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Beginner's Mind - An Approach to Listening

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Beginner's Mind is the idea of approaching things without preconceptions, pre-conceived ideas or prior judgements. This approach is useful to agile practitioners and coaches, inviting us to enter situations and observe what is really happening before we act. At Agile2008 Jean Tabaka and David Hussman ran a group workshop on the topic.

The workshop involved the participants, sitting at tables, who recorded their discoveries in reaction to questions that Jean and David posed. To set the stage, and imagine Beginner's Mind, we were given a quote from: Abbess Zenkei Blanche Hartman (in Suzuki Roshi's epic work "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind"):

"Beginner's mind is Zen practice in action. It is the mind that is innocent of preconceptions and expectations, judgments and prejudices. Beginner's mind is just present to explore and observe and see 'things as-it-is.' I think of beginner's mind as the mind that faces life like a small child, full of curiosity and wonder and amazement. 'I wonder what this is? I wonder what that is? I wonder what this means?' Without approaching things with a fixed point of view or a prior judgment, just asking 'what is it?' "

Of Beginner's Mind, Suzuki says "Once we decide we know everything, we shut down opportunities to learn." To exercise Beginner's Mind we must stay in the present. Perhaps the hardest activity for a coach, staying in the present, requires that we are "fully conscious and aware in the present moment" and "sensing and actualizing new realities".

Our reactions to Beginner's mind: Mindful, Fully Present, Curiosity, No Expectations, Staying out of our own way, Pause Reflect, Many Possibilities.

Expert Mind Trap

David explained that in Expert's Mind many possibilities have been narrowed down to a few, or even one.  Once we enter the Expert Mind trap we think we know everything and are no longer open to learning new things. This is what leads to prescriptive Agile adoptions – ones (as Amr described) where the consultant walks in and assumes that they know what is best for the client without studying the current situation. David went on to say in the music world no one would ever describe a fellow musician as an expert. Instead they would say she's: great, skilled, really talented. Some examples of Expert Mind that group noted:

  • Making the Daily Standup Three Times a week
  • Dropping a Practice before gaining any experience with it
  • Developers want to exclude Testers and Tech Writers during planning and estimation
  • Technical Leads will prep "the iteration plan" pre-populating it with tasks, estimates and assignments all in the name of saving time during the planning meeting.

So how do we share knowledge that we have and still retain Beginner's Mind? Jean's approach:

  • Show up – be present mentally as well as physically
  • Find what has heart for you
  • Tell your truth about it
  • Let go of the outcome

Letting go appears to be key.

We discussed the questions: When were you complacent? When did you anonymously drop a practice? Where is your agility growing stale?

Finally we all finished the sentence: "I would embrace Beginner's Mind by ...":

  • Observe, Pause (to release pre-conceptions), Observe, Reflect, Ask Questions and Listen
  • Taking a step back
  • Why Over How
  • Each day, ask five times why with interest and without arrogance
  • Bring more silence when I am in the room
  • ...
So when faced with a situation consider stepping back, letting go of preconceptions and taking the time to look afresh.

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Community comments

  • Thanks so much for the summary of this excellent session!

    by Michael Tardiff,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    I've been looking for a good post-facto description, and yours is the best so far. I was there, and enjoyed every minute.

    Thanks for quoting my "Embrace Beginner's Mind..." answer. A minor correction, if you don't mind: I'm sure I mumbled when I said it, but I wrote "innocence" instead of "interest." So it's

    Each day, ask five times why with innocence and without arrogance

    And I've been working on it! ;-)


    + Michael

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