What is the Agile Mindset?

Difference Between Agile Mindset, Values, and Principles

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 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.


cynefin framework 2022
By Tom@thomasbcox.com (a re-drawing of the prior artwork found here)

Cynefin  is a useful sense-making model for problem-solving. It helps 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.

Complicated vs Complex

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 layperson. The solution can be known in advance through planning and analysis. In addition to this, 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 upfront. The environment can be analysed. Materials can be purchased ahead. The house can be built, and tested, with the end result hardly deviating from the original plans.

However, if a problem sits in the Complex domain, the solution can not be predicted in advance. This is because the act of solving the problem changes the problem itself. 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. In this case, 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 Disorder Domain

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 processes. This is likely because that is what they are most familiar with. Many leaders do not understand complexity and as a result, do not have the Complexity Belief. As a result, many leaders are using tools that have been optimised for problems in the Complicated domain to attempt to solve problems in the Complex domain.

Which approach for which domain?

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

The yearly budget cycle is an example of using the wrong tool. A tool designed for the predictable nature of the Complicated domain for problems that are really in the Complex domain.

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. This is because the plans are out of date extremely quickly. In fact, 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 that we are no longer solving.

Instead, agile teams are optimised around cross-functional teams, comprising of ‘business people’ as well as different technology specialisms. This way, all the skills that are needed are easily accessible. This is an optimisation to reduce the time it takes to deliver and get feedback. It’s 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.

People over process

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.

Ralph Stacey and Chris Mowles examined leadership models in a growing company in their book ‘Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics’. From this, 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. And rather let leaders and managers stand outside of the process and identify the minimum constraints and create the context to produce self-organisation.

Self organisation

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

From 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. Both of which are there to facilitate honest feedback and the ability to improve.

The conditions for self-organisation and autonomy are critical attributes of teams that are successful in solving complex adaptive problems. These 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.

Purpose and vision

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 bAook ‘Drive’ and in his popular video on motivation. Dan Pink also gives Autonomy as another key motivator for those solving complex adaptive problems.

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

This requires leaders and managers to have the appropriate behaviours and agile governance in place. These are based on 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

A positive belief system

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 to solve 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, the production of cortisol and adrenalin changes the way the Reticular Activating System gives us choice in our responses. We effectively only see options available from the ‘survival brain’ of the brain stem or ‘emotional brain’ of the limbic system. We don’t see the options usually available to us when relaxed. Those from the ‘thinking brain’ of the neo-cortex. How we react in stressful situations is not what we think (since that is not fully available), but what underlying beliefs we have.

Stress and behaviour

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. They also found 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. However, they are exactly the wrong behaviours when trying to lead people who are solving complex problems.

stress and the agile mindset

Emotional intelligence

From cognitive behavioural therapy, we can borrow the ABC model. This 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. 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 reactive, 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 consequences.

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.

Servant leadership

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. In this way, 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 proactive 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 a 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.

Demming created the Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle, often referred to as the Demming cycle. The 3 pillars of Scrum are Transparency, Inspection, and Adaption, which, 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, then you have the agile mindset. And along with it, 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 proofreading, reviews, and corrections: Russell Smith, John Gedge, Sarah Toogood, Heather Powers, Charley Allen, Luca Minudel.

Read “What is an Agile Coach?” next.


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12 thoughts on “What is the Agile Mindset?”

  1. Pingback: What is an Agile Coach? - Adventures with Agile

    1. If you are building software, you are in the complex domain. If you have multiple right answers you are probably in the complex domain, if the problem statement changes faster than you can implement your solution or the problem statement changes by the very act of working on it, then you are in the complex domain.

      Most of all, you are in the complex domain if the solution is not predictable at the outset.

      Hope that helps.

  2. Pingback: Agile Toolbox – proagile


  4. If the expected end result keep changing, how do we draw a picture of success at the beginning ?

    1. Hi Afzal – We can look at the current problems, and turn them into desired outcomes. We can then motivate around these outcomes, and iterate our solutions towards achieving them. Hope that helps

  5. Great insights from the article here. Very relevant in todays time when the organization needs to be agile to adapt to the fast changing landscape not anymore to grow but to survive.

  6. Great insights offered by the article. To be agile you need to reach a state of opening your mind and embracing all the agile principles, and always go out of your confort zone to also embrace those that cannot naturally be enabled in you. Is it proactive approach, received obsessed mindset, growth mindset, servant leadership, emotional intelligence or trying to put them all together – agile mindset means that someone will give himself/herself the space to at least explore all of the aspects.

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