Six Agile Mantras
A mantra is something you contemplate regularly and that continuously guides your decisions and actions. The six agile mantras stand on the shoulders of giants in fields as diverse as quality management, athletic coaching, resilience engineering, psychological safety, and business leadership. These mantras exist to help individuals, groups, teams, departments, divisions, and whole organizations develop agility.
- Be Quick—But Don’t Hurry: Succeed sooner via quickness under control and avoid costly mistakes from hurrying or rushing.
- Be Balanced and Graceful: Resolve imbalances, collaborate harmoniously with others, and make change empowering, not forced.
- Be Poised to Adapt: Develop a readiness to revise or respond quickly and easily to change.
- Start Minimal and Evolve: Begin quickly and easily with something basic and rapidly improve it based on what you learn.
- Drive Out Fear: Make safety a prerequisite to protect people and pave the way for high performance.
- Be Readily Resourceful: Solve problems without hesitation by being quick, clever, and creative.
Be Quick—But Don’t Hurry
Quickness is an important aspect of agility, while hurrying, rushing, or moving so fast that you are out of control is not. The mantra Be Quick—But Don’t Hurry is all about understanding the difference. While being agile requires being quick, quickness alone does not make one agile. Agility requires moving at pace, with ease and grace, or being at once quick, resourceful, and adaptable.
When we are quick, we don’t hesitate; we are in control, balanced, flowing, and unhurried. We avoid taking dangerous risks. When we hurry or rush, we are unbalanced and unstable, prone to making mistakes that may be harmful or costly to ourselves or others.
The idea is that we’re focused on getting results sooner. When we accomplish things sooner, they get done faster, which is good. When we hurry or rush, we may succeed a few times, but generally it leads to problems. Some people I know are so scarred by bosses pressuring them to rush that they are permanently allergic to any notion of speed. Yet speed isn’t the problem. It’s rushing and hurrying, moving in an uncontrolled, reckless manner that leads to missteps.
Be Balanced and Graceful
Agility requires balance. When we are physically, mentally, and emotionally in balance, we are stable and prepared for change. When we are unstable or out of balance, perhaps due to hurrying, rushing, or being disturbed, we frequently make mistakes or hurt ourselves.
Balance is required to be quick. Balance in business is critical for succeeding sooner. Imagine a strategic meeting of ten people, during which everyone gets an opportunity to speak and be heard. Now imagine the same meeting with only a few people dominating the conversation. The first meeting has more balance, increasing the chance of leveraging intelligent ideas from multiple minds. That’s how you achieve better outcomes sooner.
A balanced board for an organization has an appropriate mix of genders and ethnicities. A balanced team has the right staff needed to succeed. A balanced portfolio has a thoughtful ratio of risk to safety. A balanced product strategy includes the right mix of production and maintenance.
Balance, in any endeavor, enables grace. When our movement is graceful, we are poised, flowing, perhaps even elegant. An athlete may execute a move in their sport gracefully; a surgeon may perform a procedure with grace; a manager may handle a tricky personnel situation gracefully; a team may commence and complete work quickly and gracefully.
Be Poised to Adapt
ease. On the other hand, it also means being ready to act or move. When we are poised to adapt, we are ready to respond quickly and easily to changes. Examples include rapidly altering your approach based on new information, quickly modifying something for a new purpose, or adjusting rapidly to a new reality.
David D. Woods, a pioneer of resilience engineering, has studied the relationship between human coordination with automated and intelligent systems for more than forty years.1 He explains that being poised to adapt is a readiness to revise and readiness to respond, which must exist before specific challenges are faced. This requires what he calls adaptive capacity: a system’s readiness or potential to change how a system currently works—its models, plans, processes, behaviors—to continue to fit changing situations, anomalies, and surprises.
Learning is vital for developing adaptive capacity. It prepares us to face the unexpected and gives us the ability to adapt rapidly. And as we learn and adapt continuously, we eventually either hit our goal or pivot to a better one. When you become poised to adapt, it helps to consider the mantra Be Quick—But Don’t Hurry. Don’t rush learning, and don’t hurry to adapt. This will help you avoid serious errors.
Start Minimal and Evolve
When you don’t know exactly what to create, what will delight customers, or what will help you achieve your goals, it helps to start with something minimal and iteratively improve it. Instead of guessing at what to create, acknowledge that you are operating under conditions of uncertainty and use an approach that helps you quickly and easily learn what to create. That helps you Drive Out Fear, a closely related mantra. Start Minimal and Evolve is also closely related to the mantra Be Poised to Adapt, since it requires rapidly adapting as you learn what to evolve.
When artists and architects progress from early sketches to a finished work, this mantra is at work. When startups begin with a rough, crude version of an offering so they may learn and pivot quickly without investing lots of capital, this mantra is at work. And when a seed begins life as a tiny seedling and eventually grows into a giant tree, this mantra is at work. There is no better way to be quick, resourceful, and adaptable than to start minimal and evolve. Evolutionary design enables this mantra. It prompts us to begin with a primitive whole, learn from it, evolve it, and repeat.
Drive Out Fear
When we are agile, we are unafraid. We don’t hesitate or worry about what people think or what penalty might occur if we make a mistake. We are fearless. Fear inhibits agility. It produces hesitation and delays. It leads people to remain silent over speaking up. It may encourage people to cover up mistakes, so they aren’t blamed or penalized. Issues don’t get resolved, which leads to compounding problems and failure.
Fear has no place in high-performance environments. That’s why W. Edwards Deming famously said, “The manager’s job is to drive out fear.” In today’s world, trust and safety are essential for high performance. And the research proves it. Paul J. Zak, a pioneer in neuroeconomic research, found that a high-trust environment produces chemicals in our brains that result in greater engagement and retention, lower stress, and more joy. Google’s two-year study of teams to discover what led to high performance concluded that the number-one factor was psychological safety.
Great leaders drive out fear and establish safety.
Be Readily Resourceful
The word readily means “without hesitation.” Agility involves being readily resourceful when facing challenges. People who are resourceful have an ability to “find quick and clever ways to overcome difficulties.” Being readily resourceful means not hesitating to overcome challenges, maneuver around obstacles, and quickly solve problems.
That isn’t always an easy thing to do. Many of us are resentful of unforeseen obstacles or difficulties. Sometimes they make us feel helpless, anxious, or stuck. Those feelings are a good indicator that it’s time to become readily resourceful. Doing that requires an attitude that obstacles and challenges can be overcome, that they are meant to be overcome. Being stuck or helpless is by no means a permanent condition. You can be clever, consider new ideas, learn from others, and discover unexpected solutions.
Being readily resourceful requires optimism as well. Treat obstacles and challenges like puzzles to solve. There’s always a solution. Consider options, leverage diverse points of view, ask many questions, and determine whether constraints are real or imaginary. Be suspicious of the status quo. Challenge conventional wisdom. Defy assumptions.
Spark change. Embrace change. Be change.