The Agile Mindset: Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

- Agile and Lean Principles

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by Robie Wood

This is the very first value listed in the Agile Manifesto. Individuals and interactions is all about the agile mindset and the behaviors that “being agile” is all about. Unfortunately, in many “agile” organizations, we still spend most of our time thinking about and working on improving our processes and tools. We are trying to answer the question, how can we improve the way we are “doing agile” and measure how well we are doing it. But don’t we really valuing “being agile” over “doing agile”?

So let’s talk about some techniques for building the agile mindset. ImprovAgility uses techniques from improvisational theater — or “improv” as actors call it —  to practice and develop an agile mindset and behaviors. Using improvisational exercises is a form of experiential learning that lets us work on our abilities to:

  • focus
  • concentrate
  • think on our feet
  • build on others’ ideas
  • actively listen
  • bond and have fun with our teammates

These abilities represent the skills of a great collaborator and collaboration is the foundation of developing an agile mindset.

How to play ‘Yes, And’ to move the conversation forward

In improvisational theater, the fundamental drill for learning to be a great collaborator is the exercise known as “Yes, And.”  After we warm up in ImprovAgility workshops, we jump right into a game of “Yes, And,” a popular improv exercise that’s easy to learn and just about everyone feels comfortable trying. Once we’re comfortable and fluent in “Yes, And,” we move on to other exercises for deeper skill development in collaboration, self-organization, helping, motivating and inspiring. However, the basic concepts of “Yes, And” run through all of these exercises.

To start, we put people into pairs and get one person to make a statement. It can be anything for example someone can say: “We are going on vacation.” The other person has to follow up by first saying, “Yes AND…” In essence agreeing with the first statement and then adding new information. “Yes and we’ll be spending a week in the Bahamas before heading to visit family.” The pair will continue going back and forth until they come to a natural conclusion or until the game is over.

The reason that “Yes, And” is a very powerful exercise has to do with the basic notion of taking the ideas expressed by your partner or teammate and building on those ideas.  The approach transcends the industrial concept of replication and political concept of compromise. When we compromise, each party generally gives something up to reach an agreement. It’s usually a zero-sum game. When collaborating, however, we take what our teammate gives us and we build on that idea. After, cycling through this take and build, back and forth or around the team, we work toward creating a completely unexpected result — a result that is more than equal to the sum of its parts.  When we do this well (i.e., great collaboration), we give ourselves the opportunity to be creative and innovative.

Challenge Accepted: Use ‘Yes, And’ to further collaboration

 Find a moment when you are involved in problem-solving or decision-making with a teammate, friend or spouse.  Think about “Yes, And.”  Take whatever they give you and build on their idea. And see if you can influence them to do the same. This can be done in a number of contexts.

For example, I had a recent experience of joining an ad-hoc team to work on some better practices for scaling agile (more “doing agile,” really.) One of my new team members was fairly aggressive in dominating the conversation and my initial reaction was to pull back (not to mention experiencing some moderate irritation.) I was able to catch myself and began practicing what I preach through listening and reacting by trying to build on his ideas. I was immediately relieved of my initial irritation (giving myself some peace of mind) and had a surprising result in that my teammate began to listen more and started cooperating with the rest of the team more as we moved on with our conversation. We didn’t exactly solve world peace, but we did manage a pleasant exchange and designed a few proposals to present to the rest of the organization.

So give “Yes, And” a try.  And remember to keep out the negatives — saying “Yes, But” (just like the old failure “I’m sorry, but…”) is a rejection of what your partner gives you and usually ends the back and forth conversation.  For this exercise you can keep it simple.  Over the next week when you find yourself in a problem solving conversation with your partner or teammates, listen carefully to an idea that they express and then, literally, say the words Yes, And and add to their idea.  For example, if you were working with some teammates trying to design a better retrospective a teammate might say “I think we should go off-site for a change of scenery” and you might say, “yes, and I think we should order some refreshments” and a third team member might say, “yes, and I know a restaurant that can accommodate us with a private room and refreshments” and you might say, “yes, and after our meeting we can stay for happy hour for some extra team building” and the original team member might say, “yes, and we should use a celebration board to organize our retrospective approach” and on and on until you decide to bring the conversation to a conclusion.  If you are part of a team, explain what you are trying to do and get them to participate.  If you’re leading a team, provide them with the above instructions and give the exercise a go.  At the very least, apply the Yes, And approach yourself as you work with others to experience the positive impact on you , your teammates and the outcome of your conversation.

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