The Agile Elephant and the agile mindset

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly

African Elephant

Confession: I’ve been avoiding the words “agile mindset” for some time because I don’t know what it is. And, completely by coincidence, I’ve recently had a couple of encounters that have caused me to think again. So let me explain…

I repeatedly find myself wrestling with the question “What is agile?” The question came up recently in a new form when I was invited to give a talk on “The Agile Mindset.” I appealed for help on LinkedIn. I got some great answers and the diversity of answers confirmed what I though: it is hard to describe “the agile mindset” in a short or generally agreed form.

The first problem is that to explain “the Agile mindset” one first has to agree what agile is, and is not. I have my own view but I know there is a diversity of opinion so I find it useful to describe “Agile” with the story of the blind men examining an elephant: one feels the leg and says “This is a mighty tree”, another feels the tusk and says “It is a strong sword”, another the trunk and says “It is a strong snake” and so on. Each interprets the part they encounter as the whole yet the whole, to one who has never seen an elephant, can be hard to comprehend.

Illustration from the Natural History Museum, London

The same is true for agile.

The literalist looks in the dictionary and says “Agile is about being fast, reactive and responding to the outside”, the engineer looks at agile and says “It is about doing quality work so we may deliver more”, the Scum aficionado says “It is about high performing teams and alignment”, the Lean thinker says “It is about reducing work in progress and simplifying workflows” and the management consultant says “It is about delivering more with less.”

All are right, none is wrong. And while that is a problem in describing what agile is it is also a strength. Agile is multi-faceted and offers “something for everyone.” While different people emphasis different things it also means the whole is more than the sum of the parts. If you can harness high performing teams, with engineering quality, low WIP and reactive processes then you can deliver the fabled faster, better, cheaper.

But that also makes it hard.

It also goes some way to explaining why “Agile Coaches” never agree: each has their own interpretation of how to put those pieces together to make the whole – to change metaphor, everyone approaches the jigsaw differently.

And again that is right because every jigsaw, every application of agile, exists in a unique context and must be faced on its own terms – to quote Tolstoy: “All happy families are the same, all unhappy families are unhappy in their own unique way.” (And long time readers might notice I just contradicted myself.)

And one important reason why the jigsaw is always different is: in completing the last jigsaw, and since completing it, you, and everyone else as learned, the bodies may be the same but the people – and their minds – are different.

Ultimately, I still claim “Agile” is learning, specifically organizational learning: the thesis I laid out in my first book over 10 years ago Changing Software Development.

Hence I say: The only thing you can do wrong in agile is work the same as you did three months ago. To be agile one should always be learning and changing as a result of that learning.

I should explain that some more in another post, and I’ll have more to say about the agile mindset soon.

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