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What Exactly is the Agile Mindset?

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Key takeaways

  • Remembering key themes makes using agile more beneficial; these combine into what many call the agile mindset.
  • Defining the term “agile mindset” is difficult. Many agile practitioners use it without really being able to define it.
  • I propose that the agile mindset includes the following themes: respect, collaboration, improvement and learning cycles, pride in ownership, focus on delivering value, and the ability to adapt to change.
  • Teams can use agile practices without the agile mindset. But it’s the mindset, these themes, that transforms groups into high-performing teams, delivering amazing results for their customers.
  • Identify how to nourish and cultivate the agile mindset.


If an executive who doesn’t know the first thing about agile asked you at a company reception to define what it means to have an “agile mindset,” could you do it before he drains the last swallow from his glass and wanders off - and it do clearly enough for it to stick even if it is his second drink? What would you include, and how would you hit home the need for cultivating that mindset? I’ve challenged myself to find that summary, and here share both my journey and the final results.

Through my career as a developer and Scrum Master, I’ve worked with many different teams and organizations, and attended a variety of meetups and conferences. Many times, I heard of the importance of the “agile mindset.” I’ve even used the phrase myself. But when I think about defining it, in a precise and clear manner, I’m stumped. I get it, but not well enough to define it for others. That’s a problem. I’ve worked with teams that understand the process of scrum well enough, and even get some of the agile principles, but the mindset isn’t there yet, so that’s where my training and coaching often needs to be focused. Getting the mindset right is what moves teams to high-performing, a level of performance that Ken Blanchard and Lyssa Adkins both describe with terms such as “optimal productivity,” achieving “astonishing results” and “a team that can do anything.”

To some extent, it seems that the agile mindset should simply be: “The set of attitudes and beliefs supporting an agile work environment, so that teams can become high-performing.” That’s okay. But far from sufficient. It is too vague to provide a map of how to get to that state, or to simply assess the current status and determine targets for improvement.  

One of my mentors challenged me to be ready to define an agile (or scrum) term in 30 seconds or less, without using the word “agile” or other agile terms to define it. He put it this way: “Suppose a new executive has started at your company, and is heading down the elevator with you. She asks you to define something that we in the agile community take for granted. How would you define it?” So, the elevator definition of the agile mindset can’t just be “the set of attitudes supporting an agile work environment.” There needs to be more meat to it, especially if this exec doesn’t really understand agile. Otherwise, I’ll just leave her scratching her head, and wondering what value the agile coach, and agile in general, brings to the company.

Certainly, one could defer to the manifesto and principles. I might be able to summarize all that in 30 seconds. But what about the pillars of agile, according to Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber? What about the scrum values? Alistair Cockburn’s Heart of Agile? Additionally, there are the influential works outside of the agile community describing what makes a great work environment, and why staff are motivated to work in such environments. Dan Pink’s Drive, Carol Dweck’s discussion of the growth mindset, Patrick Lencioni’s fables, the concepts behind leadership styles, and Jurgen Appelo’s books and games on management come to mind.

There are so many possibilities. You couldn’t possibly describe them in a 30-second elevator ride. I could (and sometimes do) talk about such topics for days on end!

I have sometimes consulted at companies making a transition to agile; many in these organizations wonder if it is just jargon, a style du jour, or games and gimmicks. I have therefore wanted to work out a quick way to convey the themes of agile evident across these foundation documents. Just as my mentor had challenged me - what’s a 30-second definition for an agile mindset?

I wrote out the statements from the Manifesto, the Principles, and many of the other concepts described above. Then, I summarized each with a word or phrase. Value, collaboration, learning, change, respect, value, PDCA cycle, collaboration, inspect and adapt…. I noticed some themes that appeared multiple times. This group of ideas, this way of approaching work, is what I can use to define the agile mindset.

I propose the following:

An agile mindset is the set of attitudes supporting an agile working environment. These include respect, collaboration, improvement and learning cycles, pride in ownership, focus on delivering value, and the ability to adapt to change. This mindset is necessary to cultivate high-performing teams, who in turn deliver amazing value for their customers.

Now, if this executive that you were chatting with wanted more information, you could, perhaps, dive deeper into these qualities or attitudes:

  • Respect - Most teamwork needs to start with respect for your fellow teammates. At the organizational level, respect for colleagues at all levels of the organization, the customer, and the product itself is also key to maintaining an appropriate work environment.
  • Collaboration - With increasingly complex systems being built, and subsequently complex problems being solved, no one person would be able to hold all the necessary information in their head to complete a task. Additionally, working with other parts of the organization in a collaborative way will decrease the number of handoffs necessary to deliver. The facilitation of collaboration, through tools, office space, and behavioral norms, can improve the quality and number of collaborative discussions.
  • Improvement Cycle - No process should be written in stone. There is always room for improvement. An organization supporting such behavior would have a light hold on procedural adherence.
  • Learning Cycle - Allowing individuals to try something new, and yes, possibly fail, gives the staff an opportunity to learn and improve themselves. Individuals should not be dinged for mistakes, but rather supported for taking risks and increasing the group’s knowledge.
  • Pride in Ownership - Even if no one person owns a particular piece of code, pride in what is delivered increases the desire to deliver high-quality work.
  • Focus on Delivering Value - The main point of an agile team is to deliver value to the customer. The team should be able to focus on what is of greatest value at the time, and deliver with the knowledge that others in the organization (managers and scrum masters, for example) are there to help remove any impediments.
  • Ability to Adapt to Change - If the customer calls two hours after a meeting, and wants changes, the organization rolls with it. Any process to manage this change can’t be an impediment to the change.

This mindset is the environment within which agile teams flourish. It isn’t a prerequisite for an agile adoption, nor is it required for a functional agile team. But if this mindset is cultivated and nourished, whether before, during or after agile adoption, the teams (and therefore the company) will experience amazing results - happy employees delivering great value and making customers elated with the results.

I’ve worked with teams where such a mindset is as natural as the air they breathe. At least, that’s how it seemed to me, as a developer on such teams. Looking back, I now realize that there was quite a bit of effort put into developing that mindset. I see in retrospect that the leaders of these teams had a desired state in mind as they worked with us. As the team members went about their days, small words of encouragement and appreciation were used to grow behaviors that exemplified these themes (“Great collaboration, folks! What else?”). Likewise, when behaviors ran counter to this mindset, they were discouraged (“Let’s have just one conversation at a time, please. That way, each person’s input is respected.”). Using this system of successive approximation, the team was rewarded for growth in one set of behaviors – creeping ever closer to the agile mindset – and discouraged in behaviors that didn’t exemplify elements of the mindset.

As an agile coach, I’m still learning how to cultivate and prune appropriately. I’m also learning that simply sharing the vision strengthens it. Drawing attention to the culture (current and future) of the team, changes behavior. In a short exchange with a rather quiet developer, I mentioned that I wanted to make sure that the team culture was such that she felt comfortable expressing her opinion (thus supporting Respect, Collaboration, and potentially Ability to Change). She was a little surprised, noting that she hadn’t worked in a company where culture was consciously managed. However, within days, I noticed that she was indeed talking more, sharing her ideas. I had simply exposed the existing culture, and our plans for it, to her.

What small steps can you take today, to inch closer to an agile mindset? Where can you share your vision of a great working culture? Where can you offer appreciation of behavior that fits the agile mindset?

About the Author

Susan McIntosh is an agile coach and scrum master. A former teacher and consultant, she has been drawn to agile practices, especially the training and change management that are a part of transformations.  She finds analogies to improving workplace culture in her varied experience in theatre and dance, yoga, programming, and parenting. Susan is an active participant in the agile community in Denver, Colorado. 

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