The Agile Mindset: an aim or a problem?

A pattern of times which is the same, repeating endlessly…

My friend, Francesco Bianchi, put up a post on LinkedIn which started with the phrase:

“As Agilists we love to correct people that Agile is not a method. With pride we stress instead that Agile is a Mindset. Most of us stop there like that was enough.”

He goes on to highlight that merely having a mindset is not enough to deliver value, but my immediate response was a (not) very constructive:

“I’m not even sure mindset actually means anything 🤷🏻‍♂️” — Me

To expand on this further, my thoughts are broadly in two categories: first, what is a “mindset”, and second, is a mindset desirable?

What is a mindset?

The modern concept of mindset grew out of work by Carol Dweck in which she identified two consistent sets of attitudes, “growth” and “fixed”, which, according to her a work, are linked to self-actualisation and self-limitation in terms of self-development. These two sets of attitudes were labelled mindsets in Dweck’s eponymous book published in 2006.

The idea goes that a person with a growth mindset has a hunger for learning, and that means they view their current knowledge, abilities and capital as a starting point, and is linked with concepts of free will. A person with a fixed mindset, however, believes in a somewhat more deterministic view of the universe, and thus believes that they are already all they can be. As a result, they will achieve less. Dweck asserts that if an entire company has a growth mindset, they show performance improvements.

Since then lots of these groups of attitudes have been “discovered”, and labelled mindsets. The problem is, mindsets become a bit like constellations: you can find any pattern if you look hard enough.

A key characteristic of mindsets, according to Dweck, is that they coalesce quite early in a persons life, often in response to the environment. If a child is exposed to an environment in which they can exert no control then they learn that there are limitations they can’t overcome, and will tend towards a fixed mindset. On the other hand, a child who learns that they can create opportunities and be intrinsically rewarded for trying new things (rather than necessarily succeeding) will develop a growth mindset.

This theory has been incredibly popular in learning and organisational development. My husband, a primary teacher, refers to creating environments which promote a growth mindset, for example, and it’s difficult to argue that an environment in which unconscious limits are placed on the success of children is undesirable. And the other day, I saw a paper which suggested that an employee with a growth mindset being managed by a person with a growth mindset was demonstrably better than other combinations in terms of value-to-firm, showing a benefit to being “aligned”.

However, my big concern is that it appears that mindsets are considered deterministic: if a person has mindset A, then there will be outcomes X, Y and Z. At the same time, we are told they can change (after all, there’s no point in coaching a change in mindset, if they can’t be changed). This for me raises a question of how someone can change their mindset. Dweck argues that by recognising and responding to a mindset, one can alter one’s view. But, I would argue, surely a person with a fixed mindset is unlikely to believe that they can change their mindset, and the person with a growth mindset doesn’t need to. So they’re simultaneously deterministic and subject to modification; surely these are unreconcilable characteristics?

Finally, there is a LOT of criticism of the mindset theory out there (see summaries at Scientific American, TES and Wired). Studies have failed to replicate the original research, researchers have found problems using it in classrooms, and even Dweck agrees that growth mindset is a lot more complicated than they originally thought. So the version everyone’s familiar with is over-simplified, and the reality is probably so complex it’s unusable.

So, to summarise:

1 — Mindsets are often presented as constellations of attitudes and behaviours which may, or may not, reflect something real, in the same way that Myers-Biggs, IQ and other tests are somewhat indeterminate in what they measure.

2 — Mindsets are set early on as a result of interaction with the environment.

3 — Mindsets may or may not be changeable (which is probably dependent on whether or not you have the “right” mindset in the first place).

4 — Mindsets are way more complex than you think they are.

Is a (agile) mindset desirable?

Simon Powers describes the agile mindset as consisting of three beliefs: the complexity belief, that the situations we face vary in complexity; the people belief, that people should come before process; and the proactive belief, that processes and products must be continuously improved in response to a constantly changing context. The problem here is whether we’re measuring an actual attitude, or whether people are just following a pattern of behaviour. Can they even be distinguished?

Assuming that this mindset can be taught and identified, the question becomes whether or not if is desirable that everyone has the same mindset. A key theme in agile discourse at the moment is around diversity: the importance of appreciating and celebrating people’s different characteristics. With research suggesting that a team which is gender-, sexuality-, race-, neuro-, and ability-diverse contributes more value to the organisation than homogeneous teams, the race is on to build (and exploit) heterogeneous teams.

But if that is the case, why are we trying to ensure that everyone has the same mindset? The paper I mentioned earlier suggested that it was desirable that employees and managers mindset types be tested as part of the recruitment and appointment process. Does that not raise the possibility of creating team blind spots? What about the promotion of groupthink? Is a uniform mindset actually desirable, or do we actually want a mix of approaches to enrich conversations and perspectives? And even if homogeneity of mindset has value, then are we simultaneously advocating to promote some forms of diversity on the one hand, and using psychometrics to minimise it on the other?

Finally, and this came from a discussion with Future of Work Scotland on 16 June 2021, do we want mindsets which constrain individual thinking, or do we want to promote mindflex, promoting individual adaptability and a variety of perspectives for everyone?

So what should we be doing?

My original comment was slightly tongue in cheek, but only slightly. If mindset is real, it’s not presented and thought about in a way which is accessible or applicable (yet). And if mindset isn’t a real phenomenon, and it is just a modern day astrology, it may still be a useful metaphor to promote discussions, and perhaps help align people working together in a firm. And maybe other people have a different idea of what a mindset is: in which case, why are we using equivocal language?

If it’s the case that mindset doesn’t mean a Dweckian mindset and is poorly defined, then effectively “mindset” becomes a useful conversation tool, one that coaches and teachers can use to illustrate values-in-action, and have discussions about what culture looks like and could be. It can be used as a touchpoint, or an enabling constraint, whilst simultaneously freeing colleagues to think about problems and context in different ways.

Should we be testing people’s mindsets (or other psychometric woo) to ensure compatibility and to maximise profits? Absolutely not. If you want diversity, then people need to be able to work with and for people with heterogeneous views and perspectives. We’ve seen the dangers arising from monitoring and measuring people to maximise value without focusing on people’s humanity.

Maybe agilists are chasing after the eternal agile mindset, but perhaps the conversations we have are more important than achieving the (badly defined, and possibly undesirable) goal? Otherwise, I worry we just become an endlessly repeating pattern: pretty, but pointless.

Repetition is common, but the differences are what make it interesting.

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