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Introduction

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” – an often-quoted one-liner from Albert Einstein. It always made sense to me logically, yet I found myself caught in this insanity loop. When I reflected on my behaviour, I found a few reasons why I do things the same way. One obvious answer was habits, but closer examination revealed a few other reasons.

  1. I was unaware of significance of the connection between my actions and results.
  2. I believe the situation is different and hence, expect a different result with the same action.
  3. I am not able to think of an alternate way and I kind of hope to get a different result.
  4. I know another way (or someone suggests it) but I have self-doubt about doing it well or fearful of getting wrong results.

All the above reasons can be distilled down into two broad aspects of change: 1. Awareness 2. Action. One of the organizations that I consult with had an event with ‘cloud and agile mindset’ as the theme and I heard a leader say this: “We can apply many of the learnings beyond product and process; it’s really about how we adapt, improve and transform ourselves”. It further strengthened my conviction that a big part of agility is about transforming ourselves in the way we think and behave.

Beyond the visible

Imagine that you are standing on the deck of a ship and watching an iceberg floating in the sea. You are puzzled by the movement of the iceberg in the direction opposite to the direction of the wind. Captain of the ship demystifies the phenomenon for you: “You see, most of the iceberg is below the water and it is the direction of the current that dictates the movement of the iceberg”. As the leader pointed out in his talk, visible product and process related changes are necessary but it is about how we transform ourselves in the way we think and behave – the dynamics below the surface and not so visible.

Agility is brought about by ‘Doing’ agile and ‘Being’ agile as you see in the picture. Agile ceremonies, artefacts, tools, metrics, and structure are necessary for agility. However, your organization will move in the right direction only when you get the subtler aspects below the iceberg right. Many of those aspects are about transformation in the way people think and behave. An organization is a collective entity, and it would appear to an individual that the collective must change first. In this post, I would like us to focus on how the individual can change. It helps the individual to take ownership for self and participate in the collective’s transformation.

Individual change and the brain

In other words, agility begins in the mind, in each one of our minds. Does the way our brain functions have anything to do with our behaviour? Think of our brain as a dynamic connected grid. There are billions of pathways lighting up every time we think, feel, or do something. Some of these pathways are well travelled and established ways of being, feeling and doing! Good news is that brain can make new connections – new experiences, being in a new environment, learning new skills and new activity create new pathways and re-wire your brain! With proactive and well-directed effort, you can accelerate rewiring!

Three dimensions to re-wiring for agility

Based on my consulting experience, I discovered three nested dimensions or contexts when a participant in the transformation can change.

Solutions: Teams: Self
1. What are you focused on while creating solutions?
2. While creating solutions, how do you think and collaborate with other teams?
3. At the root of all change is your willingness to change self and act accordingly.

“Solutions” dimension

Agility is essentially about delivering the highest value to customers. This must be paramount in the minds of the developers. For a few good reasons, many developers in large organizations find it difficult to relate to the actual users of the software product. When I started my software career, we worked alongside the users of my solution in another floor or an adjacent building. Today the ‘distance’ between the developer and the user has increased multi-fold. Picture below is typical in large software product development organizations:

Metaphorically “Distance” between Developer & User has increased as we scale! User narratives get abstracted and feedback loops are less effective! Organizations need to find ways to reduce this ‘distance.’ In my experience, collaborative practices alone are not enough but need to be supported by willingness to invest time and energy from all members.

Wiring: Right Solutions

As a developer, I have often focused on my domain of interest or been motivated by a new technology or been simply interested in work that challenges me intellectually! Not that I was wrong, but all the time, my paramount focus needs to be about delivering highest value to the customers! It may require me to get out of my comfort zone in terms technology, domain, or degree of difficulty.

When working on solutions, agile minds are wired to continuously deliver the highest value to customers!

“Teams” dimension

We live in  world where solutions require multiple teams to work together to be of value. How should teams think and behave when collaborating with other teams?

Wiring: Collaborating Teams

Let me start with the most damaging mindset. When senior team members or managers have ego clashes with their counterparts in other teams, neither team wins! Customer gets sub-optimal value and organization loses momentum. Another non-agile pattern is teams without goals or in many cases, teams are indifferent to the goals. Mindset is ‘This is how it is here. Everything takes its own sweet time. Let me go along with it.’. Another flavour to this pattern: the bar is set so low that such goals may as well not exist. Such teams deliver sub-optimal performance and there is lack of motivation to improve.

To be fair, many practicing agile teams do focus on their goals – sprint goals, quarterly goals, release goals are clearly articulated and understood. Yet their performance is hindered by dependencies with other teams which seem to be operating in their own worlds!

High performing agile teams are able to align continuously with shared goals which are typically one level above team’s goals. This behaviour requires teams to be aware of streams of work that would create value to the customer and adapt their planning and execution continuously.

When working with other teams, agile minds are wired to think win-win, foster collaboration, and focus on shared goals!

“Self” dimension

Eventually it comes to personal change! Toughest battleground. It starts with awareness of the need for change. It is not easy to believe when someone else points to the need for change. It is relatively easier to believe when the awareness comes within. It is tricky because I am the observer, and I am the observed. In other words, the quality of your inner mirror is vital to see a clear and complete picture of yourself and the need for change. Imagine a bathroom mirror with a hole – you may live your entire life without realizing that you have a nose! Awareness is not enough though. It happens to me all the time – I know I need to change something, yet I do not change. Let us take a simple example: I heard that if one avoids screen time for one hour before going to bed, sleep quality is better. I still cannot help watching something in my mobile while in bed. Moral of the story: “Knowing what to change is hard enough but acting on the knowledge is harder!”.

Wiring: Changing Self

Step one is awareness. If you are not aware, you are blissfully ignorant. One trap is your past success – there are set mental pathways that worked well for you in the past but gets in the way now. Once you are aware, the will to act is often dictated by your ‘why’. If I stop looking at my mobile before going to sleep, motivation will come from my desire for better quality sleep and an alert mind the next day! We are emotional creatures; Overcoming mental resistance / inertia -> requires emotional propulsion – overcoming fear, insecurity and how you feel about failure. Agile leaders can play a decisive role in cultivating the right kind of environment where it is ok to fail.

When working with self, agile minds are wired to look into their inner mirror, have the will to act and feel safe to experiment and learn!

Summary

There are three nested dimensions or contexts where agility shows up from the way we think, feel, and behave. How we create solutions? How we work with other teams in creating the solutions? How we change personally?

When working on solutions, agile minds are wired to continuously deliver the highest value to customers!

When working with other teams, agile minds are wired to think win-win, foster collaboration, and focus on shared goals!

When working with self, agile minds are wired to look into their inner mirror, have the will to act and feel safe to experiment and learn!

‘Being agile’ delivers results and sustainable advantage. It does good for individuals, organizations, and customers. It requires re-wiring of the brain to create new neural pathways! It is possible.