It requires an often overlooked ingredient.
I am passionate about simplifying the Agile journey—often, to a fault.
As an Agile coach, this is my driving purpose. It gets me up in the morning, ready to embrace the day. It fuels me to persevere as I encounter the ever-present resistance to Agility. And it keeps me up at night worrying about my teams and organizations as they struggle to embrace change.
Grit (n): firmness of mind or spirit; unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger. —Merriam-Webster
I drive to change the status quo and create fertile ground for growing team engagement. My stamina is significant in this area and my focus does not waiver. And I am not content with my own drive; I have high expectations of those I coach to have similar enthusiasm.
You might be thinking this is great. A driving purpose and the persistent focus to meet it are critical elements of success. My own relentless pursuit of Agile simplicity might remind you of your own similar passion.
But a negative side-effect emerges from such an unwavering persistence. It often creates change fatigue in those I coach. And this can take a significant toll on a team’s ability to modify its behavior.
I often sense this fatigue, but I press on anyway. My mind tells me to hold the line and nudge the team forward. I trust the fruits of our labor will become clear and true change will begin to take hold.
Well, let me tell you, this approach of ignoring change fatigue is dead wrong. To be clear, I am not saying grit is not needed. Grit, indeed, makes the difference between embracing change and giving up on it.
But we often overlook a key element that enhances grit. I’ll get to this soon. But first, let’s explore what it means to have grit and how it enhances our Agile journey.
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.”
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 ingredient.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines grit as “firmness of character; indomitable spirit.” Angela Duckworth expands this definition to include perseverance towards long-term goals.
“Grit is passion and perseverance for long-term goals.”
A Forbes article by Margaret M. Perlis 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Who can argue with the five ingredients of grit? They make sense. And they have direct application to our Agile journey.
But something is missing that gives grit an edge.
If we return to the change fatigue I mentioned earlier, we start to hint at the missing element. This one ingredient can be the difference between grit and apathy in those I coach.
I became aware of the missing link when I received feedback from a respected client partner. I was shocked I had not noticed this nuance; it was hiding in plain sight. She told me:
“Your drive for excellence is unwavering as you coach us towards an Agile Mindset. You could enhance your approach if you verbally and visibly recognize where we are when we are struggling.”
Usually, when I hear the phrase, “Meet us where we are,” I treat it as a tactic to stall the change. As someone who values grit, this phrase has always struck me as the absence of grit. But now I see it for what it is—a call for help.
The missing ingredient is to respect the human element.
Without verbal and visual acknowledgment of my team’s plight, my coaching and perseverance, my grit, lost its potency. All my passion and tenacity to coach my teams to be Agile could not reach its full potential.
So now, I have elevated respect for the human element as part of my pursuit.
These days, I meet my teams where they are.
I verbally and visually recognize their situation. Then, we co-create a path, and we go on a journey together to a new place, closer to our Agile goals. Together, we set a sustainable pace.
This is the best way for those I coach to practice grit. I can’t force those I coach to have grit. But I can create an environment for it by crafting a journey that respects their context.
I will continue to be gritty as a coach about getting those I coach grittier, but I choose to do it now with a human touch.
A special thanks goes to Maarten Dalmijn and Harry S Long for their thoughtful contributions to this post.
Also published in Serious Scrum on Medium.
You can read posts similar to this one below:
- Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth, Scribner, May 3, 2016 ↩
- 5 Characteristics of Grit — How Many Do You Have?, Margaret M. Perlis, Forbes.com, October 29, 2013 ↩
About the Author
Todd Lankford helps organizations simplify their Agile journey by building cultures that emerge better products. Todd Lankford is an experienced Enterprise Agile Transformation Coach and Product Strategy Facilitator. His coaching is focused on making Agile simple again. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.
On Medium, Todd is the Editor and Writer of Serious Scrum and Simply Agile, Writer for The Startup, Writer for Illumination, and a Top Writer in Leadership and Productivity
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