Is your 'agile mindset' a problem?

Agile Coaching Jan 5, 2021

The 'agile mindset' is a term that has been around for a while now and it implies that a perspective that enables agility is distinct and a key factor in success with agility.

A search on Google's Ngram viewer shows that, while not ubiquitous, it has been growing steadily since about 2010 as a term in books and has grown as a search term since about 2015.

A mindset is defined in the Cambridge English Dictionary as:

A person's way of thinking and their opinions

In other dictionaries it is also described as:

A mental attitude or inclination. A a fixed state of mind. - Mirriam-Webster
The established set of attitudes held by someone. - Oxford English Dictionary

It is how we interpret, understand and act on the world around us. It is often described as fixed and slow to change. While agility, like many approaches to problem solving, starts with a certain perspective on the world the fixed nature of the term mindset is the start of problems with the term.

This blog post contains my thoughts on how the 'agile mindset' may be causing problems for you and undermining agility itself.

What is the 'Agile Mindset'?

An Agile Mindset is, like many abstract concepts a little difficult to tie down. However, we can look at how mindset was popularised by Carol Dweck and the old favourite, the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, as well as a particular definition by Simon Powers of Adventures in Agile that is popular in agile circles.

Growth Mindset vs Fixed Mindset

In 2006, Carol Dweck wrote a highly influential book called Mindset which outlined how different mindsets effect one's ability to grow:

A fixed mindset

  • Intelligence is static which ...
  • Leads to a desire to look smart and therefore a tendency to ...
  • Avoid challenges
  • Give up easily
  • See effort as fruitless or worse
  • Ignore useful negative feedback
  • Feel threatened by the success of others
  • As a result they may plateau early and achieve less than their full potential
  • All this confirms a deterministic view of the world.

A Growth Mindset

  • Intelligence can be developed which ...
  • Leads to a desire to learn and therefore a tendency to ...
  • Embrace challenges
  • Persist in the face of setbacks
  • See effort as the path to mastery
  • Learn from criticism
  • Find lessons and inspiration in the success of others
  • As a result they achieve ever-higher levels of achievement
  • All this gives them a greater sense of free will

You can read my short review of the book on GoodReads, but here is the even shorter version:

This book starts with a reasonable premise, that if we believe our ability is fixed, then we are unlikely to respond to growth and development challenges very well and if we believe our ability can be developed we are more likely to succeed in developing it. It sounds kind of obvious because it is?

Carol occasionally states that there is a mix of both mindsets but goes on to give example after example that is likely to reinforce a dichotomous perspective that you are either of fixed mindset, which needs correction or growth mindset which is to be admired.

This false dichotomy, or rather an interpretation that results in a false dichotomy -easy to do with all the examples - is an indicator as to why a focus on mindset may also be very unhelpful, even destructive when it comes to agility.

But what exactly is an 'Agile Mindset'?

The Manifesto for Agile Software Development

How many times has this one been copied and pasted! I am sure you are all familiar with it, but here it is again:

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

One could argue that this sums up the agile mindset if we are thinking about values as at the core of a mindset. However one other perspective is that values stem from beliefs and these beliefs are what forms the core of a mindset. This is very much in line with Carol Dweck's perspective on mindset as a set of limiting or enabling beliefs - again perhaps an unhelpful dichotomy as we will see later in this post.

Simon Powers - Adventures with Agile

Simon Powers at Adventures with Agile (link) put forward that an agile mindset is made up of the following beliefs:

The complexity belief

Many of the challenges we face are complex adaptive problems, meaning that by trying to solve these problems we change the nature of the problem itself.

The people belief

Human beings are interdependent. Given the right environment (safety, respect, diversity and inclusion) and a motivating purpose, it is possible for trust and self-organisation to arise.

The proactive belief

Proactivity in the relentless pursuit of improvement.

Problem 1 - false dichotomy

To quote wikipedia:

A dichotomy /daɪˈkɒtəmi/ is a partition of a whole (or a set) into two parts (subsets). In other words, this couple of parts must be

  • jointly exhaustive: everything must belong to one part or the other, and
  • mutually exclusive: nothing can belong simultaneously to both parts.

A false dichotomy is where two alternatives are presented as a dichotomy but do not fulfil the criteria above. It may be that the alternatives are not mutually exclusive or that there are other alternatives that are not presented.

An example of a false dichotomy that is not jointly exhaustive is given in an article in the New York Times:

"A common argument against noise pollution laws involves a false choice. It might be argued that in New York City noise should not be regulated, because if it were, a number of businesses would be required to close. This argument assumes that, for example, a bar must be shut down to prevent disturbing levels of noise emanating from it after midnight. This ignores the fact that law could require the bar to lower its noise levels, or install soundproofing structural elements to keep the noise from excessively transmitting onto others' properties" - Desantis, Nick (23 January 2012). "Data Shows Bars With Most Noise Complaints, But Is It Just Sound and Fury?". The New York Times.

An example of false dichotomy that does not respect mutual exclusivity might include categorising people as introvert or extrovert - I'm sure many of us have experienced being one or the other under different circumstances.

Simplifying observations through limited categorisation is perhaps one of the greatest sources of false dichotomy and our 'agile mindset' is not immune to this. Neither is it immune to missing alternatives.

Effects of a false dichotomy

A false dichotomy, as described above presents two alternatives as distinct, mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive when there may be other alternatives or combinations of the two alternatives that are equally valid.

We love to categorise as it makes life simple for us - it increases our perceived ability to gain certainty and make simple decisions. The Clear domain in Cynefin. Within this domain we can sense categorise respond and know with certainty that our actions will have a desired effect. Reducing any complex human behaviour to a set of observable categories goes against the reality of complex human systems.

Categorising a mindset, a complex interaction of past experience, environment and scenario and surrounding mind sets is, I would suggest, not possible.

In categorising an agile mindset as one part of a dichotomy we are also categorising a non-agile mindset. We've probably all seen reference to this in tweets and other social media. "They didn't have an agile mindset." This implies that agile mindset = good and non-agile mindset = bad.

This is reinforced by taking the definition provided by Simon Powers and reversing it:

The complexity belief negated

Few of the challenges we face are complex adaptive problems

The people belief negated

Human beings are not interdependent.

The proactive belief negated

Apathetic towards improvement.

Now maybe the first belief is not being presented as a good bad dichotomy, but it's difficult not to see the other two not being so.

If we categorise people as having an agile mindset by this definition, it is clearly a false dichotomy and quite dismissive of alternatives. However the agile manifesto, I believe, paints a different picture when reversed:

  • Processes and tools over Individuals and interactions
  • Comprehensive documentation and Working software
  • Contract negotiation over Customer collaboration
  • Following a plan over Responding to change

Looking at those statements it is clear that some of them may be true under some circumstances and a combination of alternatives is present. The principle of bounded applicability is a little more apparent.

However the agile manifesto is often seen as a dichotomy and used as such. The 'agile mindset' is seen as the terms on the left (of the original manifesto) and 'the other', negative mindset is seen as the terms on the right. Fortunately this is becoming better understood within the agile community.

The negative views associated with creating a false dichotomy are what creates unhelpful conflict, dismissal of others and, along with confirmation bias and echo chamber effects in the way we use social media and customising web searches, can lead to division and an inability to see value in the other.

There are other effects of this false dichotomy including an assumption that an 'agile mindset' is a pre-requisite for success and that, conversely, failure at agility is down to not having an 'agile mindset'. These two effects are equally unhelpful and I will return to those in a future post.

How to avoid a false dichotomy

If we want to avoid the problems associated with a false dichotomy we have to first view mindset not as fixed but one that is dynamic and shaped by multiple interacting factors such as past experience, environment and scenario. If we do that we soon see that mindset is not a good term to use as it implies that attitudes are established, fixed and very slow to change.

Recognising that applicability is bounded is important. It helps us gain a perspective that we might not otherwise have, it helps us avoid division and it provides a diversity that encourages growth and understanding. Bounded applicability will also lead us away from 'mindset' and towards a dynamic view of the way we respond that depends un the bounds in which we are responding.

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John Cumming

I am a Scrum Alliance CTC with BAE based in the UK. I hope to inspire people to develop themselves, their teams and their organisations through curiosity, collaboration and creativity.

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