Transforming to an Agile Mindset, Part 2

“My Facilitation Problem”

Recently I was conducting a Design Thinking and Agile Learning workshop with a group of seasoned consultants. These types of learning experiences follow similar patterns. They require a skillful application of a series of mini-learning components that build upon each another to provide a metanoia, an “aha” experience that hopefully occurs for the participant at some point during the progression of exercises.

This day my facilitating skills did not seem to be up to the task. It came to the first collaborative exercise with which each team table was to engage. This was your typical Post-it Note type brainstorming session to consider all the factors for a challenge they had already selected. I instructed the participants to write one idea per Post-it Note, in silence, as many as they can think of in five minutes. However, as soon as I started the timer, they began talking around the table with each other while their markers and pads of blank sticky-notes sat dormant in front of them. At no table were the participants willing to begin writing down ideas without gathering more information about the challenge before them.

Why had I so quickly failed in guiding my workshop participants?

What Makes Up the Agile Mindset?

In Part One of Transforming to an Agile Mindset: “Martin’s Problem,” I wrote about how Agile represents not merely a set of practices like Scrum, but as with bureaucratic or meritocratic management, Agile is a distinct theory and practice on how to approach and do work. Recently it has been understood that Agile is like a classic paradigm shift, so some of us have begun naming it after another great perspective shift in history and calling this shift to Agile the Copernican Revolution in Management.

At the foundation of a mindset is our set of values that inform our view of who we are, our very identity. For Agile I refer to the Five Scrum Values. Here in Part Two, I examine the next level that makes up a mindset, the Principles we bring to bear to make the decisions that support our values, which act as our heuristic shortcuts.

For Agile principles, we usually refer to the Four Agile Manifesto statements, or the Twelve Agile Software Principles behind them. I have also used Steve Denning’s Seven Principles of Radical Management and they are also the basis of the Agile Entrepreneurship course I teach at Northwest University. While values must be tightly aligned, at the principle level we see more variability that supports a set of underlying values. And at the practices level we see the most malleability. Similar views have been also been described by other Agilists as the “Agile Onion.”

Three Models of Organization

What was on display with the seasoned consultants I was attempting to bring into this new Agile mindset paradigm is just how hard it is to break habits and allow new thought patterns to emerge. As the bright, experienced consultants they are, they value being the smartest and most prepared person in the room. They are used to operating in what Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship and Deputy Dean at the London Business School describes as a meritocracy, best suited for the Information Age with its “emphasis on rational analysis and expertise.”

In the Information Age, we were faced with complicated problems, yet ones that have knowable answers. If you have the expertise, and enough data, you can solve these business and technological puzzles, and you are valuable in that world. Your schooling, your MBA, and your functional experience have all contributed toward your success. If you are like these seasoned consultants, this capability is at the core of your identity. It makes up your perspective of who you are. In the Information Age, we valued being “the smartest person in the room” since knowledge is privileged, and decisions are made by logical argument. For the consultants I was attempting to facilitate, it was their habit to gather more data and it has reliably worked in the past.

When I asked for quiet brainstorming, the consultants’ natural response was to instead gather more data. However, this type of divergent thinking exercise is designed to be an experience of the Age of Agile. In the Age of Agile, we are dealing with complex problems for which there are no known answers. To solve for unknown unknowns there is no relevant data yet available to gather, so spending time attempting to do so is a waste.

Can You Guess What Percentage of New Consumer Products Goods Succeed?

At times like this, I remind folks of research such as the 2001 Harvard Business Review on Why Most Product Launches Fail. They studied consumer products goods (CPG) product launches by some of the largest and most competent brands in the world, ones that have access to the best market research methods, and the brightest marketers, some that come out of consultants like I was training, and from MBA programs such as the one I attended at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.

What they found is that less than 3% succeed. Now let me ask you: If simply more data were needed, don’t you think these CPG companies would have gathered it? This is why in the Age of Agile, we do things like make low-fidelity prototypes (or “minimum viable,” even “minimum lovable” products) and get them in front of actual users and consumers to learn as quickly as possible how people will respond. This is not classic market research, it is a form of what my father used to call his success formula. He was the inventor and pioneer of the garage door opener and several other consumer and commercial products. He liked to say, “We just build stuff and go out and see if people will buy it.” I have introduced hundreds of products the same way.

In the Age of Agile, we are dealing with complex problems for which there are no known answers. To solve for unknown unknowns there is no relevant data yet available to gather, so spending time attempting to do so is a waste.

Founding Redbox

One product launch was during the time I was in my Kellogg MBA program when I also happened to join the founding team of what became Redbox. I excitedly shared the opportunity with my fellow MBA classmates, and had only one fellow student invested with me in the startup. The others said things like

“You will never change people’s behavior, they are used to shopping for videos at a Blockbuster.” -fellow MBA student in 2002

We didn’t know if we could change behavior either. We had a theory, a hypothesis that we could. In those days people had a generally lousy experience at their local video stores. The video store service was slow, often waiting for 20 minutes in line to check out with a surly clerk on a busy weekend evening, and that was to check out a video you didn’t go to the store to rent in the first place because all the copies of that one were already taken. On top of this, we were renting from a company where all their profits came from punishing customers with late fees. My classmate and I suspected those were not sustainable competitive attributes.

Besides a change of consumer behavior had already occurred with bank tellers and ATMs. But getting cash and selecting a movie are not the same. So not knowing if people would rent from a machine instead of a store, we conducted the experiment and placed the first kiosks out in four local grocery stores. Then we stood by out of sight and observed if anyone would ever come up and attempt to rent a DVD out of a machine. Guess what, they did! Forty-thousand kiosks, $30B in sales, a bankrupt Blockbuster, and fifteen years later, Redbox still owns the majority of media movie rentals.

Bias Toward Action

Rather than more research, to solve for mysteries an Agile mindset includes a bias toward action. Decisions are derived from experiments that probe and discover innovative, new approaches. Siloed and functional expertise becomes an impediment. Being the smartest person in the room is a deficit. By research and experience, the best approach to complex challenges has been found to be a cognitively diverse team who are focused on the opportunity and empowered to iteratively explore for the desired outcomes.

We can go back seventy-five years to Lockheed developing the SR71 in their SkunkWorks and see a similar approach. Similar principles underlay the The Toyota Way from over a half-century ago. Or apply the principles that fighter jet pilots learn, something called the OODA loop: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. That is what informed Jeff Sutherland’s invention of Scrum with Ken Schwaber. Today far more of the complex unknown unknowns we face need an Agile approach.

“I have failed as your workshop facilitator,” I had to admit to my participants

As soon as the five minutes were up in my facilitation attempt, I stopped the process and did a short retrospective. I admitted to the room I had failed to convey the intended instructions properly and how I had hoped that, with no more information, they would have been able to just write down all the crazy things that came to the top of their mind, in silence. I asked, “How could I have instructed you better?”

One person suggested, ”You should have just told us to write down all the crazy things that come to top of our mind, and not worry about it.” I took from her comment that they needed permission, and some better guidance to operate with this different, new mindset. It was uncomfortable and not yet a habit. It hasn’t been rewarded in their normal circumstances as it has been for me as an entrepreneur. This is but one small example of what it means to have a different mindset. To borrow from Birkinshaw, and the title of Steve Denning’s new book: welcome to The Age of Agile.

In Part Three we will examine the top of the mindset pyramid, how there are more than 40+ types of Agile practices, and why that is OK.