Agile is NOT a Mindset

Some agile purists get all het up when you talk about agile methodology. “It’s not a methodology, it’s a mindset!” they scream mid-foot-stamp. Ah, but is it? Is agile so simple as to be boiled down to… an attitude?

Why the purists say agile is a mindset

Defining agile as a mindset can seemingly be traced back to (blamed on) thought leader Ahmed Sidky, who in 2010 created the diagram below.

Agile is a Mindset Diagram by Ahmed Sidky
Thanks, Ahmed, for provoking 13 years of arguments

But let’s just have a look at the thing that started it all, shall we. The Agile Manifesto is where the modern understanding of business agility comes from. Because it contains values and principles, purists argue that it describes a way of thinking, not a way of doing.

But that’s nonsense. Here are a few of them:

Principle 3: Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.

Principle 4: Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.

Principle 12: At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

These principles (and others) literally tell us what to do and how to do it. Sure, they don’t mention specific practices such as Kanban boards, sprint planning, or backlog grooming. But that doesn’t mean they’re not describing a methodology. It’s a loose methodology, it’s still a methodology.

The problem with calling agile a mindset

Calling agile a mindset completely oversimplifies what agile is actually all about. If agile is just a mindset, then saying you’re agile is no different to saying you’re happy. Being happy’s great, but does it mean you’re getting shit done? Not necessarily. You could be drinking cocktails in the garden with your feet up.

Atlassian defines an agile mindset as this:

A thought process that involves understanding, collaborating, learning, and staying flexible to achieve high-performing results.

Wrike defines it as this:

A flexible way of thinking that enables people to react quickly and adapt to changing situations.

But a person can feel these things – flexible, adaptable, collaborative – without actually doing them. A person could love collaborating with others but not be a great collaborator because of their communication style or tools. Likewise, a person could feel distinctly un-agile but still work and deliver in an agile way.

For example, I wouldn’t consider myself very agile as a person. I like to plan out everything first, make things perfect before I publish them (none of this “minimum viable products” crap) and sometimes I think collaboration slows me down. I have a waterfall mindset.

At the same time, I work on an agile marketing team that delivers quickly, changes direction quickly, collaborates, experiments, and focuses more on doing than planning to do. And we work in sprints in one of the premier agile work management platforms: Jira. Sure, it gives me whiplash sometimes, but it shows that you can do agile even if you don’t feel agile. Doing agile is what the Agile Manifesto was written for, which is why calling it a mindset is only half the job.

An agile mindset is important, but it’s the methodology that matters

It’s important for teams to understand why they should adopt the agile methodology before they do. Just like it’s important to be happy before you can do good, productive work. Even if a team member doesn’t feel agile in themselves, they should recognize why agile is the right approach to delivering work quickly and effectively. That is where the benefit lies in referring to an agile mindset. But that’s also where the benefit ends.

Engineer Leon Purton said this:

It is the mindset that changes organisations, the methods just support it.

I don’t think that’s true at all. That’s like saying I get all my work done because I’m enjoy it. Plenty of people hate their jobs but still do great work, and that’s because they have the infrastructure in place to do it. To do mine, I need to-do lists, deadlines, colleagues I can rely on, research tools, and a collaborative workspace where I can offer and receive feedback. (Oh, and a good internet connection!) If I was happy as a clam, but didn’t have those things, I’d get nothing done. Motivation is only one element of an effective and productive work day.

So to be honest, I’d probably go as far as to say that you don’t need an agile mindset to practice the agile methodology effectively. It would be useful if you did, but whatever your ethos, as long as you’re doing agile, you’re agile.

Christopher is a self-confessed nerd who’d probably take the cake on Mastermind if Star Trek: Voyager was his specialist subject. He writes fiction about time travel, conspiracies and aliens; loves roller coasters, hiking and Christmas; and hates carpet, rom-coms and anything with chilli in it. He’s written extensively for technology companies and Atlassian partners and specializes in translating complicated technical concepts, specs and jargon into readable, benefits-driven copy that casual readers will understand.