Cultivating Agile through Mindfulness

In the age of digital disruption, virtual living, and social media, it’s not difficult to understand why high performing, successful organisations are embracing elements of mindfulness, and encouraging employees to explore the benefits of higher level functioning through present-moment awareness.

Both agile and mindfulness share common themes and approaches that are grounded, tactile, and common sense to the achievement of objectives.

While there is no one accepted definition and conceptualisation of what mindfulness is, it is generally understood to relate to the intention and awareness of an individual to live fully immersed in the moment.

I define mindfulness as the practice of being fully present and alive, body and mind united. Mindfulness is the energy that helps us to know what is going on in the present moment.” — Nobel Peace Prize nominated Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh

Some of the fundamental principles that are often associated with mindfulness include openness, reflection, discovery, flexibility, adaptability, focussed evaluation, and pragmatic decision making. Increasingly, mindfulness has become a focus for organisations looking to maximise the creativity, innovation and emotional intelligence of their employees and teams, and there are several major academic studies which have attempted to quantify the benefits.

Research clearly posits a link between workplace stress and numerous organizational consequences, including lost productivity, poor job performance, higher rates of worker absenteeism and turnover, increased accident frequency, and greater healthcare or legal spending. Mindfulness training in the workplace may improve myriad aspects of workplace functioning, including decision making, productivity, interpersonal communication and relationships, consistency, and resilience.” — Reb, Jochen, and Paul W. B Atkins. Mindfulness In Organizations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Print. p20-21. 

Mindfulness and Agile – Commonality and compatibility

To achieve some of the benefits mentioned above, many of the principles of mindfulness are shared with those from agile practices. The agile approach places importance on people, collaboration, and responsiveness to change, and aims to deliver benefits such as enhanced stakeholder and team engagement, early feedback to the customer, early problem identification, and earlier return on investment.

When one considers that the practice of mindfulness aims to stimulate emotional intelligence, empathic interpersonal relationships, and the flexibility to accept change, it becomes increasingly apparent that there are commonalities in the mindset and footprint of these two approaches.

The core principles that are common between both an agile and mindful approach are:

The Mindful Agile Enthusiast Diagram

Principle 1: People at the heart

Both agile and mindfulness practitioners place importance on the ability to understand and respond to the needs of others. In an agile context, customers are critical stakeholders requiring compassion, empathy and deep understanding. Mindfulness emphasises the importance of regulation and control of self-emotion in order to better understand and respond to the emotional needs of others, which are relevant skills for an agile team.

Self-organising teams advocate the importance of positive team dynamics as well as the unique contribution of each team member, encouraging collaboration, and face to face communication. Mindfulness can help cultivate team wellness and empathy by encouraging practitioners to control and focus their emotions. This promotes a purposeful, flexible, and open state of attention that ultimately drives intention. By embracing this open attentiveness, mindfulness practitioners increase the likelihood of developing and sustaining positive, respectful, and resilient relationships within their team. This is critical to an effective agile practice, as collaboration, good communication and positive teaming are at agile’s core. Consequently, team productivity can be enhanced by promoting stronger, more engaged, and collaborative teams.

By developing, strengthening and leveraging emotional intelligence through mindfulness techniques, such as focussed attention, agile teams can increase team performance and foster customer empathy through a more in-depth understanding of team dynamics and individual needs.

Principle 2: Simplicity works

Simplicity is a fundamental principle of both agile and mindfulness which follows the basic premise: a focus on high value yet simple processes and solutions will reduce waste (e.g. of time, energy, or cost) and increase quality (e.g. of software, communication, or life).

Mindfulness practitioners advocate the importance of de-cluttering to create the emotional and physical space necessary to develop awareness, focused attention, and sustainable living.  De-cluttering practices, which can be either physical (such as voluntary simplicity which means to reduce materialism and consumerism, a re-assessment or minimalist re-design of your surroundings, or literally de-cluttering surfaces and spaces in your physical environment), or spiritual (such as letting go of negativity, uncertainty and mental “noise”) ultimately increases quality of life through a focus on value rather than abundance.

In an agile context the focus on simplicity manifests itself in simple design, succinct meetings and communication, continuous integration, story cards, minimal but clear roles, and sprint boards (to name a few). As an example, the physical sprint board puts the agile simplicity principle (“Simplicity – the art of maximising the amount of work not done – is essential”) to practice and facilitates visibility of work not done. The sprint board enables the agile team to organise activities so that those of the highest value are prioritised, reducing waste and maximising efficiency.

Simplicity is a key component in both agile and mindfulness, with focus placed on value and a deliberate effort to remove redundancy. Agile teams can further develop day-to-day simplicity through mindful practices, such as intentional physical and emotional de-cluttering.

Principle 3: Adaptability drives sustainability

Agile enthusiasts embrace changing requirements and environments, those practicing mindfulness also develop the flexibility to accept and respond, rather than react to change.

Mindfulness practitioners advocate that adaptability stems directly from acceptance of the transient and fluid nature of life. The ability to maintain a purposeful, flexible, and open state of attention increases quality of life and sustainability.

Likewise, agile teams maintain the mindset that change is expected and welcome, identifying flexible boundaries, and designing processes and expected outcomes which enable adaptability. Cross-functional, self-organising agile teams that value constant communication, continuous validation, and incremental product evolution are well placed to respond to changing requirements and shifting landscapes.

For both mindfulness and agile, it is communication and contact with the present moment that establishes the foundation for adaptability and increases the likelihood of resilience and stability.

Agile teams can apply their practiced adaptive mindset to leverage mindful techniques, such as acknowledgement and acceptance of change, which can help to remove human emotion (reactive behaviour) from decision making during periods of change.  

Principle 4: Focus is key

Another fundamental principle of both agile and mindfulness is controlled and targeted focus on one task at a time. The value and objectives of the focus principle are similar to those of the Simplicity principle – high value yet simple processes and solutions will reduce waste and increase quality.

Mindfulness practitioners advocate the importance of awareness and control in order to focus completely on a single task. Similarly, agile practitioners advocate that productivity is increased through focus on one task at a time, enabled by small engaged teams, short targeted sprints, visibility of activity and direction (agile boards), and regular communication to maintain awareness of blockers and impediments to progress.

Both approaches support the view that the cost of context switching (reduced focus and concentration and ultimately decreased productivity) greatly outweighs any perceived benefit to efficiency or progress.

Agile teams advocate singular focus, however this is not to say that there is no challenge in doing so at an individual level. By using mindfulness practices, such as control of attention, agile teams can turbocharge their ability to filter out distraction, and focus only on the task with the greatest business value.

Getting back to basics

The core areas of commonality between agile and mindfulness are also some of the defining characteristics of each approach: People, Simplicity, Adaptability, and Focus. Agile teams can leverage the touchpoints with mindfulness to maximise their existing skillsets and ultimately achieve their goals. As an example, mindfulness promises to enhance and enrich interpersonal communication, while agile projects sink or swim on the quality and timeliness of the interactions between all of the project’s stakeholders (including the agile team itself). The two approaches are complementary.

While both agile and mindfulness have been described as “buzzwords” and are being referenced and discussed across multiple forums and platforms, neither introduce any complex or ground-breaking new concepts. In fact, the four principles discussed in this article, which sound very much like common sense, are a reminder that in the 21st century – an era dominated by disruption, technology and immediacy, there is great value to be gained in getting back to basics.

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