January 20, 2021


News for Agilists

How to use grit to succeed on your Agile journey | by Todd Lankford | Serious Scrum | Sep, 2020

The journey to build an Agile mindset and to adopt Scrum is not easy. Your first step is to approach it with a beginner’s mind. Once you have opened your mind and start moving, then you need tenacity and fortitude to see it through.

You need grit.

“The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.”

— Amelia Earheart

Tenacity has long been revered as a trait worth having. Tenacity was Aristotle’s word for grit. He believed tenacity to be the highest of human virtues.

Today, Angela Duckworth is a leading voice for the importance of grit and its role in our success. She advocates raw talent is not enough. Grit is the key ingredient¹.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines grit as “firmness of mind or spirit; unyielding courage in the face of hardship.” Angela Duckworth expands this definition to include perseverance towards long-term goals.

“Grit is passion and perseverance for long-term goals.”

— Angela Duckworth

A Forbes article by Margaret M. Perlis² provides five characteristics of grit, inspired by Angela’s work. Their applicability to the Agile journey is undeniable. Let me walk you through these and how they apply to our path.

№1: Courage

Courage is your ability to gain the upper hand over your fear of failure to move toward your goal. And courage is the first characteristic of grit for a reason. Without it, progress toward your goal is challenged.

“Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others.”

— Aristotle

Courage is a core value of two key Agile frameworks — Scrum and Extreme Programming. It was chosen because you need the fortitude to face change.

Agile requires a nimble response to change and change is not easy. You are often going up against a long-lived, protected status quo. This is a key reason we view Scrum as difficult to master.

Product Teams and the Agile Leaders supporting them must have the courage to step outside of the norm. This will be unpopular with the guardians of the status quo and seen as a problem. But holding steady in the face of the resistance storm will get you through; it is a key component of grit.

№2: Conscientiousness

Angela Duckworth contends conscientiousness is the most important personality trait. And the meticulous aspect of conscientiousness enables grit. This manifests through an extreme, unwavering focus on achieving our long-term goal.

Conscientiousness (n): the quality of wishing to do one’s work or duty well and thoroughly. —Oxford Languages

When we are on the Agile journey, this shows in our daily practice to pursue the Agile mindset. Agile is a journey, not a destination. And we must continually inspect and adapt to progress towards our goal.

Scrum stands on a foundation of empiricism — inspection and adaptation. Extreme Programming asks us to embrace change. Kanban is meaningless without frequent feedback loops and incremental, continuous improvement.

Having this intense focus on our long-term goal of being Agile is another way we show grit.

№3: Follow-through

Angela Duckworth found grit is either unrelated or perhaps has an inverse relation to talent. But those who follow through in the face of difficulty increase the odds of long-term success.

Trials and tribulations are a part of the Agile journey. We expect these, and they are frequent. Scrum has a unique knack of shining a light on the problems holding us back.

We must have the grit to follow through and the resolve to meet these challenges head-on. This is how we survive our Agile journey. Rather than being a victim, we must stand up and overcome our obstacles.

And we have to do all this at a sustainable pace so we are ready when the next challenge meets us.

A nice way to keep a sustainable pace is with a rhythm of tension and release. Once we meet a challenge, we must celebrate or rest before moving on to ensure our resolve will not falter. In Scrum, the Sprint exemplifies this tension and release cycle.

№4: Resilience

Resilience manifests in our attitude when things don’t go as planned. Our resilience keeps us focused on our long-term goals in the face of adversity and challenge. Resilience is having a positive attitude when you fail and dusting yourself off to try again.

If you want a sure bet, bet nothing will go as planned with your product delivery. You can’t get too tied to your approach and plans. Often, many options exist for solving a problem. If one does not work, be willing to throw it away, and try the next one.

“It’s not that I’m so smart. It’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

— Albert Einstein

Keeping the long term view is critical in our Agile journey. We must stay positive and believe in the end everything will work out. And if things are not going right, we should assume we are not finished and keep pressing on.

№5: Excellence

Excellence is not perfection. The pursuit of excellence assumes we will have bumps along the way to our goal. Learning from our inevitable mistakes produces mastery.

Progress toward the goal while learning and honing our approach is the goal. We find excellence in the unyielding chase to be better, not in the destination. It is 100% attitude.

“I never lost a game. I just ran out of time.

— Michael Jordan

As we progress towards being Agile, a growth-mindset is our driving force. Failure is not a permanent condition. We must view failure as a stepping stone to a better place.

Scrum focuses on empiricism and Extreme Programming asks us to embrace change. Every day, we must hone our craft, remove obstacles, and adjust our course. This is the pursuit of excellence.

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