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July 13, 2016

The Agile Mindset: Being Before Doing

3 mins read

Is your organization Agile? When we ask this question to organizations we often hear that, yes, they would say they are Agile. When asked what makes them Agile, we often hear responses such as “We do Scrum ceremonies such as standups and retrospectives” or “We timebox our work using two-week sprints” or “We create user stories as a means to communicate our work.”

While all of these answers are representative of Agile concepts, they speak more to doing various things (i.e. employing specific practices, following processes, etc.) but do not really address the specific idea of actually being Agile. Don’t get us wrong – those practices and processes are important within the context of being Agile. But being Agile should come first. So then, what does it mean to be Agile?

Agile Is a Mindset

A great place to start is to understand that Agile is a mindset. It’s not a practice, nor is it a process. It’s the established set of attitudes that you and (hopefully) your colleagues, boss, clients, and, ideally, your whole organization hold true. For example, attitudes toward failing early, learning through discovery, striving for continuous delivery, focusing on value, and team collaboration are only a few of many important ideas and beliefs with which you can begin to explore. How do you approach these ideas? Do you welcome them and find ways to incorporate and improve upon them or do you tend to shy away from them or wait for others to take up the cause?

Once the concept of a mindset sinks in, we can take it a step further. The Agile mindset is further defined by values and guided by principles. A good place to examine these values and principles is found in the Agile Manifesto. I am often asked what can one do to learn more about the Agile mindset. The best answer is to spend some time reviewing the Agile Manifesto and doing a little soul searching. Do you understand what is being said? Do you agree with it? Can you begin to see how the right attitudes coupled with the Agile values and principles help round out a mindset for being Agile? How can you influence change in your organization around these ideas?

Doing Before Being

Now we finally land on what so many people immediately jump to when asked if they are Agile: the actual practices. There are many Agile practices that are used to support an Agile mindset. For example, standups, automated builds, retrospectives, user stories, burn-up charts, and time-boxed iterations are only a few of the practices that many teams employ. Scrum is a very disciplined management framework from which you can employ various processes and practices (which tends to be the practices people are most familiar with). Extreme Programming (XP) tends to emphasize engineering practices.

I have worked with teams who couldn’t understand why Scrum just wasn’t working for them. After all, they were conducting standups and retrospectives and time-boxing their work to two-week increments. Taking a deeper look into the culture, expectations, and mindset of the team, however, I realized that what they lacked was an understanding of why they were doing what they were doing. The team learned the practices but applied them without internalizing the mindset and principles and overlooked when to tailor and how to select the practices best suited for them. In other words, they were doing before being.

Being Before Doing

Successful Agile teams take the time to understand, appreciate, and internalize the mindset, values, and principles and then apply the appropriate practices and tailor them to different situations as they come about. Granted, this is not easy. But it’s essential if you want to be successful being Agile. That’s being before doing!

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