Growing the Agile Mindset: Leading By Example

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Our latest report, Embracing the Agile Mindset for Organisational Change, by Marian Willeke and Scott Marsee, recounts the tale of two intrepid instructional  designers who took what they learned about agile practices, processes and values to higher education:

“Our work in instructional design was much like any other university curriculum developer, except that we had to deliver a lot of it in short order with two people. I [Marian] attended the Scrum Beyond Software event hosted by Tobias Mayer in 2010 and it changed our approach in working with writers.”

What inspires me about Marian and Scott’s story is how they handled growth and change. Initially, Marian in her 2011 Experience Report, Applying Agile to Instructional Design, describes how their 3-person team, following agile practices, got very efficient with delivering high-quality online courses. But with success came new responsibilities. In 2014 their small, tight team, was rechartered and a whole new organization grew around them. They found themselves leading a much larger endeavor.

First, they beta tested a new way of curriculum development with roles and responsibilities of the Scrummaster, Product Owner and Team Members mapped from Scrum onto curriculum design [figure 1].

Growing the Agile Mindset: Leading By ExampleFigure 1

Then, they rolled up their sleeves and rolled out this process across multiple programs. They did the hard work of convincing others across the organization, while actively coaching instructional designers and program directors on the importance of communicating progress and incremental delivery:

“We intentionally modeled the process and mindset with each program director, and we mentored each contracted instructional designer. The scrummaster (program manager) was a keystone for all stakeholders, so influence there was especially critical. However, until the Agile mindset, rather than buzzwords and methods, is ubiquitous, the focus on mindset is an essential consideration for organizational change effort to be embraced.”

They reinterpreted the agile manifesto for their work:

  • Individuals and interactions Relationships and experience over processes and tools models.
  • Working software Teachable courses over comprehensive documentation comprehensive design.
  • Customer Collaboration over contract negotiation status.
  • Responding to change over following a plan.

It wasn’t easy. They had some missteps. They had to adjust. Their charter was expanded to include curriculum development for other universities. And they learned again how to be effective in those new contexts. Their work is far from over. As Marian says, “As the years go by and complexity increased, our approaches keep evolving as we learn many lessons about what Agile really means.” What they find most critical to success, ultimately, is to communicate the meaning of an Agile mindset, “otherwise, change simply becomes new procedure or process without understanding why.”

Marian and Scott are not alone.

Others have successfully translated software development principles and practices into non-software realms. Gaetano Mazzanti, an agile software coach, took what he knew about lean and scrum to improve the engineering and design process at an Italian company producing luxury hydromassage bathtubs and showers [2012 Experience Report: Agile in the Bathtub]. Paul Ellerby [2013 Experience Report: Balls for Africa – The Lean Startup in an African not-for-profit social enterprise] helped Alive and Kicking grow from a small, single-focused non-profit into an enterprise that effected the lives of hundreds of children throughout Africa. And Thomas O’Connor took his passion and agile experiences to his local community [2014 Experience Report: Taking the Agile Passion to a Volunteer Fire Department-A Report From The Fireline].

If you are thinking about taking your agile passion to activities you love outside of software, read these experience reports. Then share your stories with us. Please visit the Agile Experience Report Program to learn more or contact me, Rebecca Wirfs-Brock, at


About the Author

Rebecca is President of Wirfs-Brock Associates and former Director of the Agile Experience Report Initiative. She helps organizations and individuals hone their design and architecture skills, improve system quality and manage technical debt. In addition to coaching and mentoring she conducts workshops on agile architecture, design heuristics, and pragmatic software design. She invented the set of design practices known as Responsibility-Driven Design (RDD) and by accident started the x-DD meme.

Rebecca is also a shepherd for the XP 2023 Experience Report Track. She is on the Board of the Hillside Group and writes patterns and essays about sustainable architecture, agile QA, and design heuristics. If you want to share experiences or wisdom in pattern form, Rebecca can help you turn your itch for writing into the written word.
Read her blog at and find articles and patterns and essays on her resources page,

This is an Agile Alliance community blog post. Opinions represented are personal and belong solely to the author. They do not represent opinion or policy of Agile Alliance.

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