For some people, failure is the end of the world—but for others, it’s this exciting new opportunity. – Harrison Owen
I think of this quote often when I engage with new technical teams. Introducing Agile technical practices is often a series of experiments; some of which succeed and some of which fail. As a coach, it is important for me to understand the mindset of the organization, the managers, the teams and the individual to coach through these experiments. Have they embraced the idea of being a learning organization? Peter Senge, who popularized learning organizations in his book The Fifth Discipline, described them as places “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.” An Agile mindset is required to achieve this.
Before we get too far, let’s define mindset. We use this term frequently in relation to Agile. Agile is a mindset. But what does that actually mean? A mindset is not a prescriptive set of rules but more an attitude with which something is approached.
Mindset: The ideas and attitudes with which a person approaches a situation.
For me, mindset is more about how you perceive your situation. Are you facing a problem that can’t be solved? How do you respond when you fail? If something doesn’t go your way? If it is more difficult to learn than expected? Do you perceive these as failures and setbacks or an opportunity to try something different, to learn something new? In Carol Dweck’s research on mindset, she defines two categories: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.
In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities are simply fixed traits, and use their performance to document those traits.They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.
In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.
A little background…
In a simple experiment, Carol and her team had a group of students take a grade appropriate test slightly out of their current knowledge range, a bit of a stretch. It was work they would cover during the middle of the year. Once the test was completed, they randomly divided the students into two separate groups (A and B). When the tests were handed back, each group was given slightly different feedback on their performance.
This small difference in feedback resulted in a significant difference between the subsequent actions of the two groups. Group A, when asked if they would be interested in taking a more challenging test next time, said yes. Group B, when asked if they would be interested in taking a more challenging test, said no, not interested. Over the grading period a strange thing happened—group A’s grades went up, they began leading in class and mentoring other students. Meanwhile, group B’s grades went down, and they started retreating from class engagement. What was said to each group that caused such a different response?
Group A was told they did pretty well, they must have worked really hard. Group B was told they did pretty well, they must be really smart. This small difference in feedback created a growth or a fixed mindset amongst the groups. By stating they worked really hard, group A was told they were in control. They had power over what they could accomplish. Work hard and you can do well. By stating they must be really smart, group B was told they have a finite capacity. You got this grade because you are smart. That has bounds. If tested, you might find the bounds. But hard work has no bounds. Group A, growth mindset, the other a fixed mindset. This same experiment was run on athletes and executives. The results were very similar. If you treat and speak to people in a particular way, it establishes a mindset. It affects the way that they behave. Your words and actions matter.
Why does this matter…
When introducing Agile technical practices to teams, we are not just introducing development techniques, we are introducing a new way of working and engaging with teammates and other members of the organization. Many of these practices are new for the development teams and the organization, and the mindset with which they are undertaken matters. Technical practices such as test driven development (TDD), refactoring, continuous integration (CI), pair programming, mob programming, and small batch releases take time to learn. They require teams to change the way the think, the way they write code, the way they interact with each other. By embracing these practices, they build stronger, cleaner code. Quality code. The team starts developing cross functionality amongst the themselves. They develop the desire to learn more, to continually look for ways of improving not only themselves but their team and the organization. They develop a growth mindset.
And what about managers? How do they affect the teams’ mindset? Many times, I have talked with managers who do not think individual team members can or should learn different technologies. They pigeon-hole them into a developer or a database administrator or a tester or whatever roles they have in the organization. What could be achieved if individuals were given the opportunity and encouragement to develop a growth mindset? Managers who embrace a growth mindset for their teams and encourage learning of new Agile technical practices are unlocking significant potential.
By simply changing the way we introduce new techniques and ideas, we can encourage a team’s growth mindset. I say simply but it’s not that simple. It takes practice. It takes evaluating what mindset you currently have. It takes willingness to say “I don’t know how to do that yet”. It takes shifting from a fixed to a growth mindset. The possibilities become limitless.
Test your mindset…
Do you strongly agree or strongly disagree with the following questions?
Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t change very much.
You can learn new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are.
No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit.
You can always substantially change how intelligent you are.
If you strongly agree with questions 1 and 2, you have a fixed mindset. If you strongly agree with questions 3 and 4, you have a growth mindset. Let’s look at how teams and individuals can begin shifting to a growth mindset.
Change your mindset…
If you answered strongly agree with questions 1 and 2, here are a few steps to begin the shift to a growth mindset.
Step 1: Acknowledge your fixed mindset
People can have both fixed and growth mindsets. They could have a fixed mindset when learning a new language while having a growth mindset when painting or playing a musical instrument. Acknowledge your fixed mindset. Be aware that it exists. Recognizing that you have a fixed mindset allows you to begin to process of shifting to a growth mindset.
Step 2: Be aware of your triggers
Similar to limiting beliefs, I believe we develop fixed mindsets for a reason. They are in place to protect us from something, maybe to explain away why we aren’t good at a new task. Developing an awareness for when these beliefs are triggered is vital. As humans, we naturally look for patterns. When faced with a new challenge or when you are struggling to learn something new, pay attention to how you respond. What was the situation that caused you to think you couldn’t succeed? Once you are familiar with these triggers, you can begin overcoming them, retraining yourself to trigger a growth mindset.
Step 3: Give your fixed-mindset persona a name
We all have that voice in our head that tells us we did an awesome job or that we really sucked at something. Give that voice a name. Create a persona for that fixed mindset voice.
Step 4: Educate it
Now that you have embraced the idea that you have a fixed mindset, have started recognizing patterns of when it emerges and have named it, it’s time to start educating it. Come up with alternative stories to the one your persona is telling you. Think of situations where you embraced a growth mindset. What was different? Understand and determine the root of the fixed mindset. Once you know the roots, you can begin shifting to a new thought process.
Embrace the Power of YET…
You are now on your journey of shifting your approach or mindset for learning new things and resolving obstacles that get in the way. When taking this journey use the power of “yet”. Instead of saying “I can’t do this” say “I can’t do this yet”. I can’t adopt all of the Agile technical practices that I want yet. Yet opens the door to the possibility that you will be able to do it in the future. Yet allows you to try and try again. Yet says its okay that you don’t know everything day one. Yet acknowledges you have a growth mindset.