In This Video

Linda Rising has wondered for some time whether much of Agile’s success was the result of the placebo effect, that is, good things happened because we believed they would. The placebo effect is a startling reminder of the power our minds have over our perceived reality.

Now cognitive scientists tell us that this is only a small part of what our minds can do. Research has identified what Linda likes to call “an agile mindset,” an attitude that equates failure and problems with opportunities for learning, a belief that we can all improve over time, that our abilities are not fixed but evolve with effort.

In this keynote from Agile2011, Linda describes that research, what she views as the agile mindset, and why it’s important for you to adopt that mindset in your day to day work.



Kent: It is my distinct pleasure to introduce our last keynote, the last official event for Agile 2011. Linda Rising has a PhD from Arizona State University in the are of Object-Based Design Metrics. Her background includes university teaching as well as work in industry in telecommunications, avionics, and strategic weapons systems. She is internationally known for [inaudible 00:00:34] topics related to patterns, retrospectives, and a change process. Linda is the author of numerous articles and has published four books, Design Patterns and Communications, The Pattern Almanac 2000, and The Patterns Handbook. Her latest book written with Mary Lynn Manns is titled Fearless Change: Patterns for Introducing New Ideas. Her website is The title of her talk today will be The Power of an Agile Mindset. Join me in welcoming Linda Rising.

Linda Rising: Let’s see. Oh, I am on. Okay. I just moved to Nashville, Tennessee so I need to practice my southern. So how y’all doing? How y’all doing? Okay. It’s a pleasure not only to be invited to give a keynote, but the final keynote. For the three or four of us who are still here, thank you. Thank you for staying until the end. I’m gonna ask how many were here at the very beginning? Yeah. Did you enjoy that keynote?

Crowd: Yes.

Linda Rising: Yes? Okay. I often say these days that my job at a conference is to give the weird talk. Now I can say I’m just a follow-on to another weird talk so we both gave the weird talks and it’s astounding how well these talks go together. So I hope you find that, and I also hope you see that there are some connections to that marvelous keynote that preceded me. Was that not great? Was that not a great keynote? To help celebrate 10 years since the Agile manifesto and look forward to 10 more. You heard from Kent’s wonderful introduction. Thank you, Kent. Of course, I wrote that.

From Kent’s introduction that I have a PhD in Computer Science, and you might be wondering how is that possible? Clearly, this woman must be at least a hundred and fifty-five. How could she have gotten a PhD in Computer Science? The answer to that is I went back to school late in life. I defended my PhD one month before my 50th birthday. That was 20 years ago. All my life, even before that, I’ve been a technical person. I have other degrees in Mathematics and Chemistry. I started life as a Chemist, and I had, in the course of all of that education, one psychology course. I took that one course because I had to. It was required for graduation and I did not like it.

I thought that’s all fluffy stuff, all that people stuff. Not important. Technical solutions, that’s what the world needs. You know at Christmas time, at least in the United States, there’s a very famous story that we tell. In fact, it’s called the Christmas story. Do you know it? A Christmas story? It’s about a man named Scrooge, Ebenezer Scrooge. He’s visited in the story by his partner, Jacob Marley. Jacob Marley is dead, yet he comes back to visit Scrooge and he says, “Scrooge, I’m here to help you. I want to show you that together we made a lot of mistakes and you have a chance to remedy that. You can change, you can do things differently. I will help you do that.”

“Well, I’m not dead yet. I don’t think so, anyway. Not dead yet. But clearly, I’m closer to the end than to the beginning, and now it’s my mission in life to make sure that you, since you’re so young …” he says, “You don’t make the same mistakes I did.” Don’t discard that psychology, fluffy, non-technical stuff as unimportant. If there’s one thing Agile has brought to the table it’s the realization of how important that fluffy people stuff is, and how we need to pay attention. So we need to look at the fields of psychology and cognitive science because they tell us an enormous amount about our brains and how we think. That will have enormous impact on our effectiveness, our productivity, and yes, it’s important even the joy, the fun of doing what we do.

I know you don’t have time to keep up with the latest and greatest in psychology so it’s wonderful that that opening keynote researcher was here to tell us about the benefits of positivity. So what we’re going to see with this talk are the differences in mindset that people have, and the profound impacts of those mindset. I hope that you can learn enough about how to move in the direction of what I am calling the agile mindset to see impacts in your life. That’s my hope. If you don’t get a chance to talk to me, if you’re leaving on a jet plane immediately afterwards please send me some email because I love to talk about the brain, agile processes, retrospectives, and patterns. I’m gonna push the green button, we will see if this really works. I’m going to push … There it is. Okay.

I always start my weird talks with a disclaimer. Basically, this says there are a lot of things in this talk that you might find extremely disturbing, some things you might not agree with. But since I am not an expert I only spend a lot of time reading about it and have only spent the last 10 years of my life investigating it. You can simply discard anything that makes you fee uncomfortable by saying, “Well, perhaps Linda doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Poor thing.” This is not an academic presentation so I don’t cite necessarily all of the results from the experiments, but I will be talking about research.

And if there’s something that piques you’re interest and some particular research result you’d like to read more about, please ask me and I will either send you the paper if I have it, or I’ll point to a URL where you can look and read more about it for yourself. I’m not gonna ask you to raise your hands and please, don’t say anything to your neighbor. This is not one of those discussion exercises. Just think. Do you agree with this statement? Number one, “Intelligence is something very basic that you really can’t change much. You’re born with it. Or not. Okay, you can learn some new things, but you can’t really change how intelligent you are.” Think about that. Do you agree with that? Don’t say yes or no. Just think about it.

Let’s look at the next statement, “No matter how intelligent you are you can always get better. Sometimes you can improve a lot.” Now, let’s for a moment, just extract intelligence and let’s put in any other talent or ability that you can think of. Artistic talent, musical talent, programming talent. Is it something that you have or do not have that is fixed? Or is it something that you’re born with, but you can then develop and can grow and improve? I’m gonna tell you about a series of interesting experiments, and in this telling I’m going to boil down dozens and dozens and dozens of different incarnations of the experiments and give you a generic picture.

One of the things we can learn from the psychologist is that not only do they do randomized, controlled experiments, but they do them over and over. And they tweak them. They change so the results give a little bit more information, all of that to create a better picture of the thing that they’re trying to investigate. So think about what that means for us. Do we do randomized, controlled experiments? How did you decide that agile was a good thing by looking at research results based on randomized, controlled experiments? How many of you did that? Nobody? I wonder why.

Instead, you made your decision based on … Well, how did you make that decision? I often wonder if the drug companies operated in the same way as we do about decisions for drugs, then maybe they would be marketing things by saying, “Hey, try these blue pills. It really works for me. I love it. I feel so much better. I’m happier in my work and I’m more productive. My customers are happier. I have more joy in my life because of these blue pills. You should try them.” Is that how you made your decision about Agile? A little bit of that blue pill here, try it. You’ll like it. It worked for me.

I think we can learn something from the psychologist. Maybe a little more scientific approach. Let’s look at these experiments. They had to do with students and it’s been repeated dozens of times so the students were sometimes as young as three-and-a-half. They were in preschool. Sometimes college students, graduate students. In the beginning the students were all given a little test, and it was very easy. Everyone got all of the questions right, 100%. They were given the answers and they said, “Look. You got everything right, 100%.” Then they ask them questions, a little bit like those questions that we just looked at, “Do you believe that you have it or not? That you’re smart or not? That you’re intelligent or not?”

And that’s it, those abilities, that intelligence that’s fixed and there’s nothing you can do about it. Or do you believe that you’re dealt a hand, but that’s just the beginning and you can grow, and you can change, and you can learn which camp or which category. Based upon the responses they were put into two categories, the effort category that believed yes, you can change, you can grow, you can improve, you can learn, you can get better. Or into the smart category. I am smart or not.

Next phase, all of the students were given a choice. They said, “We’re gonna have another test now. It could be another easy test just like the one you took where you got a hundred, you got them all right. Would you like a test like that? Or would you like another test and it’s gonna be really difficult? In fact, you’re probably not gonna do very well. But you’ll learn a lot. It’s a learning opportunity. By taking this test you’ll have a chance to run up against some challenges. You’ll have a chance to learn from that experience. Which would you like to do?” In the beginning these experiments have been run over a period of three decades, thirty years. It’s a long time.

Then in the beginning it was an experiment done by collection of graduate students and they didn’t expect that there would be much difference between the smart group who believed that you have talent or intelligence or ability or not. The group that said, “No, no. That’s just the start. You can grow, you can learn.” They didn’t expect much difference in the results. They were very surprised when in this particular phase of the experiments that most of those kids who were the effort kids said, “I want the difficult test. Let me have that one. Let me have the challenge,” because they believed that in challenge and in struggling you’ve had a chance to grow. You could grow, you could improve your ability, you can, in effect, get smarter by going through that experience.

But what about the other group? What about the group that believes you have it or not? What about the group that believes if I’m smart then I have a certain amount of intelligence, I could measure that even and I could say, “My IQ is a 185 or whatever it is and everyone would know then that I’m smart.” They didn’t want the hard test. This is not just statistical significance. This is overwhelming. Overwhelming choice to say, “What’s behind this?” Why? Why believing that your abilities are fixed would lead you to say, “No, I’d rather not have the difficult test. Let me have the easy one.”

In the next phase they gave a very difficult exam to both groups. And what they found was exactly what you might expect that those effort kids oh, they loved it. They asked them to talk aloud while they were working on the exam and the effort kids said, “I love a challenge.” Can you imagine little tiny kids saying, “I love a challenge. This is fun. I hoped it would be hard and it really is.” Sometimes they encourage themselves. They say, “Well, I don’t know if I’m doing very well. But if I just slow down and think about it I should be able to figure this one out.” So they talked to themselves, and so they were coaching themselves, encouraging themselves.

What happened to the smart kids when they took the difficult test? They had to talk aloud as well. They said things to themselves like, “I guess I’m not very smart.” “Maybe I’m really stupid.” “I’ll never get this.” “I can’t figure this out. I shouldn’t even try.” The researchers categorized based on those responses and the fact that they saw it over and over again they described these two states as helpless, “I can’t do it. I’m not smart. I might as well give up.” Or resilient, “If I just slow down I know I can figure this out. I love to work hard. I love challenges, I know I’m learning a lot. Even if I don’t get it right I know I will learn a lot from this experience.”

If you’ll remember the opening keynote, she talked about resilience. Resilience versus helplessness. I can’t do it, I can’t do it. I know I can do it if I just slow down. I know I can do it. I’ve done things like this in the past. I can figure it out. I love a challenge. After this very difficult test, the two groups were asked another question. It said, “Would you like to see the exams, the tests …” this is so difficult, “… of the other students in the experiment? Would you like to look at those? You can look at the ones who were better than you. Or you can look at the exams of those who didn’t do as well as you did. Again, the researchers were astounded to see what a difference the two mindsets made on what the students in these experiments wanted to see.

What do you think? The effort kids said, “I want to see those exams from students who did better. I may learn from that experience.” Whereas the smart kids said, “No. I want to see all those who didn’t do as well as I did.” It’s kind of surprising. In fact, it’s a characterization of the helpless state that we want to say, “Well, I’m not very smart, but there are a lot of people who are more stupid or inept than I am. That will make me feel better if I think about those people I’ll feel better about myself.”

It’s a giant shift in world view. From saying, “I feel better about myself and I will look better if somehow I am surrounded by, or if I can call attention to those who are not as good as I am. I don’t feel threatened by looking at those people, whereas if I think of those who are better, well, that makes me feel bad. Whereas those who believe in effort like to be surrounded by and learn from those who are as good as or better.” One of the patterns of apprenticeship, it’s a wonderful book, says, “Always be the worst guy on the team. That’s your chance for learning, is to work with people and collaborate with people who are the best, who are the good guys. That’s your chance to grow. Your chance to improve.”

Next phase. Let’s go back to the very beginning and let’s give them something exactly like that very easy test. Everyone did well in the beginning, everyone got all right, 100%. I wonder what will happen now that we’ve been through a little bit of trial. Surely, they should all do well. It’s an easy test just like the one in phase one. What they saw instead was the effort kids got better, and the smart kids went down. Somehow, the smart kids didn’t believe they were as good as they were. They’ve had that difficult test where they hadn’t done so well and it had destroyed their belief that they were as intelligent as they thought they were in the beginning.

One thing that seems to characterize those two groups and those two states is that my belief about how smart I am can be affected by bad events. So I tend to avoid those. I don’t want challenges. I don’t deal well with failures. So then the experimenters said, “You know, we’re gonna go to other schools. We’re gonna try these series of experiments. Would you like to write a little bit of letter of introduction for us to those other students just like you who are going to take these experiments? Can you tell them some suggestions for doing well on the test? Do you have any advice for them? Oh, and there is a little space here at the bottom. It’s optional, but you could put down your scores on the exams just as a little bit of help for the other students who will be in the other experiments.”

What they found was the effort kids were full of advice. They said, “That difficult test, yes, it is different, but take your time. Think about it. Don’t give up. Don’t be discouraged. If there’s something you don’t understand you could ask the researcher, they’ll help you. They’ll help you do better.” The smart kids mostly sympathy. “You may not do very well. I’m sorry. Some of you are not gonna do very well because they clearly believe that you either have the talent for it or not. You’re not gonna do very well. I’m sorry.” Essentially, no advice. At the bottom most of the smart kids inflated their scores. They lied.

So another characteristic of the helpless group is to distort or blame. “It’s not my fault. I probably could have done better, but this researcher didn’t do a good job or explaining things. That’s clearly why I didn’t do very well.” “I haven’t been feeling well. My stomach is bothering me.” “I didn’t have a good breakfast. That’s it. If I had a better breakfast I would have done better on the exam scores. So I’ll just inflate it. This is probably what I would have able to do, a true reflection of my ability that this is really more the truth.” We’re talking about children.

If you’d like to read more about the early stages of this research, the person who has directed her attention to the lay reader, that would be us, is Carol Dweck. And her book is called Mindset. I highly recommend it, it’s very readable. It’s a good way to understand the experiments that she has been doing for the last 30 years mostly with children. If you have a little more stamina there’s a more academic publication that’s just out, it’s called Self-Theories, also by Carol Dweck. It’s a compilation of the history of her research and how they were surprised and decided next steps. It’s absolutely fascinating reading.

She has also gotten a lot of press recently. Malcolm Gladwell who cite has every column he has ever written for the New Yorker magazine. Everyone knows Malcolm Gladwell because he wrote the Tipping Point and other books for the lay reader. He said his column on Carol Dweck’s work got more attention and more feedback than any column he has ever written, and that’s out there available absolutely for free. It’s called The Talent Myth, a lot shorter than the book. In New York magazine, Po Bronson wrote an article for parents explaining the mindsets, it’s how not to talk to your kids. Then finally, Time magazine did a special article, a feature on the work of Carol Dweck, called How to Help Them Succeed.

So if you don’t have the stamina or the time for any of the books these are wonderful places to start. You can Google and find the exact locations, they’re all on the web. The result of Carol Dweck’s 30 years of research was that there are two mindsets. She called them different things over time. In fact, if you read early research papers and later research papers you’ll find that her terminology, her vocabulary has shifted. But for me, what I saw in the research was a natural match to two terms that I’m going to use in this talk, and they are Fixed or Agile. It seemed to fit perfectly.

The power of the research is that this mindset isn’t just some incidental thing that you can observe in some areas or not. It affects everything we do. The research shows clearly that the mindset affects the kinds of goals we set for ourselves based on the experiments that I just talked about with children you can see that those with a fixed mindset always want to look good. If you only have a fixed amount of talent or intelligence or ability you always want to look good. That’s clear evidence that you have it. So the goals that are set by people with a fixed mindset are those goals that show how good they are.

Whereas the goals that agile mindset individuals have are about learning, what I want to do. My goal for tomorrow or the next two-week iteration is to learn, is to improve, is to grow. Not to demonstrate perfection. It determines how we react when things don’t go so well. Fixed deteriorates into helplessness, whereas agile escalates into resilience. Whether we’re gonna keep on trying, whether we’re gonna try new things or not. How much effort are we going to apply? What strategies will you use is determined by our mindsets. And then finally how we feel about how good or how well others do. Can we celebrate that and enjoy it and want to be in the midst of it? Or can we denigrate others, and instead love to dwell on how others are not doing as well as we are.

Enormously powerful. Fixed versus agile. Whether your ability is like a muscle or whether it’s like height, one of the most exciting things especially for old people is that you can continue to build muscle, you can continue to build bone, and now the cognitive scientist can measure that we can continue to build neurons and nueronal connections until we die. As long as we exercise, physically exercise, stress those muscles and bones, as long as we exercise our brains, learn new things, take on new challenges. I love it. Even at my age I can continue, I can continue to grow. So why the impact on how we view our abilities, the goals we choose, whether we like challenge or not.

Let’s not confuse the agile mindset with believing that anyone can be an Einstein or a Beethoven or a … It doesn’t say that. It says that the hand you’re dealt with in the beginning is just that, it’s just the beginning. It says you can’t determine anyone’s potential with an IQ test. You can only measure where they are now. You can’t say where they will be or what they will do. That is unknowable. So the idea that we could somehow systematically exam an entire population of people and determine by an exam who will be the best of anything in the future is nonsense. That we all have unlimited potential. It takes effort. It takes work.

You can even see this difference in an MRI machine. One of the outstanding things about cognitive science now is that you can shove people into a machine and watch which parts of their brains light up. So those with fixed mindsets when given difficulties or challenges, hard questions or puzzles to solve you can see which parts of their brain light up when the researcher gives feedback saying, “Well, you got that answer right or wrong and here is what the answer should be,” and explains a little bit about the foundation for the question. The fixed mindset person lying in the MRI machine only shows interest when the score, right or wrong, is announced. No interest at all in the explanation, in learning about that particular problem or challenger question. Fixed mindsets, they don’t want to learn. I just want to know how did I do.

Agile mindset, attention to the explanation. The score, I have no interest at all. Oh, I got it right. Okay, fine, but tell me about that question. Tell me about what I might learn from this experience. Pretty objective measurements of the differences. And these two attitudes we can see it in the brain. I have a talk about stereotyping. I don’t know how many of you have heard it. I gave it here a couple of years ago how we judge others, and how quickly we do that. It was kind of discouraging talk, in a way, because basically I said we are hardwired to do that. We’re hardwired to judge others. We’re hardwired to categorize others. There is absolutely nothing we can do about it except perhaps, be aware.

So what the researchers in mindset tell us that yes, fixed, agile, they both do that. They both categorize, they both stereotype, but it’s the degree. Fixed mindset, individual stereotype, and they do it severely, and they do it on very little evidence. Their classification is immediate, both positive and negative, and pretty much fixed. Very difficult to change. Whereas agile, yes, agile mindset judges just as much as fixed, but not as severely, not as quickly, and is open to change, is open to learning. One of the groups of people that seems to do that is managers. Any managers in the room?

I read a little bit of research about that. It said something like managers make up their minds almost immediately about the potential of people they hire before they’ve even had a chance to really observe performance. They’ve already decided who’s a good guy and who’s not. So I asked a group of managers. I said, “Is this true? Do you make up your minds so quickly without really knowing the person? Have you already decided this is a good guy over here, and this guy, well, not so good. Is that really the way it is?” So they reluctantly said, “Well, yes. But we’re always right.” Well, of course, they are. Of course, they are, because once a manager has already decided what does that manager always see?

Validation is willing to forgive the errors or mistakes of the person who’s already been decided to be a good guy, and focuses on those errors or mistakes of the not-so-good guy. Reinforcing continually that initial decision. That turns out to be a characteristic of managers with a fixed mindset. I was so relieved. I thought, “Well, we don’t have any fixed mindset people hear.” No, no. Agile mindset managers are open. They learn not judge so quickly or so severely. Don’t you feel better? I feel better. Don’t you feel better? Oh, you know some fixed mindset managers. Oh, I’m sorry. Here’s something I care deeply about.

As I’m at the end of my career and I look back. I don’t know how many panels or discussion groups or workshops I’ve been in where they say, “Why aren’t there more women in IT? Why don’t they come in, and once they’re in why don’t they stay? There are lots of hypothesis. Well, perhaps it’s because … And maybe we should fix that, and then it will be better and if we could just decide what it is. The astounding piece of this research for me, on a personal level, is what it shows about bright, little girls. I think every woman in this room was at one time a bright, little girl. What we know about them as a cohort, as a group, is that they do really well in the beginning. They are the superstars in grade school.

Parents love them, teachers love them, mentors love them, relatives, grandparents, aunts and uncles, they all love bright, little girls because they are so cute. Weren’t you cute when you were little? You know, sure. They’re so cute and they’re so smart. They’re so smart, and they are perfect. They do everything they are supposed to do, and they do it well. In grade school the research clearly shows they excel at everything. Even those kind of non-female sorts of subjects they are the superstars. They own it. And everyone tells them, “You are so smart. You are perfect. You’ve got it.” Praise constantly for ability. Praise constantly for perfection.

What happens in junior high school they start to fall apart. All of a sudden the subjects get a little harder, the teachers aren’t so patronizing, and they’re growing up they’re not so cute anymore. Remember that? I hated that. So you’re not cute and everything is harder. You have more choices about courses that you take. And some of them are really nasty, and those teachers, they pile it on. They expect you to do homework and really do a lot of stuff that’s difficult and challenging. Little girls fall behind. You can measure it pretty obvious. It goes downhill from that point on. Little girls, as a cohort, have the fixed mindset. In fact, they epitomize the fixed mindset. They do not want any kind of challenge or anything that will make them look less than perfect.

Common responses from studies are something like, “Well, I want the test that will make me look good. I want the test where I can be perfect. I want the test that I can do without working too hard.” Fixed, they’re fixed. So when they hit challenges … Obviously, there are exceptions. There are three or four women in the room today are here because we were not a member of that cohort, but unfortunately, our sisters who are not here with us moved to other areas. So I’m recalling what it was like to be around people like … Maybe that’s why I left those people behind in grade school and I went over to the hard because I thought, “I don’t want to spend an [inaudible 00:48:35] amount of time on cake baking.”

I’m not sure, but this research is very disturbing to me because I think what we have created here was done with good intentions. We want little girls to do well and so we tell them over and over, “You’re so smart, you’re so pretty. You’re perfect.” Well, wait a minute. Hey, what about little boys? Little boys have trouble with self-control. They’re constantly being reprimanded by parents and teachers, “Why can’t you behave? Why can’t you sit still? Why can’t you listen? Why can’t you pay attention?” Constantly exhorted to exert more effort. “Why can’t you try harder? Why can’t you be like your sister? You’re always getting into trouble.” I don’t think little boys strive for perfection. They missed several corners there with that white tape.

Clearly, this was an agile effort. They were just … One study measured and found that little boys in grade school are criticized and given feedback about the amount of effort they needed to exert, eight to 10 times as much as little girls. So little boys get it from the beginning, come on, try harder. Work, it’s okay. They don’t care about challenge or failure as a cohort when offered the chance to do something unusual even if it’s a little difficult. They jump at the chance, as a cohort they epitomize the agile mindset. Don’t you love that picture? It’s interesting that organizations have a mindset and maybe you have been thinking about that when I talked about managers.

All of the people who have built on the research of Carol Dweck have studies how managers and organizations behave and they have found clear evidence of both mindsets and how the fixed typically leaves to failure, whereas the agile is the road to success. In this study by Harvard Business School professors she found that hospitals that were successful in learning new surgical techniques were those who said to her, “Well, we knew it was gonna be difficult but we thought it was worth it. We were gonna try. We were gonna do our best. We were going to …” Whereas the hospitals who failed said, “Oh, yeah. This is- we can do it. No problem. No effort required. We’ll probably, you know, send a couple of our surgeons off to training. We can do it.”

No mention of mistakes, no mention of learning. Lots of talk about perfection. Lots of talk about performance goals. We want to look good. We are doing this because we want our hospital to be rank number one. Those who ultimately succeeded were, “We think this is going to help our patients. We know it’s gonna be difficult, but we’re willing to struggle.” There must be an Enron fan. Classic example. I think that’s a mug shot, actually. That’s Ken Lay. Of course, we all know what happened to Enron but it is the classic example of the fixed mindset. They believed in talent. They call themselves the smartest guys in the room. They made a concerted effort to recruit based on IQ. What business school produced you? How well did you do there?

Once they were ensconced in the organization they went through an interesting process called rank and yank. Continually grading people and getting rid of the lowest 10 to 20%. Constantly saying, “We only want the people who have it. We only want the people who are those guys who have it. We want to get rid of those people who don’t.” There are lots of examples of organizations with the agile mindset. My favorite is Southwest Airlines, “We’re about people not planes.” When they hire, do you know that there are over 200,000 applications for jobs at Southwest every year? Typically they hire from 1500 to 1800 people. It’s harder to get a job at Southwest Airlines than it is to get to Harvard Business School. They don’t hire for IQ or degree. They look for attitude. They want people who are open to learning, and the organization spends a lot of time helping people learn. They’re encouraged to learn.

They talk about something called the Southwest spirit. And the definition of that goes on for pages and pages, but it’s basically the agile mindset, open to learning, willing to take a chance for the sake of learning, embracing challenges for the sake of making this a better organization. Southwest as an organization has an agile mindset. Lots of studies about the impact of managers. I already mentioned that research that showed how managers view employees affects their performance. This is one of the papers. In fact, these three authors have done an enormous amount of work at the organizational level built on the research from Carol Dweck looking at children.

It all stems back to … I only include this because if you haven’t read this paper you should. It’s called the Pygmalion effect. Notice this paper was written in 1988. It’s on the web, it’s freely available, and it’s the first time anyone noticed the connection between how managers see, believe what their employees can do and their actual performance. That effect is called the Pygmalion effect and it can be measured. The current book today that looks at that kind of evidence is called Hard Facts. These are two Stanford Business School professors building on the work of Carol Dweck who’s a psychology professor at Stanford, and showing that at the managerial level and at the organizational level the effect of those two mindsets, fixed versus agile, is powerful.

We know there are lots of evidences of agile organizations besides Southwest. Clearly, Apple. After Scott Forstall read Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, he called her up and he said, “Here’s how I hired the software guys for the iPhone. I called them in and said, ‘You know, guys, this is really gonna be a tough challenge. I know you’re smart people and you have a good track record. We might succeed and we might fail. You want to sign on for this new thing?'” And he said he only allowed people to join if they were comfortable when he kept saying, “We could fail,” because he said it was obvious that as soon as he said, “We could fail,” many of them were not interested. So he built a team around the agile mindset. Lots of other examples.

So here’s the best news. Some of these has seemed kind of discouraging, probably. I hope you’re not too depressed. What the research shows is that this mindset is a belief. It’s not a hardwired thing and that that belief can be changed. In a lot of those experiments that I measured questions were asked, “What do you believe?” But in other versions of those experiments some very simple things were done. I gave them a little paper that said, “Yes, the world is made up of people and their capabilities are fixed,” and that was enough to move people into a fixed mindset. Or a little paper about agile mindset was enough to move them to an agile mindset.

I hope that just by hearing this talk I have moved you with some evidence into an agile mindset, if you weren’t already. What we know that’s especially powerful is that we, as individuals, can move others into an agile mindset or a fixed mindset. It doesn’t take very much. One area of research that Carol Dweck is looking at now is can she take children from very poor environments with a fixed mindset, who have been told since they were born, “Well, you’re not very smart. You’ll never amount to anything. You’re really stupid.” So no wonder they don’t do well. In one of her experiments she had randomized control. Three groups, one group nothing, that’s the control group. One group got standard instruction on how to study, better study skills. That’s a good idea, right?

In one group what the agile mindset is all about. Sort of training, little boot camp for the agile mindset. No difference in the control and the standard study skills. No difference in performance. But in those who received training in the agile mindset there’s a light turned on in the middle of the darkness, and those children began to turn around. One of them a hardcore guy named Jimmy who, from the beginning had been very resistant, came up to the researcher and with tears in his eyes said, “You mean I don’t have to be stupid?” That’s right. That’s right, you don’t. You don’t have to be stupid. You don’t have to be, you are becoming. And you will until you die.

So you need to tell all your bright little girls and bright little boys, “You’re not perfect. You’re not the smartest thing on the planet. You need to work hard and you need to continually work hard and work better. And challenge is good and failure is okay. You get information from failure as long as you learn from it.” It’s not a bad thing especially bright little girls if you have influence over a bright little girl please take this message to heart, start telling them, “It’s okay. Work hard, fail sometimes.” And isn’t that our message? Isn’t that what agile software development is all about? Fail early, fail often, fail fast. Fail better. Failure is okay. Without failure how can we really learn … Perfect. This was from Kent Beck, Perfect is a verb. It’s perfect, it’s get better, it’s learn.

Interesting side note, I also give a talk on estimations saying that we deceive ourselves constantly. How can we possibly estimate? That turns out to be more true for people with a fixed mindset. Agile mindset, people are better at estimations. They don’t make the same deception errors as those with the fixed mindset. I love that. I can send you that paper if you want. I believe agile is agile. Agile software development has the agile mindset. It is about learning. We are all a work in progress.

What we’ve done over the last 10 years is astounding, but it’s not because we stayed with the agile manifesto and said, “This is it.” How many improvements, how many new ideas, how many new people are here, how many great chances for learning do we have? I believe that we will continue for the next 10 years and the 10 years after that even if I don’t see it. You’ll be better, better and better as you get older just like me. I love this quote from Samuel Beckett, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Thanks for listening.

Speaker 4: Thank you, Linda for your perfect presentation. Isn’t she so cute? We do have time for a few questions?

Linda Rising: Oh, sure. Yes, absolutely.

Speaker 4: Any questions?

Male audience: There’s an old article at Cosmo that someone called [inaudible 01:05:17] woman’s profession.

Linda Rising: I don’t know the article. But he’s saying that there’s an article from Cosmopolitan magazine. What was the year?

Male audience: I don’t know the year so [inaudible 01:05:28].

Linda Rising: Said software is a woman’s …

Male audience: Profession.

Linda Rising: I didn’t read the article so I don’t know that I can comment, but here’s something interesting that Dan North told me once. He said, “Linda, you’ve never been on a team that didn’t have any women.” I said, “Thank you, Dan. I had never thought of that before but that’s [crosstalk 01:06:01].” It’s true. So he said, “You don’t know what it’s like and how different it is.” He said, “What having women in the team brings to the table is a very different style of working, way of thinking.” He said it’s much better. I said, “Thank you, Dan.” I don’t know if that’s an answer to your question or not.

Female audience: [inaudible 01:06:33]

Linda Rising: I have and when I was working for a company we had a mentoring program and every year I always made sure that I chose a young woman in grade school. I didn’t know about this research at the time even though it was clearly going on. If I were gonna do that again, now I would bring this to the table. I think this piece is missing. Where in fact, some of the other problems that are being addressed are making this problem worse. That because now we might be encouraging … Some of the research shows that our children now are not only are they fixed, they have a strong sense of entitlement. “I am so good. I am so perfect that I don’t really have to do very much, and I expect the world to bring me all of the rewards, all of the success. I really shouldn’t be expected to do a whole lot.”

In our efforts to make our children feel good about themselves to improve their self-esteem not only bright young girls but also boys, we kind of move them into this fixed mindset. I’m hoping that … I’m just a small part of it, but that since she’s now in Time magazine and the New Yorker that people will pay attention. The answer is yes, I have done it, and yes, I will do it. And I’m going to make sure I have this piece with me.

Female audience: I’m curious in a study that we’ve done, do you have an idea of the [inaudible 01:08:21] part of the problem, but …

Linda Rising: So am I.

Female audience: Is there are a large proportion in the smart group or the effort group or they got even?

Linda Rising: You mean in the early experiments where they put … It’s 50/50. Yes, 50/50. Yes?

Male audience: Linda, what comes to the [inaudible 01:08:46] child to do something the old way or try something new and fail? You know, I have some [inaudible 01:08:55] that [inaudible 01:08:56] tells me, “Hey, man I don’t [inaudible 01:08:58].” What do you think of that?

Linda Rising: Yeah. Of course, both kinds of goals, looking good and learning, are good and we do have the desire for both kinds of goals in us. It’s when they’re in conflict and then we have to choose one over the other. Yeah, you’re exactly right that there are other constraints that lead us to make those kinds of decisions that might be indicative of a fixed mindset or an agile mindset. People make that decision about say studying for a test or getting a good grade.

In college students where the experiments have been done similar to the ones I have talked, those with the fixed mindset said, “I would rather take a course where I make an A, I want to graduate and I want to look good on my transcript.” It’s a different kind of customer in a way. Where the agile mindset said, “Well, I might not make an A, but I really learn a lot.” That’s a tough decision because if you don’t have straight A’s on your transcript maybe you won’t get the job you want, maybe you won’t get whatever it is that you’re looking for, so there’s definitely conflict there. Did I answer your question?

Male audience: Well, part of it.

Linda Rising: Part of it.

Male audience: I mean like our customers relies on the [inaudible 01:10:22].

Linda Rising: I see, I see. Sure, absolutely. If you don’t deliver something to your customer that’s expected. Absolutely. You’re not gonna say to your customer, “Wow, I really learned a lot. I realized in two weeks, but hey, I don’t have anything for you. I’m sorry.” Yeah, you bet. Absolutely. You’re right. You can think of lots of cases where that would be true. You don’t want to lose your job, you don’t want to lose your customer. You don’t want to … Yes, absolutely.

Male audience: The continuation of that [inaudible 01:11:02] so that they would not you know, you come up with what’s possible and I cannot [inaudible 01:11:10].

Linda Rising: Yeah. Well, and what you’re talking about I guess is trade offs and we all make trade offs all the time. Maybe what you can do is begin … I believe in small steps, it’s a pattern, and just begin to do some small things in the direction that are encouraging learning. Just try it. It’s very hard to convince people to do something, they’re resistant to change. But most of us like to try something. It would be fun to try this little experiment.

Male audience: What are your thinking as to how can we help transform people that display fixed mindset into people that show agile mindset?

Linda Rising: Yeah, I haven’t been repeating the questions. Do I need to do that or is he … ? The question, this is a big one, by the way. That’s why I’m trying to think of a way to make it shorter. The question was supposed you have people in your organization or could this even be people even in your family? Who have a fixed mindset. It’s pretty obvious that they do. So you’re already, you’re labeling them, aren’t you? Anyway, so they have the fixed mindset. What can you do to encourage the agile mindset. That’s the question. The answer is there is absolutely nothing you can do to change anybody. That’s the end. Okay.

You can encourage people. You can make the environment around them so that you encourage certain behaviors, depending upon the amount of influence that you have. If these people are your children, for instance, you have more influence and there are certain things that’s you can do there. If they’re colleagues you may not have much influence at all. One of the things you can do is you can give this presentation.

Male audience: Right.

Linda Rising: You can have it, I’ll give it to you.

Male audience: Is that advice that evidence of a fixed mindset, they’re fixed, they’re [inaudible 01:13:30] change?

Linda Rising: No, no, no. In fact, let’s move up to a meta level, it’s pretty clear from the research in cognitive science that the mindset is not fixed. The tendency to have one is fixed, but not the actual implementation of that mindset. That can be moved, that can be changed. And in many cases it’s pretty easy. For many of you maybe it’s just hearing some of the evidence. That might be enough for you to say, “Why do I have …” because I see it in myself, “Where did I get that little voice that says, ‘Linda, why don’t you get rid of the bullet points on your slides? Do you remember that opening keynote? Wasn’t that beautiful? She had all those pictures?'”

And so I get lots of feedback that says, “Linda, you have too much text on your slides. Read presentations. It will change your life. And then you will start putting pictures in your slides.” I said, “Yes, you’re right. I should do that.” The next time I make a presentation I sit down, I make an attempt. I said, “Okay, I’ll find some pictures here. I know I can do that.” But I keep going back to the content. I’d much rather work on the content and what I’m saying to myself is, “I can’t do it. I guess I can’t do it. I don’t have any of that artistic. I’m not artistic. I can’t draw. I can’t do it.” So I see that in myself that I have … It’s not something you have across all domains, but certainly in that one and as I’m giving the presentation I’m saying, “Look, [inaudible 01:15:11] pictures. I got all these text. What’s wrong with you?” I can’t do it. Yes?

Female audience: [inaudible 01:15:24] agile mindset, but [inaudible 01:15:27].

Linda Rising: The question was do people from an agile mindset to a fixed mindset?

Female audience: [inaudible 01:15:42]

Linda Rising: People move back and forth. One of the things in the Fearless Change book that we talked about is the population of adoption. We talked about innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority. Those are not fixed. That’s a characterization done by E.M. Rogers. He said, “Here’s how people react to change across a population.” But somebody could be an innovator in one setting and a laggered in another. So you don’t characterize an individual by a mindset, although there are some like the bright little girls, they are fixed. Typically, most of us as adults are fixed in areas, domains, so for me, it’s I cannot prepare a decent PowerPoint. I just finally write out the text, I can’t do it.

But in other areas I know I’m definitely … I can do it. Failure doesn’t deter me. I keep on working at it, and I believe I can do it. I know I can overcome it. So I have both of those and I think most of us do. It’s important, I think, to be around other people who encourage us to have an agile mindset, to not be around people who say, “Well, Linda, you can’t. You’re not talented at this. You don’t have it.” That’s very fixed. To be around those people who’s like, “Yeah, Linda, I know you did this so you can make those PowerPoint slides. You can do it.” Did I answer your question or … ?

Female audience: Yeah.

Male audience: Linda, [inaudible 01:17:24].

Linda Rising: Perfect.

Male audience: [inaudible 01:17:28]

Linda Rising: I don’t know of anybody, but I do know a good place to start because right now Carol Dweck’s interest is in moving children to an agile mindset. She’s got all the research that shows that there are the two mindsets and what the characteristics are. You Google on Carol Dweck and go to … She has a training site, and I think there are things there for parents, teachers who want to bring it in to their classrooms. I didn’t have time to read everything, but there’s an enormous amount of material that’s sort of aids, little training kits that you can use in your setting to move children. So it is for parents or teachers, move children to an agile mindset. I would love to see you do that with that bright little girl on your house.

Male audience: [inaudible 01:18:47]

Linda Rising: Yeah, create one or I guess what I’m saying is I don’t know what’s on that website. There could be some sort of the beginning of a community or the opportunity to grow a community. I don’t know.

Male audience: [inaudible 01:19:06]

Linda Rising: Okay, thank you. Well, all I can do I guess is to say I encourage you to look at that site and maybe there’s something there. I don’t know. I don’t think it matters so much where you are. You have influence and now you know some things to say to that bright little girl. In fact, if you want to talk there are some sentences. You can say … Don’t ever say a sentence like this. Here are some sentences you might think about. Don’t ever say, “Oh, you’re brilliant. You’re perfect. You must be the most talented person in the world at whatever this is.”

Now you say, “You must have worked really hard. Oh, I see that you see a spent a lot of time. Oh, I like the colors that you used. Tell me how you decided to use these colors or how you decided to use these words, or how you decided to explain the process?” It’s emphasis on the effort, the process, not on, “You have the ability to forever do what it is and then you don’t have to worry about anything.” That’s what we want to avoid, and how powerful that is. The research shows that how powerful it is, just the words that we use to talk to our children. So good, there’s a little shining star back there. Thank you. Yes?

Male audience: [inaudible 01:20:43]

Linda Rising: There are connections to a lot of other research. I think probably he brought the positive side of things to the table. The research that was talked about in the opening keynote is recent, but he was talking about this a long time ago. He was talking about the research of Martin [inaudible 01:21:04]. There’s also Anders Ericson who talks about practice. I think Mary [inaudible 01:21:10] gave a talk about that. That it’s not that you’re born with the capability to do something.

It’s that effort and determination and the positive attitude leads people to great achievement. We tend to lay it at the feet of Einstein or the greats and really, if you look at their history many of them, in fact, most of them, were failures. They weren’t recognized early. Einstein didn’t do well in school. He dropped out, he started working … Yeah, even sports figures that we say, “Wow, he’s a natural,” at whatever. No, he spends hours and hours and hours practicing and he’s determined and he has the right attitude.

Speaker 4: Any more questions? One here.

Linda Rising: Yes?

Male audience: The prior keynote said something about that [inaudible 01:22:07] failure.

Linda Rising: Oh, yes. Thank you.

Male audience: It’s quite long actually.

Linda Rising: Thank you. Oh, yeah. I made a note to myself and then I completely forgot it. I didn’t have it in my slides. But everything he said was true. It’s absolutely true, but there’s little pieces missing. The research shows, because we do like to encourage children with success. If they have success then surely that will help them learn, that will help them improve. It does as long as they’re having success. Success does not prepare them to learn from failure. That’s exactly what he said. We’re not hardwired to learn from failure.

One of the things I do in organizations is lead retrospectives, and I spend a little bit of time saying that that learning is not automatic. We’re not hardwired because there’s research now that shows we’re not hardwired to automatically learn from failure. That takes effort. You have to spend time and you also have a difficult time doing that alone because you only saw a little piece of what happened. It’s together, as a group, that you help each other struggle through the difficulty of learning from failure. It’s not something that we’re hardwired to do. I don’t know, did I just rant off on something or did I really answer your question? That okay? Okay, good.

About the Speaker(s)

Linda Rising is an independent consultant who lives near Nashville, Tennessee. Linda has a Ph.D. from Arizona State University in object-based design metrics. Her background includes university teaching as well as work in telecommunications, avionics, and tactical weapons systems. She is an internationally known presenter on topics related to agile development, patterns, retrospectives, the change process, and the connection between the latest neuroscience and software development. Linda is the author of numerous articles and five books. She was honored by the World Agility Forum in 2020 with their Lifetime Achievement Award. Her web site is: