Approaching the Mindset Discussion with Care

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OK, so now that we want to have a dialogue with others around Agile as a Mindset, how do we go about having that dialogue?

  • What posture do we take?
  • when do we have the dialogue and when do we back off?
  • Who do we have the discussion with?
  • How do we start?
  • What kind of reactions can I expect?

Note:

This article will appear, in some form, in my next book.

You can also access the entire work in progress version of the book on this page. Or better yet show your support by picking up a copy (really a table of contents at this point) here

For the better part of the last decade any discussion about Agile as a Mindset would completely turn me off. I would hear agile practitioners complain that “people are doing agile, not being agile”, and my knee jerk reaction would be “I don’t know what that means”. I’d hear “we need to help others make sure the Agile Mindset is in place, focusing on methods or practices wont help”, and I would have an almost physically, visceral reaction. Agile is about helping people work better, no one is interested in you helping them reach a higher state of being.

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I perceived anyone talking about an Agile Mindset as coming off as preachy, impractical, and holier than though. Not to mention unqualified and I’ll equipped to be trying to “fix” other people’s mindset.

It’s unfortunate that my attitudes, turned me off from exploring what people meant by an agile mindset for quite some time. To my own detriment. It took a lot of personal friction, personal failure, and personal learning to realize that these Agile Mindset guys were on to something. It turns out there are some very pragmatic and practical ways to have a dialogue around mindset, I just needed to be open to the idea, and take the time to understand what an agile mindset meant to me, and to explore ways to have the dialogue with others. As if this writing I am still learning the basics, and likely will still be learning the basics of having a productive dialogue around mindset by the time you are reading this book. I have feeling that this will be a life long truism. But that won’t stop me from sharing what I have learned as I have further dialogues with folk in an attempt help both myself and others think and behave within an agile mindset.

I am going to assume that many of the folks we try to help are at different points along the agile journey, many people that ask for my help are often at “mindset discussions are impractical, fluffy and of limited value” stage. As Agile Change agents, we need to be cognizant about this. Many, even most people we encounter will be turned off by discussions about mindset. We need to approach discussions about the agile thoughtfully and carefully. We need to have these dialogues at the right time. The last thing we want to do is alienate someone when we could be helping them see with more enlightened eyes. As I learn I want to share with others, I also want others to share with me.

Easy There Obi-Wan

A client of mine insisted that we hand him a deliverable that “details the exact agile process our organization is going to adhere to, and have instantiated in Jira so we can roll it out. Mindset discussions are fine (read irrelevant) but it’s the mechanics that matter.”

My first reaction was to lecture him on the importance of mindset over method, I stopped myself. My second reaction was to ask why. What were his outcomes and what were we trying to achieve. That gave some partial success. I managed to move the concept towards a simple question “You value adherence to a common process, what do you believe will be the benefit?”

If you are starting to feel the urge preach, try to catch yourself. This a hard one. If you see yourself in preach mode, cut yourself off. I have literally interrupted myself with something along the lines of “Crap, I went into preach mode, let me start out over.” Be humble about it, forgive yourself and start over.

We all want to be wise, we all want to give advice. Avoid the sermon, no one liked me when I gave them, no one listened. You wont fare any better.

Be Specific

When someone talks about being Agile, I may just dismiss you out of hand. Who is truly Agile? What does being agile mean? Which part of this perfect state are you talking about?

But if you were to ask me something specific, say whether I valued high performing team, I would say yes. If you asked me if I believed that cross functional, self organizing groups make better decisions than functional specialist organized into departments. I would say hell yes! If you then asked my why most of my reports, especially the ones not doing core delivery were still grouped by specialized function, and not by team, I might be forced forced to have a deeper dialogue with myself, and perhaps have a deeper dialogue with you.

Do I really believe in cross functional teams? Do I only believe in them some of the time? In what context do I believe teams work and what context don’t I? How do I change my context so I can behave within this belief I hold? Getting to these answers can be very illuminating for all parties.

Using the language of context, things we value, beliefs we hold and beliefs we oppose. It is powerful, it is specific, and it is actionable.

Getting Permission

Coaching someone on their mindset without asking permission first is a cardinal sin in my book. I am sure I have done it, I know it has been done to me. This falls into the don’t, just don’t book. If you catch yourself, stop and apologize.

If someone is behaving or speaking in a way that runs counter to an agile mindset, secure permission before you start the dialogue.

“As we go down this journey, there are opportunities for us to examine our values and beliefs, this will help us bring about the behavior we want to observe, are you interested?”

“I have observed X behavior, I’d like to examine why you believe that was necessary, and perhaps discuss the behavior in the frame of an Agile belief system, do you want to know more?”

Being Pragmatic

Talking about Values and Beliefs can get you accused of being a hippy. This accusation says more about the person making the accusation than you. Regardless many of the people you want to help will be A type personalities who are action oriented, result focused, and just want to get the job done. Connect Values and Beliefs with Action, Choices, and Decision they can see. Tie your mindset to behavior. connect the behavior to some methods you can try. Observe.

“I value intimate customer co-creation because I believe customers don’t and cant know what they the solution is without trying something that doesn’t work first. I want to observe my teams frequently interacting with real users to iterate on both the problem and the solution until they create something users love. Hey Lean Startup has some good methods, let’s try some of them”.

Sometimes you Have to Start with Practices

I am fresh from this one. We did some Agile Team training. We started with Agile values and beliefs. The audience recoiled. The folks being trained wanted an instruction manual, they wanted to be told what to do. We pushed back, following an instruction manual misses the point we said. There is nothing agile about following a manual we said. It wont help we said.

It didn’t end well for us. People were confused, people felt preached to, people felt they weren’t getting what they needed from the agile training. We did a retrospective, and we pivoted. During our next session, we focused on some mechanics, we Story Mapped, we built Kanbans. We got people comfortable by providing them things they could do. They became much happier. They felt like they had some direction.

We then went back to mindset piece in a later session. This time around the mindset discussion made a lot more sense. We were better able to tie it back to practices they were starting to feel comfortable with.

Be ready to back off, spend some time on the how, some people need to practical tools, it increases the safety to explore a new mindset.

Re framing and Relating

If someone you are coaching is already on the Agile journey chances are they have adopted some Agile practice or other, and are doing it badly. Recently I cam across team that had UX stories built by one team, then functional stories built by another team, and finally a completely different set of stories built by a testing team. After the mandatory face-palm, its time to re-frame and relate the practice in the context of an agile belief system.

Perhaps something along the lines of “We value teams working together, and believe that the chance of building to the same outcomes is much higher when we work on artifacts that are owned by the entire team, as opposed to different team members working on and owning separate artifacts that require translation.”

Stories in and of themselves are not important. Shared ownership are important, small testable valuable increment are important, simple expressive story telling is important. So when a practice is going awry, or even when its going well, re frame from a mindset perspective to make the connection clearer to others.

Start with A Story

Perhaps the most important point, so I saved it for last. As I am writing this I am fresh from participating in twice a week leadership stand-up where one of my clients, a director who was part of the leadership team trying to enable his group through agile concepts, wanted to share something he had read with the rest of the team.

Over the weekend he had read a couple of very interesting articles about how AirBNB had grown there company through a relentless focus on culture and how shaping and living core values had allowed them to scale not just their product but their organization. An organization of ambitious, committed risk takers. He informed me that while we appreciated learning about the importance of value and mindset from me, at least on a cognitive level, it didn’t register emotionally, not really. But reading the AirBNB story did, the story provided a tangible, powerful example that resonated.

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For those interested here are the links to some details behind the AirBNB story.

As a rule, change agents are story tellers, so we need to start there. There are many good stories to tell where a commitment to values have made the difference. I’ll make sure to link to more stories as I find them. Use them to start the Values and Beliefs dialogue.

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