people forming a human tower
PHOTO: Byelikova Oksana / Shutterstock

In February 2001, 17 professionals from the world of software development met to discuss their approach to work. Frustrated with the limitations of the traditional “waterfall” methodology of development — but from different backgrounds in approaching these frustrations — they wanted to discover what common ground they shared. The result of this gathering was the ​Agile Manifesto​.

This seemingly simple document would change the face of business. While it is possible to rigidly follow an Agile methodology such as Scrum or Kanban to do Agile, being Agile requires a change in mindset and approach. This mindset extends beyond software and can be applied to all kinds of organizations.

Eighteen years on, the Agile Manifesto’s core values still ring true:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation (this can be adapted to Working solutions over comprehensive documentation for different businesses).
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
  4. Responding to change over following a plan.

I believe two key traits underpin these values: trust and candor. The presence — or absence — of these traits will determine whether Agile’s core values can be achieved, and whether a group can truly be Agile. 

Through working with a variety of teams I have found that building this culture of trust and candor aligns the group to the core Agile values.

1. Individuals and Interactions Over Processes and Tools

The best results are reached by utilizing a team’s strengths, and by fostering the relationships between team members. This is highly evident in an Agile culture, where team members are treated as individuals and not as a tool to get work done.

Trust and candor are integral to this value. Frank and honest conversations are needed to optimize the interactions within a group. Take a team that has trust and candor as part of its culture. Team members are able to freely give feedback to each other on what is working — and what isn’t — without fear of reprisal. This gives them the freedom to innovate, to try new techniques that might bring better results. They can rely on their fellow team members to provide them with rapid feedback on this experimentation.

Without trust and candor everything falls apart. Innovation becomes stunted with a tendency to blindly restrict the way of working to existing process. The result is a group that sticks to what it knows, without the drive to better themselves. While this team may perform, they cannot reach their full potential.

Related Article: Don't Go Chasing Waterfalls in Your Software Projects

2. Working Solutions Over Comprehensive Documentation

When developing an Agile culture, it is important to recognize that nothing is set in stone. Freedom to experiment — both in solutions, and in processes — results in improvement. Fear of failure must be avoided, as even a failed experiment will give significant value: learning what hasn’t worked, and what we should do differently next time. Presenting the result of a failed experiment is far more interesting than documenting a proposed solution that is yet to be tried.

Remove trust and this doesn’t happen. People become afraid of experimentation, as they constantly feel the need to prove themselves to their peers or leaders. This leads to a tendency to stick to known solutions, or to document these solutions as a way of demonstrating knowledge and understanding.

Absence of candor is even more dangerous. Imagine a failing experiment without the potential for candid feedback. Whoever is carrying out the experiment has no way of finding out what is working well, and what isn’t. There’s no ability to adapt the experiment or to rapidly reach the point of failure. Shared trust and candor allows an experiment to be swiftly adapted or ended without affecting ego. This results in a positive outlook to learn from the experience and to reach better results next time.

Related Article: Agile Management Driven by Digital Initiatives

3. Customer Collaboration Over Contract Negotiation

I work on many different types of projects, working alongside stakeholders from varied backgrounds. It’s no surprise to find that the projects I enjoy the most are also the ones that have seen the most success.

In all of these enjoyable projects, the stakeholder (or customer) has unquestionably trusted the team. This isn’t to say they didn’t push back, question outputs, or want the team to achieve more — far from it! In displaying trust, the stakeholder gives the team the freedom to question issues or priorities, and to explore the best solution to these. In return, the team open themselves to candid feedback on their work and take this on board to deliver maximal value. Working on these projects is a truly collaborative experience, with the stakeholder feeling like a member of the team.

Conversely, the worst projects I work on all lack trust. Interactions with stakeholders feel like a never-ending negotiation. Any attempts at candor are one-sided, eliciting a defensive response from the recipient.

Related Article: It Doesn't Take Technology to Collaborate With Customers

4. Responding to Change Over Following a Plan

Change happens. The best organizations and teams are able to rapidly react to change and adapt their approach accordingly. An Agile mindset accepts that a plan is necessary to provide direction, but that it shouldn’t be strictly followed. The best plans evolve over time, influenced by new information as it comes to light.

A culture of trust and candor prepares a group for change. Trust between team members gives confidence to adapt over time. There’s acceptance that adjusting plans is valid, and that deviation from what is anticipated is a way of delivering value based on what we know. Candor gives a way for feedback to become visible early. The group pass on observations and information at the point it becomes available, even if this information challenges expectations.

Valuing a Culture of Trust and Candor

It’s possible for a team to operate without a culture of trust and culture and to still do Agile. Take a well-known methodology — like Kanban or Scrum — and follow it to the letter. This will provide some of the benefits of Agile working. However, the team will feel like a group of individuals going through the motions by following the rules imposed on them. This misses the heart of what Agile is about, with the core Agile values absent from the team’s culture.

In contrast, a team possessing shared culture and trust own the ability to spot and resolve issues early. They question each other, challenging the team to be better. This is the sign of a team that is ready to be Agile, to adapt the Agile mindset and reach their full potential.

Want to build a truly Agile company? Think of Agile as a mindset, not as a technique to apply. Focus on the relationships within teams. Encourage open and frank feedback between team members. When trust and candor are present, an Agile business will naturally follow.