In the summer of 2023, The Adaptavist Group convened some of the industry's leading agile experts for a special roundtable—Agile back to basics: foundations, interpretations, and paving the way forward.
With so much experience in one place, we invited a few of those experts to share more in a series of fireside talks—a fantastic opportunity to delve even deeper into some of the issues surrounding agile transformation.
For this last fireside chat, The Adaptavist Group's own Jon Kern, Digital Transformation Consultant and Co-author of the Agile Manifesto, sat down with Tim Ottinger, Senior Consultant at Industrial Logic, to discuss:
- What's more important—an agile mindset, processes, or tools?
- How interaction and investigation are key to an agile mindset.
- The relevance and accessibility of agile principles and practices to people joining the workforce.
Watch the full fireside chat here or keep reading to get the key insights
More than a mindset?
"Before all this agile stuff existed, I would say that people who are able to really work together and kick ass and have that wonderful spirit, they'll make their own process and tools if need be because they have a shared vision of where they're going. And to me, that represents the agile mindset."
We hear time and time again that an agile mindset is essential for transformational success. But is that all you need? Jon and Tim discussed the hierarchy of people first, followed by processes and tools, while recognising that an agile mindset is only useful with the practices and technology that support it. That's why a holistic approach to transformation is essential.
"What makes a great athlete? Well, he's got a strong desire to win; he's got a heart and a soul, and he’s a smart competitor. But if he can't stand up, run, or kick, he’s not going to get very far. I imagine on top of that, there's probably a big helping of technique. So the question is, does the mindset grow out of the technique, or does the technique grow out of the mindset?"
Curiosity over judgement
"If we dig into that curiosity space, we find better ways of working. You talk about the agile mindset—that your head's in the right space, you're curious, eager, bright, focused on some result, and humble enough to recognise that I expected the wrong thing. I think that's a big part of it."
Often, an agile mindset is put to the test when a developer intends something to happen, but it doesn't. At that point, they have a decision to make. They can feel disappointment and frustration, blaming the reality and regarding it as something to be corrected. Or they can have a more agile attitude, recognising what they expected didn't occur and ask questions: what did I miss? What can I learn here?
Being comfortable with this 'fuzziness', as Jon calls it, rather than turning to a more machine-like approach and doing work for the sake of it, enables creativity and innovation to thrive.
"Having the ability to stay with that fuzziness and be able to embrace [the fact], you might have to take a step and see how it feels … We don't know everything, and that's ok. That can be a power."
Conversations and investigations
"That's a big part of the agile mindset—to be humble enough to talk to the folks you're working with or the customer. If you're doing non-software stuff and trying to apply agile elsewhere, that's a big tip. Just talk to each other and figure out what you really need to do, and do the least amount possible to satisfy the next step."
The first value in the Agile Manifesto is 'individuals and interactions over processes and tools'. And this is something we need to remind our teams to embody constantly. No matter the business level, we're not always very good at having true conversations and talking about what we want.
That figuring out together is one expression of an exploratory agile mindset and having the humility to know that your plan won't be perfect. Tim used the example of test-driven development, where a failed test could lead you to say, "The test is bad". But mistakes happen—like syntax errors or using the wrong operator—and that's okay. What's important is curiosity to figure out why it failed so you can work towards fixing it.
"You're going for a market fit, and that's a fuzzy thing indeed. Is this in a form they can use? Is this a way they would like to use it? And now we're doing experiments for human beings. Can we make them happy? Can we make them productive? Can we make them awesome? Which, of course, is a modern agile mind too."
What about the newbies?
"That attitude and mindset is something you might not have at the start, but you can grow that way of thinking about things. And it works at every level."
Jon and the other Agile Manifesto authors were all experienced software developers when they devised this way of working. But how is someone straight out of college or new to the industry supposed to grasp agile principles and practices immediately? No wonder people find it easier to follow more prescriptive ways of working where there are clear rules and processes to follow.
That said, the industry has to take responsibility rather than blaming people for things they don't know. A step-by-step approach, perhaps starting small with technical skills, can help people see the benefits of agile working and provide a safe space for them to learn, fail, and learn again.
"You should never ask people to hover in mid-air because they can't. And you shouldn't be mad at them because they can't. When you tell someone who's new that they need to think like an experienced agile programmer or project manager, you have put something out of their reach. You're asking them something that is physically impossible."