What is an Agile Mindset?

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What is an Agile Mindset?

What is an Agile Mindset?
Andrew Coates
10 min
14 Sep. 2021

In the early days of my project management career, as a traditional project manager, agile practitioners that I worked with would sometimes tell me:

“You just need to adopt an agile mindset!”.

This drove me nuts. What is a mindset? How do I find one? How do I know if it’s agile? And how do I “adopt” a mindset anyway?

I just didn’t get it.

Looking back, after years of leading agile teams, working with other agile coaches, and obtaining agile certifications, I finally got it. There is such a thing as an agile mindset. And now I see there is also a traditional mindset — the one I had before transitioning to, or “adopting”, an agile mindset.

I wish I could go back in time and tell those agile practitioners, “I get it now!”

What is a mindset, anyway?

Wikipedia defines a mindset as “a set of assumptions, methods, or notions held by one or more people or groups of people”.

Wikipedia further elaborates:

“A mindset may be so firmly established that it creates a powerful incentive within these people or groups to continue to adopt or accept prior behaviours, choices, or tools.”

Today, I see that when I was a working as a traditional project manager, I didn’t really know I had a traditional mindset, driving my behaviours, choices and even tool selection. I certainly didn’t know my mindset wasn’t agile. In fact, I thought that agile was maybe just waterfall done in iterations!

But now I see the real difference. And in my agile coaching, leadership and teaching roles, I strive to do a better job to help colleagues who are in that space which I occupied so many years ago and not just tell them “You need to adopt an agile mindset!”

It’s not easy. But I feel it is important as it could speed up learning and understanding. And maybe not take so long to get it, as it took me.

How can we detect an agile mindset?

We can’t see into someone’s brain to view their thinking, But perhaps there are some indicators in how a person acts or what they say to detect when a viewpoint is likely from a traditional mindset, and when the viewpoint is likely from an agile mindset.

Considering potential agile mindset indicators, I first thought about value delivery — “Is the focus of the conversation on delivering value, or is the focus mostly on factors like schedule or budget?”

I think many agile practitioners would agree that focusing on value is a good indicator of an agile mindset; however, in my experience, value can be subjective and difficult to gauge. I find that the definition of value varies widely between projects or products, and what is valuable from one customer’s viewpoint may be very different from others.

I really wanted simple indicators that were easy to identify, observable - in either speech or behaviour - and could be applied universally.

What I wanted was a simple agile mindset detector. And this is what I can up with — initially, a set of two indicators:

The DRIVER indicator, along the X-axis, works like this: as a leader, whether in the role of scrum master, project manager, or coach, we are often in a position to suggest or direct actions which we believe, based on our knowledge or experience, will help achieve the desired outcome. This could be to meet a project milestone, achieve a sprint goal, or simply to resolve an issue or impediment.

To check for an agile mindset, consider the following question:

“Is the primary driver of the suggested action based on avoidance, e.g. to avoid something negative from happening, or is it more driven from courage, e.g. to enable something positive to happen?”

In my experience, a traditional mindset often focuses on avoiding negative things from happening, while the agile mindset focuses on continuous learning, experimentation, and innovation; in other words, achieving something positive. This is especially true in the team context, which values “individuals and interactions over processes and tools”, as per the Agile Manifesto.

Telltales for the traditional mindset are statements made by leaders such as, “We want to avoid X, so we need to do Y”.

An example is “We don’t want to miss the next milestone, so the team will have to work overtime”.

This is an avoidance-driven statement, and likely from a traditional mindset. Switching viewpoints from the negative “We want to avoid X” to the more positive, broader perspective of “How might we achieve Y?”

This takes courage; courage to fail and still have confidence the team can learn and improve next time. In this example, a statement like “The sprint is ending soon, what can we do to achieve the sprint goal?” is a way to focus on the positive, and open up for innovative suggestions from the team.

Once I was a bit surprised when the team wanted to try a new tool to solve a particular blocker near the end of a sprint. After a quick trial, it turned out the new tool was just what was needed. I was proud the team had the courage to step out of the box and give it a go.

The MOTIVATION Indicator

The second indicator is a bit tricky, but equally important. It is the “MOTIVATION” indicator on the Y-axis, which relates to another part of the Agile Manifesto: “Build projects around motivated individuals”.

To assess this indicator, consider the following question:

“Is the action proposed by the leader in the form of an external directive, e.g. telling the team what to do (a form of extrinsic motivation), or is it directed to increase the team’s internal motivation (intrinsic motivation)?”

Studies have shown that extrinsic motivation, which comes from influences outside the individual or team, is far less powerful than intrinsic motivation, which comes from within the team, and is not dependent on external direction or reward. Why is this important? Because with extrinsic motivation the responsibly for the outcome is with the leader, while with intrinsic motivation, the responsibly for the outcome is with the team.

And that is exactly where we want it; with the team.

How can we do this?

In agile ways of working, we aim for self-organising teams, which means placing high value on intrinsic motivation from within the team. The challenge is, how can we foster self-motivation in the team to achieve desired outcomes?

According to executive coach Susan Gilell-Stuy:

“For (intrinsic motivation) to be fully effective it takes willingness on the part of those in leadership to give up control, and trust in the creativeness and intelligence of their employees”

Gilell-Stuy suggests one approach to give up control and still foster confidence in the team’s ability to deliver, is to focus on the higher concepts of purpose, autonomy and mastery. Author David Pink agrees with this approach in his book “Drive, the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”.

He asserts that knowledge workers have a need for autonomy; the ability to self-direct and to manage their own lives. And tapping into that human need allows us to move the MOTIVATION indicator from extrinsic towards intrinsic, which is what we want.

Putting the indicators together

Let’s looks at a scenario and see how to put these indicators in action. Imagine you are a delivery manager, attending a product launch planning meeting for a new financial product. A senior business sponsor is concerned about potential information security risks.

She understands the company has moved to new agile ways of working but she still feels accountable to ensure adequate testing has been done before the product is released to the market.

As you attend the meeting, you are reminded this has been one of the most successful teams to transition to the new agile ways of working. You are curious if the business sponsor has an agile mindset, or is she coming from a more traditional way of thinking?

Let’s imagine two different scenarios:

Scenario 1: In the meeting the business sponsor states “I don’t want the company to lose face or worse yet, for the customers to be impacted if the new product has security flaws. I know the mandatory testing was passed but I want additional security reviews to be performed before we go live.”

Scenario 2: In the meeting the business sponsor states “I know the team has delivered a number of products before without security issues, and that the mandatory security testing has passed for this new product. I’m confident the team will deliver for this product as well. In fact, I suspect they have developed a pretty good security review process. Let’s ask them if they can to do a walkthrough of how they do it so that our new teams can learn and follow their best practices.”

Which of these two statement would rate higher on the agile mindset detector?

Likely Scenario 2. Not only does it show courage that the team can deliver, it also inspires the team to be a role model for other teams, which would help foster a high level of intrinsic motivation.

For knowledge workers, the approach in Scenario 2 could even inspire a higher level of performance from the team. After all, if they are recognized and proud of being the team that sets the standard for the best practices, they would work very hard to avoid any security flaws in their products that would tarnish their hard-earned reputation.


The next time you find yourself in a situation where you feel your new agile mindset detector might be registering on the traditional side, ask yourself:

“What might we change to increase either or both of these indicators?”

Even if this is just a conversation you have with yourself, I find it can guide you in the direction of having, and keeping, an agile mindset.

And hopefully this is more useful than someone just saying “you need to have an agile mindset!”

This article was written by Andrew Coates and was first published on his Medium.

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