Project Management Institute

Mindset of a LeAgile project leader

mixing the magic potion

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SUHAIL IQBAL
SysComp International Private Limited

In an earlier paper presented by the author in PMI® Global Congress (2015)—North America (Iqbal, 2015), it had been established that lean and agile can work together, even in an unlikely industry like construction. This was also established after an in-depth discussion with the audience that the balance between lean and agile for a particular project has to be very carefully established as even a slight variation in understanding the project needs would make it lose the competitive advantage. At this stage, it filters down to the soft skills of the project manager to understand and establish this delicate balance between the lean and agile, to remain most effective as well as flexible. This presents a need for a new breed of project leaders who would intimately understand when, where, and in what proportion, they have to mix the magic potion. To create the recipe for most appropriate leadership skills to be employed in lean and agile projects, this paper will serve as a beacon and would suggest a mindset for LeAgile project leaders. The paper will unfold the discussion, first linking it to the findings of earlier research and then makes the audience understand the leadership needs for both lean and agile separately. Once these needs are outlined, a set of pertinent leadership skills would be offered for discussion, which would fit the needs of a LeAgile leader.

Keywords: lean, agile, LeAgile, Agilean, leadership

INTRODUCTION

The way we think and assume our surroundings to be, matters a lot in what we do, because we psychologically create a reality for ourselves and others around us by believing so emphatically in something. According to neuroscientist Dweck (2006), intelligence, personality, and character must be treated justifiably and a preconceived “fixed mindset” should not be established, “fixed” for a certain environment, thus realizing a need to justify a “growth mindset.” Rising (2011, 2013) takes the discussion to an “agile mindset” and defends natural relationship and extension from growth mindset to agile mindset. Agile being a popular topic in project management these days, has contributed to a lot of discussion on a mindset of an agile leader (Rising, 2011), but that is mostly remaining within the confines of the software industry. Extending this discussion to other industries and disciplines, and specifically discussing its impact on a project manager is one goal of this paper. The other goal is to shake away the confines of agile alone and bringing the whole discussion into a wider domain of lean and agile (Iqbal, 2015). This paper discusses the mindset of a lean-agile (LeAgile) project leader. It is not the lean or agile practices we need to focus on, but the LeAgile mindset/culture (Sahota, 2014).

HISTORICAL LINKAGE

Iqbal (2015) established the possibility of marrying up lean and agile for project management, even in the most difficult industry for agile implementation, that is, the construction industry. Lean has somehow been adopted in construction industry due to its linkage with lean manufacturing, but the idea of using lean with agile was difficult to perceive. According to Karkukly (2013), lean identifies value in specific products and establishes a value stream for each product, while the customer can pull value and pursue perfection. Womack and Jones (2003) argues lean is doing more with less, while giving the customers exactly what they want.

On the other hand, Highsmith (2002) defines agility as an ability to balance flexibility and stability. We see Lacher and Bodamer (2009) discussing Agility in project management, while they discuss agile in the perspective of lean. Lacher and Varisco (2008) try to prove that agile is the implementation of lean thinking. Lean-agile is a combination of lean thinking and agile disciplines. Lean is the “what” and agile is the “how.”

Dweck (2006) forms a basis for defining various mindsets, further modified and explained by Rising (2011, 2013). Covey (1989), in the description of his fourth habit for highly effective people, mentions and discusses abundance and scarcity mindsets. Argyris (2004) has laid out two dominant mindsets in an organization: productive and defensive mindsets. Iqbal (2015) laid out the basis for LeAgile in a different light than perceived earlier. Here, we are more focused on applying the same LeAgile concept on project leadership and to see what kind of mindset applies here.

The LeAgile mindset applied to project leadership is expected to be discussed in more detail in an interactive session with the audience as a result of this paper.

THE MINDSET

Wikipedia (2008) describes a mindset as a set of assumptions, methods, or notations held by one or more people or groups of people. It further explains that these beliefs are so well-established that people or groups continue to adopt or accept prior behaviors, choices, or tools.

Mindset is defined by Dictionary.com (2016) as an attitude, disposition, or mood, where the attitude is an established way of thinking or feeling toward another person or thing. Attitude is usually displayed in the behavior of the person holding that specific opinion.

Gollwitzer (1995) has written about mindset since 1980; however, the most recent and authentic source of research on mindset is by Dweck (2006), which is being referred by all leading researchers on the subject.

FIXED AND GROWTH MINDSETS

According to Dweck (2006), there are two mindsets, fixed and growth, fixed being believed to be carved in stone and is mostly unchangeable, while the growth mindset believes that qualities can be cultivated through personal effort.

Fixed mindset is an attitude toward one's capabilities to be adopted as a norm and creates a make-believe world, which essentially realizes only what this norm leads us to believe, thus cutting all the lines for personal growth, innovation, and creativity.

Growth mindset is the reverse of fixed mindset and vehemently disbelieves in any fixed qualities or characteristics while it cultivates a creative environment that nourishes newly found qualities and possibilities into unchartered territories.

If these are the only two sides of the coin, we would definitely prefer our project manager to be a proponent of the latter.

FIXED AND AGILE MINDSET

Rising (2011) very rightly equates this growth mindset to agile mindset, as agile promotes flexibility and stability (Highsmith, 2002). Rising (2011) believes that a person is born with a certain intelligence that cannot be altered very much, but there is always room for improvement. Believing in your intelligence and doing nothing about it is a fixed mindset, while improving continuously upon whatever intelligence you have, is the agile mindset. As we observed earlier, growth mindset is very closely related to this agile mindset, but by making it agile, Rising has added clarity and established a better relationship with management and leadership (2013).

ABUNDANCE AND SCARCITY MINDSETS

Covey (1989), while writing his bestseller book, coined the concept of abundance and scarcity mindsets. It was while he was defining the fourth habit, “Think Win-Win,” when he advocated an abundance mindset over the scarcity mindset. An abundance mindset is based on the belief that there is more than enough of everything for everyone. The scarcity mindset is the zero-sum paradigm of life, where if someone else wins, you lose. There is room for only one winner in scarcity mindset while abundance mindset is accommodating and makes space for everyone.

We would like to relate the abundance mindset to the growth and agile mindsets, as it opens development paths and allows for flexibility.

PRODUCTIVE AND DEFENSIVE MINDSETS

Argyris (2004) gives us yet another set of mindsets, specifically for organizations: the productive mindset and the defensive mindset. The productive mindset hinges upon logic and focuses on the knowledge and its certifiable results. This is more of a decision-making mindset, which is transparent and auditable.

The defensive mindset is a closed mindset like fixed mindset and is self-protective as well as self-deceptive. This mindset does not look at the greater good but centers on saving the skin of the person holding this mindset. It is highly likely that truth, if perceived harmful for the person concerned, would be shut down. This may allow personal growth but no organizational growth or development.

As productive mindset allows for change due to reasoning and logic, it may not be as creative and innovative as abundance or agile mindsets, but still it is the better of the two mindsets, given by Argyris (2004).

LEAN-AGILE: THE DELICATE BALANCE

As referred to by Iqbal (2015), lean and agile when used together, can yield enormous benefits, but there is a very sensitive balance between the two which has to be established. If taken randomly, they may even be found to be clashing with each other, thus making it impossible for them to work together. On the other hand, if they are married prematurely, either lean or agile would dominate the other. We are proposing here a very delicate balance, where either they clash with each other, or anyone of these two ends up dominating the other.

Another dimension of striking this balance is the discussion we had on various types of mindsets in the previous section. We can see, out of each set of two mindsets, one is always better than the other, but if we take the better mindsets from each group, they are all not exactly the same and we have to invent a perfect equilibrium among them. That will only be possible after we have somehow added the element of lean to the combination of these mindsets, to evolve one mindset applicable to all kinds of project organizations, the LeAgile mindset.

LEAN AND AGILE PROJECT LEADERS

Asefeso (2014) begins by explaining that agile roots can be traced back to the software industry, while lean was originally developed within the manufacturing industry. Agile focuses on enhancing project management, while lean serves to enhance process improvement. We understand processes are common in operations and projects, though their nature may differ in each, but both are made up of processes. Still they can be applied together, if their union is carefully orchestrated. The mindset of an agile project leader versus a lean project leader can be studied as follows:

AGILE PROJECT LEADER

An agile leader has to be self-aware, highly flexible, mentally agile, result-oriented, a servant leader, facilitator, and a people person. An agile leader considers the Agile Manifesto (Beck et al., 2001) and its principles, as mandatory, in all of his or her plans, actions, and decisions.

Learning agility is a key asset for an organization and an agile leader must have five characteristics, which are also claimed as factors of learning agility by Swisher (2012):

  • Self-awareness
  • Mental agility
  • People agility
  • Change agility
  • Results agility

LEAN PROJECT LEADER

MacAdam (2009) applies the five lean principles into three types, namely value-added, enabler, and waste. The five lean principles are: specify value, identify the value stream, flow, pull, and perfection (Womack & Jones, 2003). So, once we are establishing the LeAgile mindset, we must be vigilant about these five lean principles, three lean types, and seven types of waste (Morgan, 2008).

The mindset of a lean leader revolves around the customer needs and a clear understanding of value for the customer. Against satisfaction of these customer needs, a value stream will have to be established, explicitly showing how business would be able to bring in that value, and simultaneously improving the whole process continually, and being able to sustain the results. A lean leader would lead by example, guide the team toward solutions, always making sure all seven types of waste are either completely eliminated or kept to a minimum.

LEAGILE MINDSET FOR PROJECT LEADERS

When a project leader applies the mindset of both lean and agile together, and still wants to maintain the balance, he or she has to be watchful of the fact that agile emphasis on speed and flexibility should not affect the values stream or result in waste. Similarly, lean emphasis on process improvement and minute observation of value and waste should not sacrifice speed. If this delicate balance can be kept in check, then we can comfortably refer to Asefeso (2014), who outlines the common traits of a lean-agile leader as follows:

  • Maximize value and minimize waste
  • Manage time as an asset
  • Establish a culture of continuous improvement
  • Enable safe failures
  • Increase predictability
  • Proactively adapt to change
  • Strive to achieve measurable results early and often

Unifying the traits and characteristics of a LeAgile leader and establishing a LeAgile mindset would require adoption of the best of all the known mindsets, taking qualities suitable for both agile and lean thinking.

The LeAgile mindset is suggested to be essentially a growth mindset, which is productive in nature and carries value for all. Characteristics of a LeAgile leader would include being a change leader, value driven, waste conscious, process-oriented, achieving measurable results, keeping the stakeholders engaged and satisfied, communicating regularly, proactively adapting to change, predictable, a servant leader, a people person, and highly flexible. LeAgile leaders can think on their feet, are efficient and effective, enable learning, and are a facilitator. This not only encompasses all soft skills advocated in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition (PMI, 2013), but also extracts the best of lean and agile.

CONCLUSION

It is understood that various mindsets for a project leader or even just a leader have been discussed by several researchers and authors, and some have even touched upon the lean-agile mindset as well, but explicitly addressing the delicate balance that has to be maintained, between the two has never been so minutely studied. Mostly, agile mindsets have been considered subservient to lean, taking agile working in a lean framework. Having an eye on value while you remain flexible, could only be possible if the scale is in perfect balance and equilibrium is maintained. It is expected that further discussion and research will be facilitated based on the findings of this paper.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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A civil engineer by profession and a veteran Project Management Professional (PMP)® since 2002, holding all the eight PMI certifications in addition to PRINCE2 Practitioner, and a complete series of Scrum certifications, Suhail Iqbal is a regular keynote speaker in Pakistan for PMI and other noted events. He has over 35 years of construction and project management experience in the Pakistan Army Corps of Engineers, NADRA, and SysComp International (Pvt.) Ltd., a professional development center of excellence.

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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

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© 2016, Suhail Iqbal
Originally published as part of the 2016 PMI® Global Congress Proceedings – Barcelona, Spain

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