Software teams have been leading the charge for an agile mindset–and now the rest of the company is starting to catch on. And if you ask successful companies about their agile practices, you’ll find one key thing in common:
They aren’t just using agile processes, ticking best practices off a checklist, or implementing new tools. They have cultivated and prioritized agile mindsets. They’ve done the work to shift their culture, not just their task list.
For those still undergoing an agile transformation, that culture shift is harder than it sounds. In fact, 76% of companies (in a study from McKinsey) said transforming the culture and ways of working were the toughest part of making change. Which is why it’s so important to focus on mindset rather than assuming it will work itself out on the periphery while you change up your processes.
What is an agile mindset?
Before we talk about making a mindset shift within your organization, let’s get on the same page about what an agile mindset actually is.
An agile mindset, born from the agile manifesto and continually evolving, is the practice of prioritizing:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
In other words, companies with an agile mindset are adaptable, flexible, innovative, prioritize trust, and care more about customer value and their employees than they do about bureaucracy, process, seniority, and other hierarchical values.
So, what exactly does this mindset look like? Let’s dig deeper.
Adaptability, flexibility, and trust
The old way of thinking (sometimes called a bureaucratic mindset) focused on process. Organizations developed standard processes and teams were expected to stick to them. These same organizations often held planning sessions yearly to set goals, map out the projects for the year, etc.
While this certainly kept some chaos at bay, it also created rigid standards that started to show some serious flaws as business processes, global events, and customer expectations sped up. In other words, it didn’t leave much room to adapt to change and meet customer needs quickly.
An agile mindset asks us to deprioritize those old ways of thinking. Not because processes, goals, or planning are bad (we’re huge fans!), but because being able to pivot to better serve the real people who use (or make) your products is more important.
This is why we consider adaptability, flexibility, and trust the foundation of the agile mindset.
Just as in nature, it’s adapt or die, so too is it in business. At the business level, the team level, and the individual level, we need to be able to change our ways of thinking and working to adapt ourselves to the market and world we work in.
When a global pandemic forces us all inside, even notoriously change-averse industries like government and publishing learn to use Zoom. When the technology to stream movies and TV becomes available, you either take advantage (like Netflix) or lose your shirt (like Blockbuster). When customer expectations shift, we either shift with them or lose trust.
You can’t be adaptable (or flexible) without the right systems in place. If your company requires a 10-step approval process, you simply won’t be able to roll with the punches. So while the most important thing is shifting mindset across the organization, it’s also vital to audit your current practices with that mindset at the forefront.
Similarly, flexibility is about change. Where adaptability typically means shifting to meet the market or customers where they’re at, flexibility is often used to mean a more day-to-day ability to roll with the punches.
What do you do when a team member is out sick? How do you handle an unforeseen dependency? If both X and Y projects are due and both are over time, which do you prioritize? An agile mindset and agile processes should support the kind of team autonomy and self-direction that enable day-to-day flexibility in making decisions and responding to challenges.
Finally, another core underpinning of the agile mindset is trust—both within the organization and with your customers. This means respect for everyone’s expertise—not just leadership’s. It means giving teams autonomy and input. It also means trusting the team to provide feedback that informs how projects, products, and the company should adapt and change.
How to cultivate an agile mindset
So, how does a company cultivate an agile mindset? The key is that agile values need to underlie everything you do as an organization, team, or individual.
Here are five steps to get you there.
1. Put the right people in charge
One of agile’s success stories is a company called Spark, which managed to cultivate an agile mindset in a single year. Their first tip, according to McKinsey? Put the right people in charge of the shift.
As McKinsey explains, “Spark’s culture change started with its Sounding Board, a diverse group of 70 volunteers from across the organization. These were opinion leaders—the ‘water cooler’ leaders and Spark’s ‘neural network’—not the usual suspects visible to management. The Sounding Board’s role was creating buy-in for and comprehension about the new model and designing enablers (behavioral shifts and new values) to help employees along the agile journey.”
2. Identify what needs to change (and what doesn’t)
In what ways does your organization already operate with an agile mindset? What cultural hallmarks, team beliefs, or processes need to change in order to create a more agile mindset? What leadership choices or process or tool changes are needed to support an agile mindset?
You can’t work toward an agile mindset if you don’t know what needs to change. So once you have identified who is spearheading your change, their first order of business should be answering these questions in detail.
McKinsey recommends framing your changes as “from – to” statements. For example: We want to move from a top-down system where leadership sets all goals and milestones to a collaborative system where teams have autonomy and are respected for their expertise.
Once you have your “from - to” statements, take time to list out the current processes, core values, and tools your teams use today. Then ask if each of them is flexible, adaptable, and breeds trust. If the answer is no or not sure on any of them, congratulations–you’ve identified key areas for change!
3. Communicate vision
If agile only makes it to your leadership, it simply won’t succeed. All levels of the company need to adopt the mindset. Which means leadership needs to communicate clearly and often about what agile is, what they need from employees, and how these shifts in thinking look. And employees need to be empowered to actively participate in the cultural shift, offering input that’s close to the customer and has granular insights into the work being done.
Importantly, all communication should focus on how an agile mindset benefits both employees and customers. How will it make customers’ lives better? How will it help employees? Will it reduce customer complaints? Help the support team manage their workload? Give teams more control over their project execution?
These kinds of answers should be front and center.
Does your organization have a culture of psychological safety, where employees take risks, innovate, and are honest without fear of consequences? If the answer is no, your agile journey is at risk–according to Harvard Business Review.
4. Update processes, documentation, and incentives
Everything in your organization needs to support your new mindset. This means tossing any old processes, tools, workflows, or documentation that doesn’t—and replacing them with something that does (like ClickUp’s agile dashboard and workflows or these 10 templates).
It also means incentivizing an agile mindset. Economic theory tells us that people’s behavior follows incentives. If something is easier, higher reward, or tied to previous effort, people are more likely to do it. Which means part of this process is identifying what incentives are hidden in your company’s processes and whether they support the new or old ways of working.
For example, if raises or bonuses are tied to turning projects in on time, that can disincentivize people from speaking up when a project should be delayed for reasons such as:
The project isn’t really ready for customers
There’s a market reason to push pause
Another project should be a priority
This can stifle both innovation and strategic thinking.
Similarly, if adopting agile practices means a more odious process in your tools (or if there are no tools to support it and the employee would have to build their own system from scratch), that disincentivizes change.
5. Always be ready to pivot
Agile transformation is not a one-and-done process. The ways businesses approach work and people think about the agile priorities of innovation, people, flexibility, etc. will change over time. Make sure to build learning and adjustments into your process. Check in regularly on how the culture is faring.
Checking in can happen in a variety of ways, including:
Running regular surveys within the company to get a sense of current culture and beliefs
Holding regular meetings with your board/leadership to get a sense of progress
Building an agile mindset check-in into sprint planning or other regular meetings
Support your agile mindset with the right tools
Once you start cultivating the right mindset across the company, it’s finally time to start thinking about what tools will support your efforts. What tools and documentation will build adaptability, flexibility, and trust deeper into your processes and ways of working? What templates or workflows do you need to implement in order to remove obstacles from your mindset shift?
It’s vital to realize that the tools and the mindset shift are two different things, but that both matter and should support each other. Which is why we curated a robust collection of software development templates–along with step-by-step guides for managing all aspects of agile development in ClickUp.