What is the Agile Mindset?

The agile mindset seems to be a mythical abstract quality that is hard to define and often glossed over in agile discussions. It is the outermost ring in the popular metaphor agile onion.

The model tells us the mindset is the most powerful of the layers that make up agile. It is where ‘being agile’ comes from, rather than ‘doing agile’, which is the domain of the inner rings of the onion. But what does this really mean?

My experience has led to the Powers’ definition of the agile mindset. The mindset is defined by just three beliefs:

  • The complexity belief
  • The people belief
  • The proactive belief

There are no more, just these three things.

The complexity belief

Many of the challenges we face are complex adaptive problems, meaning that by trying to solve these problems we change the nature of the problem itself.

An attribute of complex adaptive problems is that the end solution is not predictable at the outset.


CynefinCynefin  is a useful sense making model for problem solving by categorising problems into types of complexity and then determining what approach we should take to generate solutions. We can use Cynefin to categorise problems into 5 types, with each type called a separate domain. Three of these domains are of particular interest when discussing agility.

If the problem sits in the Complicated domain, this means it will require the help of specialists (domain experts) to derive a solution rather than a lay person. The solution can be known in advance through planning and analysis, and the result can be predicted with reasonable accuracy at the outset.  Solving large problems of this nature is achieved efficiently by grouping specialists together to optimise for knowledge and consistency.

An example of a problem in the Complicated domain is building a house. The house can be planned up front, the environment analysed, materials purchased, built, and tested, with the end result hardly deviating from the original plans.

If a problem sits in the Complex domain, the solution can not be predicted in advance because the act of solving the problem changes the problem itself. Often volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity, and an increasing rate of change, play a critical part in defining the challenge of solving problems in the Complex domain. Often there are multiple right options to try when trying to define and solve Complex problems.

An example of a problem in the Complex domain is innovative product design, where feedback and market reaction from initial model releases drive the features of later product models.

Building software products is another example that nearly always falls into the Complex domain.

Agile is for solving problems in the Complex domain.

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” – Abraham Maslow

The third area of interest is the Disorder domain which is represented as a ? in the diagram. This is the default domain for situations where we do not know what type of problem we are facing. In this domain, the solver of problems uses the tools they are most familiar with. In most organisations today, leaders default to industrial management styles and process because that is what they are most familiar with. The effect of not understanding complexity, and as a result, not having the Complexity Belief, is that many leaders are using tools optimised for problems in the Complicated domain to solve problems in the Complex domain.

Enterprise agility is the result of using the right tools for the right problems.

An example of using the wrong tool, i.e. a tool designed for the predictable nature of the Complicated domain for problems that are really in the Complex domain, is the yearly budget cycle.

Doing months of planning to reduce risk and secure funding for the next whole year doesn’t make sense when the problems you are solving are complex adaptive, because the plans are out of date extremely quickly, and this process actually increases the risk of failure significantly.

Another example of using the wrong type of approach for complex adaptive problems is splitting the organisation into ‘the business’ and ‘technology’, or within technology, forming teams around architectural components, services, and skill sets.

These are examples of optimisations for problems we are no longer solving.

Instead, agile teams are optimised around cross-functional teams comprising of ‘business people’ as well as different technology specialisms, so that all the skills that are needed are easy accessible. This is an optimisation to reduce the time it takes to deliver and get feedback. A critical component of success when solving complex adaptive problems.

Cash is not king, it is the number of attempts you get before the cash runs out that drives success” – Eric Ries – The lean start up

Organisations, that embrace agile through the complexity belief, find that the resulting values, principles, practices, and tools, are aligned to solve the problems they face.

The people belief.

Individuals are both independent from and dependent on their teams and organisations. Human beings are interdependent.
Given the right environment (safety, respect, diversity and inclusion) and a motivating purpose, it is possible for trust and self-organisation to arise.
For this to happen, it is necessary to treat everyone with unconditional positive regard.

Michael Sahota gives us one view that the agile manifesto can be simplified to people over process. This set of people beliefs, enable us to make decisions that optimise our people to succeed in solving complex adaptive problems.

If we examine leadership models in a growing company, as Ralph Stacey and Chris Mowles did in their book ‘Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics’, we can see that the management style for bringing the optimal outcome in a complex adaptive environment is for managers to stand outside of the system, manage context, and let the people self-organise.

They go further to say that it is best not to have a solid blueprint of centralised control that defines culture and behaviours, but to let leaders and managers stand outside of the process and identify the minimum constraints and create the context to produce self-organisation.

Self-organisation is the process whereby order arises from local interactions without external control.

5 dysfunctions of a teamFrom Google’s work on creating the perfect team and from work such as the 5 dysfunctions of a team we know that an essential ingredient in creating self-organisation is psychological safety through a high trust environment.

Alistair Cockburn, a signatory to the agile manifesto, identified this need in 2004 in his book Crystal Clear, he called it personal safety, and that this was an early step towards trust, and a ‘critical property to attain’.

The Scrum Guide also details autonomy, the ability to choose how you complete your work, as part of the role descriptions in Scrum. Extreme Programming has Respect and Courage as core values, which are there to facilitate honest feedback and the ability to improve.

The conditions for self-organisation and autonomy, which is a critical attribute of teams that are successful in solving complex adaptive problems, only occur when managers and leadership engage in the positive upward spiral of appropriate delegation and empowerment and teams step up to the challenge with full awareness of what they are trying to achieve.

Peter Senge in his book ‘The Fifth Discipline’ details that the optimal way to motivate people is through purpose. He states that vision without purpose is just a good idea. This is backed up by data in Dan Pink’s book ‘Drive’ and in his popular video on motivation. Dan Pink also gives Autonomy as another key motivator for those solving complex adaptive problems.

If we are to succeed in solving large complex problems we need to create teams that self-organising, motivated, and empowered to make local decisions.

This requires leaders and managers to have the appropriate behaviours and agile governance in place that is based around trust, transparency, and the belief that people are trying to do the right thing.

I propose this is not possible, unless we have a positive belief system around people that allows us to respond in a mature and beneficial way. This was detailed in the poorly named ‘Theory X and Theory Y’ model from Douglas McGregor in the 1960s

If you are a Theory X manager who believes people are only motivated by their own self interest and are lazy if not motivated by carrot and stick behaviour, then how will you put in place the necessary trust model to allow people to self-organise?

It is not enough to pretend to have a positive belief system, this would be unauthentic and during times of stress, the true beliefs will surface. Given many people spend their working lives under some form of stress, this does not bode well for pretenders who are trying to lead people solving complex adaptive problems with beliefs that contradict the agile mindset.

This is backed up by medical science. Stress causes us to create cortisol which changes the way our body functions to the fight or flight responses. For a short period, this elevates our physical abilities. However, production of cortisol and adrenalin changes the way the Reticular Activating System gives us choice of our responses. We effectively only see options available from the ‘survival brain’ of the brain stem or ‘emotional brain’ of the limbic system and not the options usually available to us when relaxed, from the ‘thinking brain’ of the neo-cortex. How we re-act in stressful situations is not what we think, that is not available, but what underlying beliefs we have.

In a recent workshop, we discussed the participant’s behaviours when in a stressed state. The responses were that they saw decisions as binary options. Attendees reported that they were right and the other person was wrong, and that they would expect the absolute best performance out of everyone around them and would react badly if the other person’s performance did not meet expectations.

These behaviours are what you need when fighting bears, or putting out fires, but exactly the wrong behaviours when trying to lead people who are solving complex problems.

cognitive behavioural therapy ABC modelFrom cognitive behavioural therapy, we can borrow the ABC model which describes the creative mode or as Steven Covey puts it, the pro-active and ‘response able’ mode (meaning capable of choosing your response). We can see that actions do not create human responses. Instead, actions are perceived by a person, and that person responds based upon their belief system. Being aware or ‘having emotional intelligence’ is the ability to change one’s belief system such that the response to any action is conscious, positive, and beneficial, and not re-active, impulsive and potentially destructive.

In other words, it is not the external environment and the challenges of work that cause stress and negative behaviours. It is the translating underlying belief that creates behavioural consequence.

Building positive belief systems that allow us to respond in a mature and beneficial way is vital for leaders who are trying to create the right environment for others to solve complex adaptive problems.

To enable the best outcome, leaders can take on a coaching role, often called ‘servant leadership’. From John Whitmore, in his book on ‘Coaching for Performance’, we find that the optimal belief to enable empowerment is one of ‘empathy, unconditional positive regard for those being coached, and congruence’. This is based on work done by Carl Rogers and his work on person centred therapy.

By congruence, he means acting naturally and consistently with one’s own beliefs.

These specific beliefs result in compassion and the desire to help others be the best that they can be.  It changes one’s desires and resulting actions from selfishness to service. This is exactly what is needed to allow autonomy and self-organisation.

This is what Einstein meant when he said:

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

The problems we face now require a new way of thinking. Agile and Lean are frameworks for surviving, growing, and stabilising our organisations in rapidly changing complex adaptive systems. New leadership and management styles are needed in the new social and business situations we are facing. These can only be achieved with a different belief model or in other words, the agile mindset, as defined here.

The proactive belief

Proactivity in the relentless pursuit of improvement.

This belief is derived from and a consequence of the other two beliefs. I nearly didn’t include this belief, but without it, it may leave one without a direction in which to travel to solve complex problems.

The problem statement changes as we interact with it. It is necessary to learn as much as we can and as often as we can, so that we are able to determine how the problem has changed and what we need to do next.

This process is built into the various Agile frameworks, and is encapsulated in the empirical process, however, it is surprising how many product teams do not collect feedback on whether their output created the right outcome.

To enable the other beliefs to actually deliver success, there needs to be a pro-active effort to collect feedback on what works and what does not, both with the deliverable and the process which delivers it.

The key point here, is that you must improve the process you are using as well as the product. This means agile and lean processes are dynamic in their nature. The Cynefin framework defines these processes as emergent. That is the process emerges as you learn more. You can’t emerge a process without solid understanding of process design and the underlying understanding of people as defined here.

This is why you need people who have the agile mindset at all levels of the continuous process creation otherwise the decisions made to change the process will deviate from the optimum.

Transparency, Inspection, AdaptionDemming created the Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle, often referred to as the Demming cycle. The 3 pillars of Scrum are Transparency, Inspection, Adaption, that like the Demming cycle are implementations of the relentless pursuit of improvement.

From Lean we have the Japanese work Kaizen, which in process design means ‘Continuous Improvement’. This is the same idea.

Putting it all together

These three beliefs define the agile mindset. If you understand the true nature of the problems you are trying to solve, engage people in the right way, and proactively and iteratively work towards the outcome you need, you have the agile mindset, and a fighting chance of success!

From this mindset you can derive all the agile values, principles, practices, and tools, in the agile onion.


Thank you for help with proof reading, reviews, and corrections: Russell Smith, John Gedge, Sarah Toogood, Heather Powers, Charley Allen, Luca Minudel.


Read “What is an Agile Coach?” next.


Simon Powers is the CEO and founder of Adventures with Agile. He has over 20 years’ experience helping very large organisations to thrive in the market and to be better places to work. His approach led him to create our transformative ICAgile Certified Enterprise Agile Coaching training courses, which run worldwide and online. Simon is one of the first ICE-EC experts in the world.