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Blog February 7, 2017

Mindfulness for an Agile Mindset

Addam Tait
A picture of a scrum master meditating on a table in a meeting.

What to do with an Agile Mindset

In this post, I will explore how ideas from meditation can help teams perform more effectively and create better products. If you've been exposed to the idea of agile teams then it's almost certain that you've also heard the often repeated axiom, "Agile is a mindset." The purpose of this phrase is to understand that the processes that have emerged from the shift to agile are the result of a mindset shift. Applying the processes without regard to your situational context and an understanding of their purpose has the potential to cause more harm than good, especially in highly complex organizations. However, simply understanding the mindset isn't enough. You and your organization won't realize the full benefits of agile until you can turn the application of the mindset into a sustained habit.

Creating new habits is difficult. Whether you are trying to attend the gym with more regularity, cook more meals at home, or change the way you interact with people - creating these habits takes sustained effort. Once you add the complexity of having to change the way your mind fundamentally approaches problems, you can see why organizations often have difficulty in successfully transitioning to agile.

Riding the Bike Backwards

If creating new habits is difficult, relearning old habits can often seem downright impossible. Watch this video about learning to ride a backwards bike to see this (hilariously) demonstrated. This provokes a fundamental question, how do we become better at something? What makes world-class athletes amazing at their sport? What is it that gives world-class chefs the ability to craft exquisite meals? Is there a better way to learn how to ride the backwards bike? You might say experience and practice, and you would be right (sort of). Experience and practice are certainly important, but equally important is being sure that you are practicing the right thing. Deliberate practice is the idea of not just practicing for the sake of practicing, but being engaged with what you want to accomplish and breaking down what you want to learn into its constituent elements.

FISHER: Instead of just practicing, you are focused; you're engaged; it's like a rubber band. You are constantly stretching the rubber band, and you don't want to stretch it to the point that it breaks, but you want it to have continual pressure. In other words, you want to try and do things that you are not able to do at the present time.

Consider again the backwards bike. Instead of getting on the bike with the vague intention of being able to ride the bike, get on the bike with specific intention. Break down what you are trying to do into a series of distinct tasks that you can practice. A simple way to break down what you want to accomplish might be:

  • Peddle the bike straight, don't move the handlebars.
  • While the bike is traveling forward, move the handlebars slightly right to turn right.
  • While the bike is traveling forward, move the handlebars slightly left to turn left.

Each of these tasks provides some obvious piece of value towards the goal of being able to ride the bike. Once you have practiced this list of three distinct tasks, you would probably be well on your way to effectively riding a backwards bike. Deliberate practice in the context of riding a bike, learning a sport, or playing an instrument offers some obvious ways to breakdown the desired result so that you can focus on a single piece of the puzzle. However, the more abstract area of changing how you think about things could prove to be more difficult. How on earth can you practice changing the way your brain thinks?

Train your Brain

mind·ful·ness (noun) - the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis

Acting on instincts and intuition that you've formed over a lifetime is a natural response. When you are presented with a problem, the brain races into action to reference past experiences so that you can apply familiar solutions. This is often extraordinarily helpful and has brought us a long way as a species. However, being the rational and intellectual creatures that we are, we can consciously question these deep-seated behaviors and adjust them when necessary. It turns out that mindfulness is a rather effective tool for this and can serve as a useful framework in changing the way you think. Ellen Langer, a psychology professor at Harvard, identifies the following components and characteristics of mindfulness:



Openness to novelty

Ability to reason about and to cope with novel kinds of stimuli

Alertness to distinction

Ability to compare, contrast and judge about how things are the same or different

Sensitivity to different contexts

Awareness of situational characteristics to notice when and whether a setting changes

Awareness of multiple perspectives

Appreciation of things from different and opposing points of view

Orientation in the present

Individual's attention to their immediate situation and their actual surroundings

It's probably becoming evident how these components of mindfulness can help an individual, team, or organization on the path to agility. If you haven't yet, take a moment to read each of the components and characteristics and think about how it might apply to an agile transformation. In the next section, I will explore some specific examples that might be useful for a scrum team transitioning from a waterfall style of working.

Practically Speaking

All of this may sound nice, but of course this information is useless without some practical steps for putting it into action. Before you can practice to become better at something, you first need to understand what it is you are trying to become better at.

Scrum Master

Consider the scenario of a "recovering project manager" who is transitioning to a scrum master. We know that being a scrum master is about more than knowing how to run a stand-up meeting. What are the differences between a scrum master and a project manager? One of the primary differences that I usually think of is that a project manager tasks a team with doing work while a scrum master enables a team to do work. If you are a transitioning scrum master, practice putting this concept into action. Any time you are interacting with the software delivery system - whether it's a tool, a report, or a team member - slow down, take a breath, and ask yourself: "Am I enabling the team to do work, or am I telling them what to do?" Here are a few examples of what that looks like from each perspective:

Project Manager Habit

Scrum Master Habit

Requests hour estimates from the team in order to build a schedule.

Examines the pace that the team has demonstrated they can work at and provides forecasts to stakeholders based on that pace.

Defines the process that the team must work within.

Visualizes the system that the team currently works within. Encourages the team to inspect the system and agree on adaptations to increase efficiency.

Acts as the authoritative voice in a meeting. The team is focused on what the project manager says.

Acts as a facilitator for the meeting. Encourages team members to collaborate with each other and acts as a mediator to ensure that the team can communicate in a healthy and productive way. The team is focused on what other team members say.

A transitioning project manager might arrive on the scrum master side of the table in each of these examples if they are committed to remaining mindful. Examining the context of the situation and taking the time to deliberately ask yourself, "Am enabling the team to do the work?" requires a conscious effort. With enough deliberate practice the mindset will eventually become the new habit.

Product Owner

Like the scrum master, we know that being good product owner is more than the act of prioritizing a backlog. To create the habits of a good product owner, it is important to understand the mindset that a good product owner should exhibit. Your power as a product owner lies within a deep understanding of the needs of the users. Whether those are 80 users of an organization's ERP, or millions of users around the world - the product owner acts as the primary advocate for those users and should bring a deep understanding of their needs. Where do deliberate practice and mindfulness fit into this? With every decision as a product owner, you should practice fostering a sense of empathy with the stakeholders. Ask yourself, "Is this providing value to the end user? How does it provide value?" You should ask yourself this question not only when crafting user stories, but with everything you do, from meeting agendas to documents that you create.

Requirements Manager Habit

Product Owner Habit

Collects requirements from users and presents the requirements to the development team.

Works with users to understand the problem they are trying to solve and the value of solving it. Works with the development team to iteratively design user stories and early prototypes to quickly collect user feedback.

Delivers requirements without interacting with the development team.

Collaborates with the development team regularly to convey the needs of the users, answer questions, and validate completed work.

Of course, for any given member of an agile team, there are many elements to the mindset that one should exhibit. I have just provided one example element of the mindset for a scrum master and a product owner.

You can apply the concepts of deliberate practice and mindfulness to your unique situation by looking to the values and principles of the agile manifesto. By taking time to deliberately practice being mindful of those values with every decision you make, you greatly increase the chances of success - within your team and within your organization - on your agile journey.