The Agile Mindset and its Importance to Running a Successful Project

What is an Agile Mindset?

The Agile mindset is the ability and willingness to be flexible, adaptive, and open-minded when it comes to project management. An Agile mindset allows for a quick response to change and embraces the need for change to achieve the project’s goal. Remember that it’s important to have an Agile mindset when starting any project, as it allows for a more successful project.

The Value of an Agile Mindset

Agile has been around for over 20 years, yet there seems to be a lot of confusion around what Agile actually is. Many people assume that Agile means Agile Scrum (or some other variant of Agile discipline). Agile is not a specific discipline but is a mindset that applies to the particular Agile disciplines and any project. To understand what this means, we need first to understand a core element of project success, and then we’ll look at the four paired Values of the Agile Manifesto in order.

First and foremost, we must recognize that every project exists to deliver business value. That value must be defined by our litany of stakeholders… not just our customers (those directly receiving the result of our project) but also our internal stakeholders (executive management, functional and operational units, etc.) and many others. This means that regardless of the business we are in or the one we are supporting, value is defined (and redefined throughout the life of the project) by people. One of the biggest challenges that many projects face is not having a common understanding of the value and what is to be delivered across ALL of our stakeholder groups. We must regularly engage with our stakeholders to understand their current and changing definitions of value to ensure the best balance of value delivered within our existing constraints. The Importance of the Agile Manifesto.

How the Agile Mindset is recognized in the Agile Manifesto

The Agile Manifesto recognizes this right off in its first paired value:

1: Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools

Systems thinking in a project is important because consistency is critical to generating repeatable, predictable results. This helps us ensure we can meet the value expectations of our stakeholders with confidence. When those systems become overly bureaucratic or restrict our ability to respond to our stakeholders’ evolving needs, they become detrimental to achieving the necessary value. The Agile mindset starts by recognizing it is ALL ABOUT THE PEOPLE!

2: Working Software (product) over Comprehensive Documentation

Much like systems thinking being important yet secondary in a paired value, comprehensive documentation is essential in that it helps us to not only avoid prior mistakes and build on prior successes (assuming we actually use our Lessons Learned/Retrospectives correctly) but also provides for long-term supportability of whatever change to the operational environment our project has created. Without this, long-term value sustainment is challenged, and our project may lose value perception long-term as the solution becomes burdensome to support when the project team moves on. However, documentation is far less valuable if the product simply doesn’t work or deliver the intended value. I had a client years ago who had a very cumbersome, home-grown production system. My team was working hard to update and create proper documentation, but if the system went down, the customer lost $1 million/minute in the inability to move the product. Documentation was critical, but if the system ever went down, no one cared about creating or updating documentation until the system was back up and running.

3: Customer Collaboration over Contract Negotiation

I tell my students this regularly… value delivered in a project must be relevant at the time of delivery rather than at the negotiation time. Especially with the speed of change in business experiences in the digital age, what was negotiated a couple of years (or even six months) ago likely is not exactly what is needed at the actual point of delivery. Not only is business and technology rapidly changing, but understanding, societal and corporate values, and even associated personnel are constantly shifting. Add in the frequent disconnect between what a customer says they want upfront to what they actually expect at delivery (hence the reason Business Analysts/Product Owners can be so crucial to a project). We have a situation where dogged adherence to an initially negotiated result can lead to contractual compliance but project failure when the needed value isn’t achieved. We must constantly be listening to what our various stakeholders are saying. Then we adapt (and plainly communicate) expectations within our project constraints. If not, you may successfully deliver to every contractual obligation only to have the customer (or your internal stakeholders) look up and say, “This wasn’t worth it.” Now, not only was your contract not truly successful, but it may also become a detriment to future opportunities as customers will certainly talk to other potential customers.

4: Responding to Change over Following a Plan

Since project management is not just tactical but is also a strategic competency, it seems appropriate to use a quote from a well-known military leader (and former President of the United States). “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” (Dwight D. Eisenhower)

Plans are built upon a goal. They provide us with a logical progression of steps to achieve that goal. Sometimes, the best plans feel like an old Choose Your Own Adventure book where you extrapolate potential decision/change points and can build a series of “what if’s,” allowing you to pivot quickly at those points as appropriate information becomes available. In reality, since projects are performed by human beings creating value for other human beings in an ever-changing environment, you simply cannot plan for every contingency. Rote adherence to a plan made with limited information, even when new information comes to light, is a recipe for pain born of either hubris or fear. We start with a plan yet have to embrace the reality that planning to succeed means embracing the need for change and allowing our plans to evolve to the latest information and value definitions. This ties to the project management concept of Progressive Elaboration.

This concept is critical to the Agile mindset, because it allows for quick response to change, embraces the need for change to achieve the project’s goal, and is open to new ideas and directions. This flexibility helps ensure that Agile projects deliver more value to their stakeholders because the Agile team is not married to any one plan, but rather is focused on delivering the most valuable items first.

The Agile mindset is also essential for Agile teams to be able to quickly adapt to changes in their environment (changes in technology, stakeholder demands, etc.). The Agile team cannot afford to spend time planning and then executing against a plan that may no longer be valid. Instead, they must be able to quickly identify the changes and adapt their plan (and their actions) accordingly.

Broad Application of the Agile Mindset

As you ponder the information above, I’d like you to consider how this would apply to an established Agile methodology and how true each of these is even in a Waterfall project management approach. At the end of the day, it is all about providing relevant value to our stakeholders. Failure to recognize the stakeholders, the changing nature of projects and value definition, the need to allow your plans to evolve, and the simple reality that projects happen in a constantly changing environment leads to unnecessary pain and, often, to the ultimate failure of too many projects.

The Agile mindset can also be used to handle agile’s most common failure… scope creep. Scope creep happens when the project’s original goals expand beyond the agreed-upon boundaries. This can be due to changes in customer requirements, changes in the business environment, or simply a change in the agile team’s understanding of what needs to be done. The agile team must be able to quickly identify when scope creep is happening and take appropriate action to bring the project back within its original boundaries. This may include renegotiating with the stakeholders, changing the project’s agile methodology, or even canceling the project.

There is a considerable amount of value in maintaining an Agile mindset for any project, not just Agile projects. An Agile mindset applied to any project can significantly reduce that pain and increase your overall success.

Learn More

Do you want to learn more about Agile values to support your use of the Jira Cloud Software platform? Project Management Academy is the most trusted name in Project Management training and leaders in accelerating execution effectiveness and digital transformation. View our course, Agile Fundamentals to solidify your understanding of these principles and how to put them into action.

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Stephen Hoogerwerf, PMP
Stephen Hoogerwerf, PMP