Category Archives: Steps to Agile Mastery

Acquiring an Agile Mindset – The 12 Dysfunctional Patterns of Thinking

I have been asked by a number of you to write a little more on the subject of Agile mindset and thinking, so here is the first in a series of articles that will target thinking and Agile mindset.  In this article I will firstly identify what I refer to as 12 dysfunctional patterns of thinking.  This is a two part article where I will cover the first 5 in this part and the remaining 7 in the next part.

So what are the 12 dysfunctional patterns of thinking?

My definition of an Agile mindset is one where learning and continuous improvement of ourselves is at the core of everything that we do.  However we are often thwarted in our efforts to improve by our limitations in our thinking processes. The area of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) identifies 12 different ways in which people’s thinking can often be distorted.  In times of great stress people may adopt one or more of these ways of thinking and this can cause additional problems to the ones they are already experiencing.  As a coach I encourage leaders and managers to first start to become aware of their own patterns of limiting thinking as these patterns will then become easier to spot in other people.  A word of caution though: the purpose in spotting these thinking patterns is not so that you can set out to change or fix them in other people, this is an area best left to professionals who with the appropriate level of tact and skill can help people overcome these limitations.

So let’s start by giving you the list of the 12 dysfunctional patterns of thinking:

  1. All or nothing thinking
  2. Magnification or minimisation
  3. Personalisation
  4. Emotional reasoning
  5. Mind-reading
  6. Labelling
  7. Discounting the positive
  8. Shoulds and musts
  9. Mental filter
  10. Catastrophising
  11. Over-generalisation
  12. Fortune-telling

All or nothing thinking

This was one of my favourite ways of distorting my own thinking.  When under pressure I would often see things in very extreme ways, everything is either black or white with no shades of grey in between.  The problem with this sort of thinking is that people may often fail to find solutions to their problems if they tend to focus on the extremes.  Solving complex problems requires for us to have flexible thinking and the ability to not only identify with opposite ends of the spectrum but with the infinite possibilities that often lie between the extremes.

Magnification or minimisation

This type of thinking is where a person will amplify the “bad” or negative aspects of a situation while attenuating the positive.  Of course some people might do the complete opposite.  This way of thinking has the effect of distorting reality and may result in more stress for the thinker as they perceive some event or person as being more negative or positive than in reality.


Some people have a tendency to make external events or situations all about them.  They may blame themselves or take on too much responsibility for the actions of other people or for circumstances that were outside of their control.  An example of this would be where you may logically decide that the reason for the failure of the programme was because you failed to deliver your project within budget.  Now it may be true that you may have had some part to play in that, but a blanket statement of  “its all my fault” is rarely the truth.

Emotional reasoning

Feelings are very powerful as anyone who has watched a rugby match can understand.  The strength of our emotions can often muddy the water of our thinking processes. Coming to conclusions or reaching decisions as a result of our feelings may often lead to poor decision making especially in times of duress.  To this end it is important to examine the evidence available in an unemotive way in order to come to an accurate assessment of the situation.  It is worth mentioning that emotional reasoning is not the same as using our intuitive abilities, but that is a subject for another day.


Just as it says on the tin, this dysfunction is about believing we can read the minds of other people.  We may tell ourselves things like “my colleagues think I’m an idiot”.  Because we are thinking something we can have the tendency to believe that the other person is thinking the same thing.  We need to check our assumptions and gather evidence before we start to act on our misplaced thinking, so in this example I can ask my colleagues if they do think I’m are an idiot and they may reassure me by telling me no, but do I believe them?  If I don’t then I would contend that I have gone back to mind reading again.

In the next article I will provide a description of the other 7 dysfunctions of thinking.  Here is a link to that article.

When Leaders shouldn’t give hope


Napolean Bonaparte is said to have characterised leaders as “dealers of hope”; but to my mind there are times when leaders should consider the impacts of providing hope to their people.  I argue that hope isn’t always what people need.  Too many leaders might actually think that their job is look after and nursemaid the people in their “care”.  In fact people within organisations do think this way as they consider the role of the leader is one where they “protect us from uncertainty”, ” provide the solutions” and “make the pain go away”.  In today’s world of uncertainty and the speed at which change happens people need to be aware of reality and sometimes giving people too much hope can keep them from creatively helping to solve the organisational problems.

What’s that you say: a coach taking hope away?

I remember coaching a client of mine and we had hit a dead end in the work that we were doing together. I said to him in a most serious manner “You need to give up hoping.” He looked at me aghast and I could see that his thinking wheels were engaged as he grappled with what I had just said.  Now anybody who has worked with me will know that I am probably one of the worlds greatest optimists, so hearing this from me must have been quite a shock for him.  I went onto explain to him that his hope was the one thing that was keeping him stuck.  It kept him from thinking about other options and other actions that he could be taking that would benefit him and his organisation.  At the end of our time together he reflected back to that session and remarked that this was a turning point in our work.  I remember feeling quite relieved as at the time I felt like I was taking a risk by being so challenging, but now I’m glad I took that risk.

Caution: don’t celebrate too soon

So hope used in the wrong circumstances can be most damamging.  Another example of this was a consulting client of mine who had embarked on an organisational change programme.  I noticed that  one of their performance-limiting patterns was that they were very quick to call victory on some of their change efforts.  This gave them an overly optimistic view of their reality.  I took one of the change managers to one side and pointed out one or two areas where improvement was needed.  They seemed to be very dismissive of my suggestions so I challenged them by feeding back my feelings and observations.  I could tell they were rather perturbed by my observation and aggressively asked me “why are you telling me all this”.  They were upset and felt that I was raining on their parade.  They wanted to report good things to their line manager and sponsors and felt that I was being critical and negative.  Again – me critical and negative, what a laugh.  (It did demonstrate again to me how people can get it so wrong when they don’t check out their assumptions.)  I pointed out that I had a personal code of ethics that I was committed to and if I felt that it was in my clients best interests to challenge their thinking or behaviours, then I had a duty to do so.  I mean, lets face it I’m a human as well and I like people to say nice things about me and sing my praises.  But my worry was that they would lose the impetus for change if they felt they had achieved their goal already.

Leaders as a provider of hope

I personally feel that leaders also have a responsibility to allow their people to feel a little pain.  Now that doesn’t mean they should go about purposely inflicting pain on their followers and intentionally making them feel bad.  Leaders will have a hard time moving people in the direction of change because without a little pain, people will have no reason or desire to change.  This is why I admire Greg Dyke so much  when he was Director General of the BBC. He was a leader with balls who laid it on the line for his people and was honest with them about the changes that needed to be made.  He didn’t try to sugar coat the changes that needed to be made in order to make it all the more palatable for people.  But he did it with heart and with the best interests at heart for his people.  I am unaware of any other leader where people have walked out in mass protest in support of him when he was removed from his position at the BBC.  So he must have done something right.

A final thought …

So am I saying that it is wrong to give hope? No.  I am saying it is contextual.  A leader needs to know when providing hope will be a good thing and wont become a reason to do nothing.  I think that if hope is delivered in a way that lets people know that things will get better – but only if we change what we are doing now.  Being hopeful is a wonderful frame of mind but if its not followed up by focused action that will give good cause for hopefulness then it becomes a mechanism of delusion.  Leader beware!

About the Author

Mark Buchan is an Agile consultant  and Leadership Coach who does give his clients hope.  Mark’s work as an executive coach helps his leaders to be able to master their own psychology so that they can deliver exceptional change for their organisation.

You can view Mark’s profile on linked-in

You can also follow him on twitter

Why you can’t stop doing Agile to be Agile …

I’ve heard many people now use various forms of the expression about Being Agile over Doing Agile and I thought I would add my tuppence worth into the mix.  To my mind it is quite impossible to “Be Agile” without also “Doing Agile” and I want to explore in greater detail than I have seen written or discussed the idea of being Agile.

But first let me make a statement in support of what I think people are trying to put across when they talk about “Doing Agile”.  There are many organisations who have bought into the myth that if they do stand-up  meetings, operate in week sprints, have a review and retrospective – hey presto you are now Agile.  Wrong!  They may be following a set of prescribed Agile behaviours, read a few books on Agile and then they think that all the benefits of Agile will be theirs.  Again this is a mistaken belief and it is something that we Agile consultants refer to as Cargo cult Agile.  Rather than me explaining what this is, there is a great article which describes the concept of cargo cult. In short just following Agile behaviours, i.e. “Doing Agile” doesn’t bring all the benefits of Agility.

So what is “Being Agile”?

Firstly what do we mean by just being?  To my mind our beingness incorporates our behaviours, thinking and emotions.  Think about it for a moment, what happens when we do something, what informs us to take action?  Well simply put, we will come from a place of conscious thinking about our action or we would impulsively (or subconsciously) act out of habit.  Now I might have simplified the process somewhat, but our behaviours are preceded by our thinking, its just a question of how much conscious thought we have put into that act of doing.

Now many of you might be familiar with the Unconscious-Competence model for learning.  (I have included a diagram below with some commentary to remind you.)

What the diagram doesn’t show is that we work through the stages of learning by repeating the behaviours over and over again.  We may have Agile mentors who work through these stages with us, holding our hand as we make mistakes, but ultimately supporting us through to the stage of being consciously competent.  But ultimately it is about doing, making mistakes and then learning from and making meaning that will help us on the path to mastery.

So where does emotion come in?

Very often the actions that we will have committed to take with the best of intentions are often hijacked by our emotions.  Allow me to give you an example.  I was coaching a project manager who said all the right things in the coaching session.  As part of the coaching we discussed the various “them and us” dynamics that existed between the business and IT group. As part of the coaching I ask him to respectfully confront the business and question why they were continuing to pile more and more work onto the backlog while still expecting the development teams to be able to achieve their goals.  On the next session he informed me that he wasn’t able to approach the subject of doing too much. When we examined what happened in the conversation what happened was that he became gripped with fear at would happen when he said no to his customer.  In that moment he became more concerned for his own well being over that of the development team.  Now in no way do I blame or judge him because I too know what it is like, probably like many of you readers, to be in the clutches of fear.  We think from a very different place and in that moment we are being scared.

So this demonstrates how someone can be thinking Agile but not being Agile – or are they?  Well lets change the scenario for a moment.  Imagine now that the PM and said no to the business – “sorry guys, but we can put this work over here but we are not going to disturb the development team who have already made their commitments for this sprint.”  Would his fear have disappeared, probably not; but instead he would have been living the value of courage so instead very quickly he could also be courageous.  Courage is one of the values of Scrum and in this sense he would have been living or committing to his values, so in my definition he would, in that moment at least, be Agile.

Here is a link to my posts on the Agile Mindset which you may like to read.