What Neanderthals Got Right About the Agile Mindset

Agile in 2023 isn’t about rules or formulas. It’s about maintaining an open mindset and building organizational systems that allow us to be as responsive as possible to customer needs. In this post, Howard Sublett explains why an agile mindset is so important and who some of its earliest practitioners might have been.

Written by Howard Sublett • 3 March 2023


If you’re looking for a role model of successful agilists, you might consider certain Neanderthals who lived 125,000 years ago in east-central Germany.

That’s right…Neanderthals. A new study reveals that these distant cousins of ours worked together in teams to kill, butcher and eat a breed of extinct straight-tusked elephants that were more than twice the size of the modern African elephant.

While Neanderthals are often depicted as big, brutish nomads living in small, isolated bands, this new study suggests that they were sophisticated, adaptable and highly collaborative hunters and tool makers who lived in large, settled communities. Researchers estimate that it would take a 25-member team from 6-10 days just to carve up and preserve the huge amount of meat from a single 11-ton elephant.

So why do I think these Neanderthals might be among the world’s first agilists? Well, clearly, they figured out how to work cooperatively together to solve a hugely complex problem. And they were laser focused on the big picture – survival! A single elephant could feed an extended family of 25 for three months or 100 people for a month.

I suspect that Neanderthal hunters had one other trait I admire: a willingness to try new things. There must have been a lot of trial and error in learning how to take down a straight-tusked elephant. Those early hunters had to have approached the task with open minds and a predisposition to experiment as conditions changed or their skills or technology improved.

And isn’t that what agile is all about? At the end of the day, agile isn’t about frameworks or rules. It’s about maintaining an open mindset – bringing people together to solve complex problems by putting them directly in touch with customers – so they can experiment, iterate and improve to meet customer needs as quickly as possible in a business landscape that’s constantly changing.

We used to work like this all the time. Setting aside our Neanderthal friends, think about initiatives like barn raisings where friends and neighbors with differing skillsets came together in a local community to build a barn.

That all changed during the Industrial Era – when work on an assembly line devolved into a series of repetitive actions without any real connection to the finished product. To succeed in such an environment, we had to unlearn critical skills – like teamwork, collaboration, empathy and leaning on the strengths and skills of others.

Now that we’re living in an era of primarily cognitive work, we need to rebuild those skills. Even more important, we need to build organizational systems that allow us to be truly responsive to customer needs – where our teams have the autonomy, mastery and sense of purpose to make critical decisions based on direct customer feedback. Because when you connect the people doing the work with the people deriving value from that work, magic happens.

First, the cost of bringing new products to market drops. Consider that it may take years under traditional systems to get a “perfect” product out the door – and then you’d better hope the customer’s needs haven’t changed in the intervening years or that a competitor hasn’t beaten you to the punch.

Contrast that with agile’s iterative approach in which a multi-functional team obtains and acts upon customer feedback in incremental steps. With this approach, the cost of failure has never been cheaper – because at worst you only lose a week or two of work, not months or years.

Beyond costs, however, this approach brings humanity back to the workplace. Teams that understand the project’s purpose and engage directly with customers to solve a complex problem are motivated, engaged, and, yes, even a little joyful.

So, how do you develop an organizational design that’s responsive to customer needs and that cultivates a fail-fast mindset?

  1. First, ensure your project lends itself to an agile approach. It’s important to recognize that agile doesn’t necessarily fit everywhere. If you have a known problem and a known solution, just build it.
  2. Assuming that agile is appropriate, bring together the right people with the diverse skillsets needed to do the job. Then engage with your customers. Put in place the shortest possible feedback loop to keep your team connected to real customer needs and concerns.
  3. Build “insulation” around the project. Ensure the project has a clear charter and an adequate budget and that the work is important, i.e., that it will deliver substantial value to the organization.
  4. Enlist advocates – mid- to senior-level executives – who share your passion for operating in a different way. And be sure to recruit more than one. Enlisting support from different areas of the business ensures your project will survive and thrive if a single advocate leaves or takes on new responsibilities.

Finally, keep in mind the most important agile lesson of all: an open mindset trumps frameworks, rules and formulas. In a way, we must go back to the future. Like the Neanderthals living in that river valley 125,000 years ago, we need to keep our eyes on the big picture prize – and build organizational systems that are adaptable, flexible and that are as responsive as possible to customer needs.

Howard Sublett headshot

Howard Sublett
Strategic Agile Advisor and Speaker

Related Posts


Building an Agile Work Culture: Creating Inclusivity and Collaboration

Scott Ambler shares more on the advantages of building an agile culture and how to get started. Read more here.


How to Cultivate an Agile Mindset

Joshua Barnes explores the elements of an agile mindset and what you can do to cultivate it in yourself and in your team. Learn more here.


What’s Next for Agile?

The future of agile is reshaping entire enterprises and the value they deliver. Learn more about how agile is changing here.