How to Cultivate an Agile Mindset

It’s one thing to dutifully follow a framework. It’s another to cultivate a “mindset” – a way of looking at the world – that helps you operate more intuitively and interact more seamlessly with your team. But how do you foster such a mindset? Joshua Barnes explores the elements of an agile mindset and what you can do to cultivate it in yourself and in your team.

Written by Joshua Barnes • 16 November 2023


What does it mean to have an agile mindset? It’s difficult to define precisely, but I certainly know one when I see one. And I saw one in action just the other day.

I was in a meeting with a company I’ve worked with for several years. There was a mixture of employees and contractors in the session, and we were discussing the sprint’s progress. One of the team members said he was just finishing some tasks and could help get the latest batch of work tested so we could get it in front of the product owner for feedback.

What surprised me was that the person who volunteered was a senior member of the development team – a seasoned guy with significant experience. He could have left that work to a more junior team member. Or focused on the next batch of work in front of him. But he knew that the most important thing he could do at that moment was to keep the work-in-process moving and get feedback so the project could keep moving forward. That’s an agile mindset. It’s the opposite of the attitude that says, “It’s not my job.”

What does this story tell us about an agile mindset? First and foremost, it says that individuals with an agile mindset are laser-focused on fast feedback. Without continuous and substantive feedback, we have no compass to guide our work. We might, without knowing it, veer off onto an unproductive path that will create significant problems and even major re-work down the line.

A focus on fast feedback, in turn, requires an appreciation for the importance of smaller batches of work. Unless we break projects down into smaller items that we can develop in a shorter period of time (sprints/iterations), we’ll lack the ability to obtain quick and timely feedback.

To me, however, the story’s most important lesson is about the importance of a well-functioning team. As individuals, we all bring unique skills and knowledge to a project. Unless those skills are melded into a collaborative team, however, we’ll experience conflict, discord, and frustration. At some point, we all need to look beyond our individual needs and concerns to prioritize the work and way of working that allows the team to perform at optimal levels.

How do we span the mental distance between “I can help” and “It’s not my job”? How do we cultivate that agile mindset among team members – some of whom may not have completely bought into an agile or a hybrid approach? Here are three suggestions:

  • Pairing: One effective mechanism for fostering an agile mindset in a recalcitrant team member is to pair them up with another team member who has agile experience or has a demonstrably agile mindset. Seeing the work through the eyes of a seasoned agile practitioner – having someone close at hand to answer questions and guide the work process – can make all the difference.
  • Visualizing the work: Sometimes there’s a benefit in letting people see how the sausage is made. Visualizing the work – seeing what’s in process, what remains to be done, and even what needs to be redone – can help team members understand the importance of getting work done right.
  • Changing their experience: Another way to impact mindset is to positively alter the individual’s daily work experience – what work feels like every day. We all experience what I call drag or friction at work. Perhaps you’re being interrupted frequently, or people are pushing more work on you than you can handle. Discussing and alleviating these pain points through agile mechanisms, so that an individual’s work life and even their personal life improve, can be a great way to transform an agile skeptic into an agile advocate.

Adopting an agile mindset can significantly benefit organizations – through more effective planning and execution, faster cycle times, and the ultimate success of the project or program. But individuals and teams benefit as well. Individuals, in particular, benefit from:

  • A greater interest in and commitment to continuous learning, whether from a process perspective or in terms of learning different types of skills. An agile mindset often equates to an open mindset and an interest in expanding one’s skillsets. This can enhance an individual’s marketplace value and create new career opportunities.
  • An ability to plan and size work better. Team members with an agile mindset are often better at decomposing work to identify the optimal scope of discrete work units for testing and feedback. They’re also better at distinguishing what is of higher value versus lower value in planning work. 
  • Better identification and mitigation of risk. The frequent customer feedback built into the agile process often surfaces risks that weren’t anticipated at the outset of a project. It can also ensure that risk mitigation strategies are on target.
  • Increased workflow – due to efficient work processes, fewer disagreements, and more frequent but smaller course corrections thanks to ongoing customer feedback. Working is just easier and smoother.
  • Fewer hand-offs and hand-backs. Any knowledge work involves handoffs – particularly given the pace of technology change these days. What we see in teams with an agile mindset, however, are more limited hand-offs and, especially, fewer hand-backs, which can create a multitude of issues and dilemmas. Agile teams seek to attend to these issues quickly so the work can continue moving forward.

Adopting an agile mindset seems to come easy for some people. For others, it takes greater effort. But adopting agile ways of working – with a focus on fast feedback, short timeboxes (sprints/iterations), and high-functioning teams – offers real professional and cognitive benefits. Try it. Perhaps you too will be a model of an agile mindset that others on your team seek to emulate.

Joshua Barnes headshot

Joshua Barnes
Agile Thought Leader | PMI

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