The Role of Mindfulness in Agile Teams
We are all aware that in Scrum teams, a great deal of importance is put on team collaboration, positive team dynamics, face-to-face communication, responsiveness to change, early feedback to customers and ROI – all in a fast paced setting.
That puts a great deal pressure on the teams, so it helps have an additional edge apart from the high technical competencies required. So, what kind of edge?
For starters, I believe one way to get that edge is to embrace mindfulness, a spiritual concept which is defined as paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.
There would seem to be no apparent connection between the two concepts, since Scrum is a hard-boiled project management methodology, while mindfulness may have stronger associations with a Yoga studio than a Scrum room.
However, mindfulness helps promote openness, reflection, discovery, flexibility, adaptability, focused evaluation, and pragmatic decision making. These in turn are closely linked to benefits like increased creativity, innovation, emotional intelligence, empathic interpersonal relationships and the flexibility to accept change — all of which are critical to success in Agile teams.
Below, I have illustrated the close connection between Agile philosophy and the principles of mindfulness.
|Agile Philosophy||Mindfulness Principles|
|Individuals and interactions over processes and tools||Empathy Awareness|
|Working software over comprehensive documentation||Focus Motivation|
|Customer collaboration over contract negotiation||Non-Judgement Empathy|
|Responding to change over following a plan||Awareness Empathy|
It would appear that there is some overlap between mindfulness and Agile, so let’s look at two such core principles that can contribute to higher productivity and greater success.
Both Agile and mindfulness focus on the ability to listen, understand, and use skill to respond to the needs of others.
By strengthening and leveraging emotional intelligence through mindfulness techniques, Agile teams can learn to listen better and establish better connections with both the customer and within the team itself, which in turn boosts quality and productivity.
One of the twelve principles outlined in the Agile manifesto is simplicity. The focus is on high value yet simple processes and solutions that reduce waste and increase quality.
Mindfulness helps people become aware of unnecessary mental clutter, and enhances the skill of making simple choices. Someone practising mindfulness can identify and let go of energy-draining thoughts like negativity and uncertainty before they become problematic.
Similarly, Agile focuses on simple designs, short meetings, and avoiding long discussions. Activities are organized based on priority and efficiency, which requires teams to be extremely focused and driven. Mindfulness techniques like emotional de-cluttering can help teams focus better.
How to Apply Mindfulness Techniques
There is more than one way to practice mindfulness, but the goal of any mindfulness technique is to achieve a state of alert, focused relaxation. This is achieved by deliberately paying attention to your thoughts and sensations without judgment, and steering the mind into the present moment.
There are many techniques that take very little effort and can be done practically anywhere, anytime, such as Meditation, Mindful Immersion, Mindful Observation, Mindful Appreciation, Mindful Breathing and others. Below are some pointers on two important techniques.
Broadly speaking, all mindfulness techniques are a form of meditation. Meditation is about remaining calm and effortless in an uncertain world. The Agile/Scrum world is set-up to respond to unpredictability, whether it’s changing user requirements, deliverables, deadlines, or unforeseen glitches.
Meditation does the same. You go with the flow of your feelings, whether pleasant or unpleasant, and never push or force your mind or thoughts.
The benefits or meditation are well-recognized and quantifiable. In fact, one insurance company reported a decrease in healthcare costs and an increase in productivity among employees trained in mindfulness/meditation. Many Olympic athletes attribute their success to meditation practices, and Google even has a formal employee meditation program, whose motto is, "Greater complexity outside requires greater clarity inside.”
Another important aspect is focus on the breath, which is closely linked to our emotions and sense of well-being. Breathing techniques, when practiced regularly, foster more positive emotions and help steer an anxious, angry or regretful mind back to the present moment.
In the Agile world, being in the present moment is essential, especially during a Sprint. It won’t help if the team is bogged down by thoughts of past Sprints or future Sprints. In the moment, the Sprint must become like your own breath, and one of the best ways the team can get back on track is to make the sprint commitment the clear focus of attention for everyone.
Still skeptical? The only way to prove me wrong is to try promoting mindfulness on your own team.
There’s literally nothing to lose, yet you stand to gain a more positive environment, happier Scrum teams, increased productivity, greater flexibility and adaptability, better focus, and clear-headed, pragmatic decision making.
Try it out and let me know how it works on your team. Or, comment below and share your own experience with mindfulness.
Prasanna Sukuru is a Principal Consultant and leads Syntel’s Agile Center of Excellence. She has 17+ years of IT industry experience and is currently involved in enhancing Syntel’s G-Agile service offerings. She is a certified SAFe Agilist and has deep experience conducting training and implementing solutions for global clients.