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4 Ways to Lean into an Agile Mindset

September 20, 2021
12 min read

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Agile and Lean methodologies revolutionized manufacturing and IT. Can they do the same for the post-pandemic workplace?  

Agile pioneers, Mary and Tom Poppendieck joined Michael Loughlean, Associate Director at AccentureAlistair Shepherd-Cross, Teamit’s President & Co-Founder and Candace GiesbrechtTeamit’s Director of the Remote Performance Academy, to discuss how Lean and Agile methodologies can begin to address change in the workplace.  

Mary and Tom Poppendieck are renowned speakers and educators in the software development world, and co-authors of several books related to Agile and Lean including their award-winning books, Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit and The Lean Mindset: Ask the Right Questions 

From adopting a Lean and Agile mindset in the modern workplace to retaining employees through “The Great Resignation” and talent war, Mary and Tom brought their Agile expertise and past experiences to help us understand the future workplace. We dive into four key takeaways shared in the discussion.  

Watch webinar on demand. 

Learning #1: Create an environment that allows employees to have meaningful goals, pursue challenges and make progress. 

One of the biggest challenges organizations are currently experiencing is their ability to attract and retain talent. “It's a huge issue. And the seismic shift in the workplace to a more distributed model continues to change the recruitment landscape,” shared Alistair. 

How can an Agile and Lean mindset give companies a competitive edge and help them win the talent war? 

“You need to create an environment in which people are challenged and can make progress towards interesting goals that they care about. And when you can create that kind of an environment, then you should be able to attract and retain people,” said Mary. 

From Tom’s perspective, if you’re having trouble recruiting talent, you need to start by asking yourself the right questions, such as: “what is the work that you are asking people to sign up for? 

“Once you have the problem identified, you’re coming up with solutions to challenging problems, but the problem is not to produce output. The problem is to produce outcomes that are impactful and make a difference,” Tom said.  

Tom concluded that it requires a “reorientation of the entire organization to articulate and evolve the meaningful outcomes that they are pursuing.”  

Learning #2: Assemble small, focused teams and assign them a problem to solve.  

At the onset of the pandemic, everything transformed almost overnight. From schools moving their classrooms online to restaurants and grocery stores offering curbside pickup, people figured it out. Using the pandemic as an example, Mary noted how organizations instinctively assembled small teams with the necessary people formed around an issue that then they were tasked with solving. 

“Everybody around the world figured out how to do that really, really fast. And not a single one of them was worried about a methodology of how to do it. They were putting together competent people and saying ‘here, this is your chunk of the problem, go figure it out’. So, they were not given solutions, they were given problems,” Mary said. 

Another key point Mary made was, “If you preassigned to a team a solution that you think will work, that's way less motivating than assigning to the team a problem where they can figure out if they have solved it or not.” 

Mary references Colin Bryar’s book, Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon, bringing to our attention the idea of having a small team with a single thread leader that’s responsible for focusing on one problem only and being able to tell when the team is accomplishing it. The idea is each team has their piece and they know where it fits in the big picture to make it successful.  

Overall, Mary says the key here is to build small teams, give them customer-focused objectives and let them develop their own process for solving that problem.  

Learning #3:  Eliminate friction in your processes.  

When you adopt a lean mindset, eliminating friction in your processes is an important component. “You don’t solve problems, you mitigate them, you address them,” said Mary. “But as soon as you make a change, the context of the problem changes and the problem itself changes. There's no way to solve the problem. But you can make it better, you can make improvements in the area that the problem is affecting.” 

The example Mary used is a web developer will look for the sources of friction in the user experience when a customer is trying to make a purchase. “We’re trying to eliminate friction in our process, and friction caused by what we do—our product in the customer’s life,” said Mary.  

This concept can be applied to more than software development. Organizations are experiencing friction as we speak. “Organizations are reluctant to make decisions around workforce planning because they're waiting for the next health order. On the employee side, there's friction because many people are wondering, What’s my workplace going to decideHow can I make decisions around my life?,” Candace added. This hesitation in communication can leave employers at risk of losing some of their great talent. 

Learning #4:  The success in the organization lies in its ability to change and evolve. 

With employers having the option to go back to a more traditional workplace, potentially there is a risk of voiding all the valuable learnings we’ve gained in the last 18 months, noted Alistair and Mary. 

“It is the way the people think about how organizations should be run. And that cannot go back to the way it used to be. People will not tolerate it,” said Mary. 

We also know that “it’s not just salary and benefits that attract people, it’s the challenge of the job and the interesting things they get to do,” added Mary.  

So, how can a Lean and Agile mindset be applied across the organization in the post-pandemic workplace? 

For businesses looking to adopt a Lean and Agile mindset, the first step is to determine the architectural structure. Each division and team have a unique architecture they are working on which is dependant on their role within the organization. “You're thinking architecturally about how you're going to take and create environments in which relatively small, completely focused teams can be put together to work on things,” said Mary.  

For example, there’s the software architecture, operations architecture, the organization’s architecture, which looks at how you divide the problem and define the relationship among the parts at an organization level. “Changing your organization without even thinking about an architectural structure of what it is you're trying to build is going to be a useless exercise,” added Mary.  

Overall, for organizations to be successful Tom’s advice is to continuously refactor their organization’s architecture, make improvements based on feedback and use the data collected to evolve. For Mary, it lies in the intelligence of the people. “If companies can figure out how to leverage the intelligence of their people, their company can be more successful. Find ways to allow those people to bring their whole selves to work.” 

Have questions or looking for more insights? You can watch the one-hour webinar on-demand. 

Get a complimentary team assessment 

How effective is your team? Are your employees enabled to thrive in a distributed work environment?  

With organizations transitioning to a remote, hybrid or distributed workplace, leaders and employees are facing several challenges in leading team performance while working apart. In partnership with the University of Calgary, we’re offering teams a complimentary team assessment that will look at areas such as communication, collaboration, productivity, and managing conflict.  

This 15-minute online assessment involves questions related to your team’s experiences. For teams of four or more, you’ll receive a feedback report and debriefing meeting to go over the results. In this report you will learn about how well your team is functioning in seven key areas:  

  • Individual Development  

  • Technical Control  

  • Work Design   

  • Team Conflict  

  • Adaptability  

  • Team Climate  

  • Team Effectiveness 

To learn more and sign up, contact Candace Giesbrecht 

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About the author


Teamit helps growth-focused companies recruit top talent, scale quickly and build high performing technical teams in North America and South America.