindset over method. And, if they did, they would have certainly reinforced their wise guidance that while they valued the item on the right, they valued the item on the left more.


About The Author

Rod Collins
Rod Collins

Rod Collins is the Director of Innovation at Optimity Advisors and the author of Wiki Management: A Revolutionary New Model for a Rapidly Changing and Collaborative World (AMACOM Books)