Guest post from Dave Moran, founder and agile coach at Agile Guide in Portland, ME

There is a difference between doing agile, which relates to adopting practices and techniques, and being agile, which relates to the mindset and behaviors we use as we leverage agile practices and techniques. This is why agile isn’t a silver bullet process or practice change (or a pill that you can take to alleviate all of your ills), but something deeper and more involved, which comes from embracing the values and principles found in The Manifesto for Agile Development.

These values and principles are expressed as a set of interrelated qualities:


As I see it, agility is realized in different ways at personal, team, and organizational levels. Each one ideally reinforces the other and shares the same values and principles, but the traits and behaviors will be different at each level. Let’s take a look at an example involving learning and continuous improvement to illustrate my point.

For any learning and change to take place you need qualities such as curiosity and a willingness to experiment. You need to support the notion of continuous improvement and that your own qualities (and those of your team) are things that can be nurtured and cultivated.

At a team level, we need these core qualities and more. We need the willingness and ability to use respectful interactions. We need to have the desire, courage, willingness and ability to reflect on our current situation, examine habits, behaviors, structures and policies in constructive ways with our teammates. And just as it is at a personal level, the team as a whole needs to be willing to experiment with new ideas in order to improve.

Learning must be also supported at the organizational level. Does your organization mandate a specific approach and “best” practices? (Personal opinion: Don’t use the word best. What is “best” in an environment of continuous improvement?) Can teams experiment and choose to stop doing some things and start doing others on their own, without having to seek permission and/or jump through hoops to obtain that permission? Are there mechanisms to easily share information and learning across the organization?

Each, as I said, ideally each reinforces and supports the other. But that isn’t always the case. An often-cited example is where an agile team is injected in the middle of a non-agile organization: there will be a lot of challenges since there will be a lot of organizational “pull” back toward non-agile behaviors and ways of operating.

I’m sure you can readily see that it is advantageous to have a reinforcing cycle. Awareness of these levels can also help you see how conflicting values can come into play that cause stress and anxiety on the job. If you have a strong desire to work in ways that are more in alignment with agile values and principles, for example, but your organization is a strong hierarchical, command-and-control organization, you will feel conflicted.

For those of you working in companies that haven’t gone down that agile path yet, but are wishing for it, the good news is that you don’t have to wait. At the heart of it all are people. People comprise teams and organizations. This is where personal agility comes into the picture. And while it is helpful to have greater support from your immediate team or organization to be agile, you don’t have to be part of a Scrum team or have your organization endorse agility for you as an individual to begin walking down the transformational road!

Personal agility is not a role, like being a ScrumMaster. Positions or roles in and of themselves don’t make you agile. Being a certified ScrumMaster doesn’t quite get you there, either. It’s a step in the right direction, though. Certification qualifies that an individual has undergone training and knows the Scrum framework. It prepares you to do agile as a team, providing a framework from which to work that supports being agile.

Personal agility is all about the qualities that you bring to the table. These qualities relate to the approach, values and behaviors an individual brings to a role. This is why there can be differences in how ScrumMasters guide their teams, just as there are differences in how project managers direct their teams.

As you read through the key qualities of personal agility below, ask yourself if you are strong or weak in any of these areas, and what you can do today to start making meaningful changes:

Improvement/growth oriented: Seeks opportunities for growth and is willing to work outside of his or her comfort zone, possessing what Dr. Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset. Open to accurate information about current abilities in order to genuinely improve.

Courage and reflectiveness: It takes courage to accept feedback and to be open and honest about yourself and where you are today so that you can accurately reflect on what is working and what needs improvement.

Positive attitude and approach: Does not view setbacks as failures, but as opportunities to learn. Recognizes that we are able to access more competencies and be more productive when we are in a positive state of mind than a negative one, allowing us to find solutions to difficult problems or situations.

Curiosity and a questioning mind: Is inquisitive and has a passion to learn more about his or her profession. Questions such as, “How can we simplify? How can we do better?” “What if…?” are always being asked. This also includes a willingness to speak up and engage others in questioning the status quo.

Self-discipline: Motivates himself/herself to do what is needed.

Willingness and ability to handle ambiguity: Recognizes that complex situations contain variability and uncertainty that can be successfully navigated.

Adaptability: Able to work outside of prescribed process/role/specialty; willing to develop T-shaped skills and is open and receptive to new situations and different perspectives.

Takes responsibility and owns the results: Is equally concerned with what gets done and how it is accomplished. Focused on solid execution, but takes the time to understand the big picture.

Builds trust and develops relationships: Listens to others without judging, probing and asking questions to understand and engage others in ways that make them feel safe. Invests time and energy in creating stronger, trusting relationships that create frequent, authentic, high-bandwidth lines of communication  essential in a collaborative culture.

Willingness to experiment: Takes the initiative to execute a lot of little experiments (implementing new practices or approaches) designed to generate information to learn from and improve performance.

Can tools and practices help? Absolutely. I’ve been making use of Personal Kanban to organize and balance my professional and personal aspects of my life. I like visualizing my work and making sure that I’m not keeping myself too busy with day-to-day firefighting and ignoring my long-term goals and objectives. Like an agile team, I rigorously prioritize my backlog.

But in the long run, it’s the approach, traits, and behaviors – your mindset – that makes the greatest difference. However, no one can make you be agile, nor can they talk you into it if you don’t see any value in changing. I’ll close with two questions: Do you see value in being agile? Are you willing to walk down that road?

Join the Discussion

    • Songtai Sangtaweep

      Hi Dave,
      You have written a very excellence article. I like it. I really like the way you differentiate doing agile and being agile. Adapting to agile practice and techniques is totally different from being agile behaviors. I also agree about the key qualities of personal agility that you illustrated. There are three key qualities that I believe that is the most important for being agile. The first one is improvement. The opportunity is really important so that agile person need to pursue it rather than waiting. Motivation is the next key qualities that I think it really important for being agile. Agile persons need to motivate themselves to do what is need in order to accelerate the whole team process. The final key is to create trust. As can be seen, doubt will cause distrust. In order to communicate effectively, people have to create a good relationship and understanding each other. Lastly, I believe that all of the key qualities that you are mention are very useful.

    • Dave Moran

      Thanks, Songtai! I’m glad that you liked the article and appreciate your taking the time to comment. I didn’t call out motivation specifically, but it certainly was an underlying trait and I completely agree with you. After all, building teams around motivated individuals is how one of the principles of the Agile Manifesto begins!

    • Gopi Peteti

      Well written article. Thank you very much for sharing.

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