What does it mean to have an agile mindset…?

Some reflections by our Executive Dean Academic: Dr Franzél du Plooy-Cilliers


In the current epoch in which we find ourselves, there have been multiple realities we have had to navigate. The global pandemic and the resulting socio-economic crisis that the world is facing, has seen a quagmire of disruptions to the micro-, meso-, macro- and exo systems of the entire eco-system. In some instances, individuals and organisations faced many challenges that threatened their survival, and many people are experiencing additional stress and even threats to their livelihoods. However, in other cases, some very innovative entrepreneurial endeavours have emerged, and several companies came up with creative solutions to some of the challenge that they were facing that changed the way in which they do business. Regardless of the circumstance, it has certainly been a time of evolution, deep reflection and a time of self-reflection. One of the things that I have probed during my own period of self-reflection, and that my team and I worked on, is connected to mindset and what characteristics should be present within us as individuals to adopt an agile mindset as a team.

I like to consider mindset as a way of thinking about things to the point where it becomes a way of life, and I propose that an agile mindset, includes characteristics, such as, a positive attitude, an insatiable and authentic thirst for knowledge, pragmatism, a willingness to fail and a ‘we’ rather than ‘me’ approach to business. I have observed that those teams and individuals within teams with an agile mindset see everything as a lesson and never consider constructive feedback as a negative reflection on them and their abilities, but rather as a means for self-reflection – a lesson. They welcome and embrace feedback, reflect on it, and adjust based on it and see it to continuously improve and grow.

Agile people, in my mind, have a positive attitude towards work, truly and mindfully engage with what they are doing, and provide suggestions to overcome challenges and obstacles. They ask questions to understand what is in the best interest of the business and they often come up with innovative solutions without having to be told what to do. They also have a genuine desire to see the team and the business succeed. Hence, I would like to posit that for us to have an agile mindset and agile teams the following should be nurtured:

1. A positive attitude: We need to accept that we live in a complex world, with complex challenges to probe, and that there are always going to be challenges. People make mistakes and things will not always go according to plan, but even when things go wrong, I challenge you to consider that the things that are negative can be turned into an opportunity to improve on current practices.

2. A thirst for knowledge: We should not always assume that what we are doing is in the best interest of those we serve. We should, instead, challenge ourselves to think outside of the box, be curious and have an inquisitive mind to determine what it is that others really need from us. It is further important to remain curious and to never stop learning, reading and internalising knowledge through various means and channels.

Developing active listening skills is a core and key skill in understanding what is needed and what could potentially aid in each situation. Active listening goes hand-in-hand with problem-probing. Realise that people do not always provide you with the real reason for their dissatisfaction at first, so you often need to probe to get to the real issue or concern.

Everyone in the team needs to be eager to gain knowledge and insight to improve, so encourage learning and probing and practice it yourself.

3. Pragmatism: Deal with things sensibly and realistically based on practical considerations. Don’t say: “it can’t be done” – instead, explain what can be done. The team members and even members from different teams needs to help each other succeed – even if it means you need to sacrifice some of your own tasks to help solve a crisis

Ask critical questions about the work you do, like 1. Does it have to be done this way or is there a more efficient way of doing it? 2. In fact, does it have to be done at all? Does it still serve a purpose? If something has always been done a certain way, it doesn’t mean it is the best way of doing it. Never be afraid to question the status quo if it is not working. Be pragmatic about the greater good of the team and the business and be mindful not to make assumptions because assuming wastes valuable time if your assumptions are wrong.

4. Willingness to fail: Many of us have been raised with a belief that failure is not acceptable but in truth, failure is often the best way to learn. You can fail less though through asking questions and asking for help so that you can learn from other people’s mistakes and experience. We should also return the favour and allow others to learn from our mistakes. We should therefore stop hiding our failures because we feel embarrassed and talk about them instead so that others can learn from them. It is, however, critical to learn from failure so as not to repeat mistakes, but failure need not be as debilitating as we often make it. It is also important to consider that what works in one situation may not work in another. Key to remember though is that many of the greatest innovations have been born out of failure.

5. Continuous improvement: We should all be on a quest to be lifelong learners, even learning from failure, and leverage what is learned to continuously improve on what we do. Failure and challenges s are opportunities for learning and invaluable forms of feedback. We grow stronger and get better over time if we put in the effort to reflect and improve.

6. ‘We’ rather than ‘me’: Agility in a work context is about the success of the team, and not about individual success. It is therefore far more important for the team and business to succeed than for individuals to look good by completing their tasks. We need to be willing to move outside of our comfort zone to assist others for the overall good of the team and business. Be willing to train, mentor and coach others and share knowledge, especially knowledge about failures so that others can learn from them.

At different places, and in our own individual teams and contexts, we will often have to probe various and increasingly complex problems that need workable solutions. Through developing teams with agile mindsets and holding on to the principles of agility ourselves, dealing with the complex problems we are facing in these uncertain times become far easier.