July 23, 2020

Agility for Leaders: Achieving an Agile Mindset

By Sherman Gomberg and Charles Hutchison (Hutch)

To establish and sustain an Agile Organization, it’s vital that there are leaders who have developed significantly new mindsets and capabilities to transform themselves, their teams and their organization. What does it mean to be an Agile leader and how do we recognize Agile Leadership? What type of “mindset” must a leader achieve success in becoming an Agile leader?  

If you are an Agile leader, or plan to become one, you may be wondering about this role and how it fits in with building an Agile Organization. 

What is Agile Leadership?

Agile organizations require Agile Leaders to achieve and sustain agility. Specifically, Agile Leadership has the responsibility to create and manage the type of change that contributes to building an effective Agile organization. For a successful transformation to Agile, it is essential that leaders help drive organizational change and uphold excellence in how the work is performed. They accomplish this by a number of different ways (training, adaptation, learnings, failure, collaboration, communication, work behavior practices, transparency, feedback loops, etc.) which result in such key outcomes as follows:

  1. The organization is optimized for flexibility and continuous improvement, making sure that improving customer outcomes always comes first, and that the other parts of the organization support this mission.  
  2. A culture is fostered that supports empiricism and learning…and is constantly seeking better customer outcomes and better ways of achieving those outcomes. Leaders can’t dictate the culture, but they can help create the right conditions for it to emerge. 
  3. High-performing teams have supportive leaders to help them frame the right goals. Agile leadership and high-performing teams work in a kind of feedback loop helping to strengthen each other which in turns, builds up the Agile organization. 
  4. An environment exists where Agile teams collaborate, learn from each other, get quick feedback from stakeholders and customers, and are focused on quality and continuous learning. 
  5. Clarity is provided on the objectives or desired outcome (the “what”) where people and teams then discover the best ways to achieve the outcome (the “how”). 

In essence, Agile Leadership is creating the right environment for self-managing teams and encouraging and empowering each team to deliver customer value as quickly as possible. Being an Agile leader requires being committed to perform what the diagram to the right indicates. 

What are leadership traits or attributes desired for Agile Leaders to become successful in leading their high-performing teams and ultimately, become key champions in their Agile organization? What are some of the qualities for leaders to possess for them to become growth-minded Agile change agents within their organizations? Let’s discuss. 

Key Attributes of an Agile Leader

One of the key barriers to achieve organizational agility or Agile adoption has been linked to poor leadership within the organization. The most recent CollabNet/VersionOne 13th Annual State of Agile Report (https://explore.versionone.com/state-of-agile/13th-annual-state-of-agile-reporthas a question about barriers to further Agile adoption…and respondents pointed to leadership-type challenges that impact acceptance and growth of an Agile culture.

So, to increase this “Limit” for Agile growth by improving the consciousness of the Agile leader, there are certain fundamental qualities / attributes that the leader should possess in their “toolkit” for them to be successful Agile Leaders. As a leader, a variety of different skills and mastering certain roles are required such as: 

  • Servant Leader 
  • Team Builder / Empowerment 
  • Coach / Facilitator 
  • Change Agent 
  • Agile Learner and Advocate 
  • Having an unwavering focus on delivering value 

To achieve and master the skills and above roles, it’s important that the Agile leader look at the priority of what’s more impactful in the transformation of the organization to agility. The “Agile Onion”, which shows the combination of the different elements that make up the Agile ecosystem, is shown below. The model suggests that even though mindset and culture are less visible than tools and processes, both are more powerful. It’s where “being agile” comes from, rather than “doing agile”. 

 Doing Agile + Time = Being Agile 

This is not to say that the larger circles in the “Onion” don’t add value, but they don’t add as much value to the overall achievement of agility. Cultural changes in the organization occur as a result of changing the mindset. Another representation below identifies examples of what activity takes place for each layer of the “Agile Onion” that reflects significance

Since both “Agile Onion” representations above indicate that having an Agile mindset is the most powerful quality, let’s explore what it takes to achieve this mindset. 

Agile Mindset: The “Big 13” 

The core of Agile is recognizing that attaining an Agile mindset is key to achieving agility. Undoubtedly, there are different approaches for accomplishing this…but first, let’s align with understanding what does it mean to acquire an Agile mindset.  

One of the accepted definitions comes from Susan McIntosh in her article “What Exactly is an Agile Mindset” (https://www.infoq.com/articles/what-agile-mindset/). In her article, she states: “An agile mindset is the set of attitudes supporting an agile working environment. These include respect, collaboration, improvement and learning cycles, pride in ownership, focus on delivering value, and the ability to adapt to change. This mindset is necessary to cultivate high-performing teams, who in turn deliver amazing value for their customers”

Scrum Alliance has identified what they have determined to be characteristics of an Agile Mindset and these are shown here. 

 As mentioned earlier, there are different approaches in acquiring an Agile mindset, either individually or collectively as a team. Examples include: storytelling, using language to reward agile behavior or correcting non-agile behavior, learn by doing, practicing the right behavior, etc. Another approach uses self-reflection / self-evaluation activities to help cultivate Agile mindset where an individual can discover their own path to agility.  

One recommended self-evaluation exercise that can be performed by an individual to identify their Agile mindset was created by Aleem Khan (https://www.360pmo.com/fixed-vs-growth-mindset/). This exercise contains a list of mindset related observations which can help one to identify their established set of attitudes and habits towards succeeding when there is uncertainty. A “growth” (i.e. agile) mindset is an attitude that equates failure and problems with opportunities for learning, while a “fixed” mindset believes that basic skills, intelligence, and qualities are inherent and fixed. 

Big 13 For Agile Leaders

For an Agile leader, Alexander Frumkin (Sasha) has developed an Agile Leader Checklist as a way to check one’s thinking related to an Agile mindset. Repurposed as the “Big 13 for Agile Leaders”, this checklist (see below) consists of 13 questions for a leader to ask themselves to help determine if they are a true Agile leader. For each question, a corresponding Agile mindset attribute is identified to illustrate the thinking that an Agile leader might have. 

By taking the time to answer these “Big 13 For Agile Leaders” questions and thinking about how you might become a better Agile leader, consider you’re already becoming a better Agile leader. 

  1. When was the last time I said “I failed” in front of my team? Mindset: Not having a fear of failure 
  2. When was the last time somebody at my team challenged me or said “No”? Mindset: Be open, allowing courageous feedback 
  3. When was the last time I awarded somebody on my team for stepping in and making a decision? Mindset: Celebrating positive outcome of empowering teams and individuals 
  4. Does my team have a clear understanding of their purpose and what their success looks like? Mindset: Sharing and setting goals 
  5. When was the last time my team celebrated our successMindset: Celebrating team successes 
  6. On a level from 1 to 10, how important is it to me to know what my team members feels about my leadership? Mindset: Personally integrates feedback and experiments, and adapts their ways 
  7. Do I “drive” or “influence”? Mindset: Catalyzes change in others and facilitates organizational change 
  8. How often do I ask the question, “What is the value of doing this”? Mindset: Always keeping in mind customer value 
  9. How often do I tell my team members how to do their job or when they should finish it? Mindset: Aligns and empowers teams toward delivering more customer value 
  10. When was the last time anybody on my team went to a conference or took a job-related class of their choice? Mindset: Having a focus on team development 
  11. What will happen if I am away for a couple of weeks? Mindset: Having confidence and trust in the team giving them empowerment and borrowed authority 
  12. What old habit have I given up? Mindset: Embracing change leading to continuous improvement 
  13. What is the ratio of creative vs. reactive work for my teams? Mindset: Surfaces more creative solutions through increased self-awareness, a growth mindset, and engaging others


Shifting to an Agile mindset doesn’t take place overnight but requires self-discipline, commitment, and openness to change. Agility is not an all or nothing quality but instead should be considered as an outcome from achieving an Agile mindset. 

Agile Leadership is about enhanced agility, which is best achieved through nurturing Agile mindsets, empowering self-organizing teams, and creating a culture of trust, transparency, continuous improvement, with a focus on customer value. 

Successful Agile Leadership is an acquired skill that improves over time and requires effort to accomplish. Leveraging practices and techniques such as the “Big 13 For Agile Leaders” are approaches for leaders to self-reflect to cultivate an Agile mindset and subsequently discover their own path to agility.