Are You In An Agile State of Mind?

I recently watched an interview where Warren Buffett and Bill Gates talked about how they manage their time. It’s been all over social media so maybe you’ve seen it too.

At one point, Buffett takes a tiny black diary out of his pocket and shows it to the interviewer. Inside is, well, nothing. Warren Buffett, one of the most successful business people in the world, doesn’t do very much.

His time is spent thinking, reading and researching. He is not in endless meetings, sitting at his desk returning emails, rushing from appointment to appointment and never completing his to do list, like the rest of us. Of course, some very successful people keep themselves very busy. But not Buffett.

Agility literally means the ability to think and act quickly and easily. But for many of us, the environments in which we work, the workloads we carry, the pressure to play the political game, the desire to be noticed and rewarded and the general culture of busy-ness suffocate our ability to think and act quickly and easily.

Over the last few years the principles of Agile Working have crept in to business. Scrums and Sprints are part of the every day language of project management. Companies are looking at their remote and flexible working policies to see if they can offer more options than commuting to an office every day. Meetings are often “stand-ups” and talk of “New Ways of Working” is commonplace.

But something isn’t right

Despite the enthusiasm for Agile it’s still often limited to technical projects — developing apps, software and products. Or it’s about working hours and working location as a way to cut costs on office space and lost productivity time. Or it’s about processes and systems, measurement and control. That’s not to say all this isn’t an improvement on the alternatives on offer. But, so far (beyond a few companies who really, really get it), Agile hasn’t sparked a revolution in how we work because the underlying principle has been ignored.

Agile isn’t about doing things differently. It’s about being different

For 250 years we’ve been accumulating beliefs and assumptions about people and productivity that have become hardwired in our psyche.

· People cannot be trusted

· People do not like change

· People are too emotional

· People need to be managed

· People need someone to tell them what to do

· People need to be busy

And underneath these beliefs is one that is rarely acknowledged —

Business needs people to be as much like machines as possible

The evidence that we believe this deep down is everywhere. We measure attendance, we measure number of tasks completed, we measure hours in the office, we measure speed of response to a query, we value how much people know, how little emotion they show, how compliant they are to the rules of the office, how scientific their decision-making is, how well they follow systems and processes and how little their personality gets in the way of the smooth running of the machine.

Of course, people aren’t like machines. They wake up on the wrong side of the bed some days. They have situations outside of work that affect their performance inside of work. They feel strongly about ideas, about colleagues, about their opinions and about the business. They cannot sustain endless long hours. They can be active but not contribute to the success of the business and they can be physically absent but have an idea that transforms the success of the business. They can read between the lines, they can sense, they can empathise and they can think for themselves.

And this causes something of a problem for the industrial age, hierarchical, efficiency obsessed, profit and shareholder-value driven, conventional company. If, at your core, you believe that people are increasingly problematic the more human they are, Agile will simply be another way to manage your resources so that they cause the least inconvenience and cost as possible.

You’ll promote remote working because it allows you to sell off your expensive office space, but you’ll have to introduce costly monitoring systems to ensure people are doing what they are meant to be doing because you don’t trust them to self-manage. Rather than looking at how to create an organisation where people feel connected to the purpose that the business serves in the world (which might involve looking long and hard at whether the business does serve a purpose in the world) you’ll simply swap the office in town for the office at home and swap face-to-face control for digital control.

You’ll have meetings standing up because you really want people at their desks where they can get on with “the real work”. You’ll believe that keeping meetings short allows people to do more, and doing more is what you’re paying for. You won’t consider that people could do much, much less (like Warren Buffett) and that some meetings get in the way of them doing much, much less. True agility may mean fewer hours, less activity, more thinking, reading, playing and resting. The best ideas come while we are in the shower or walking the dog. We all know that. Yet we ignore this universal truth so hardwired is the norm that people must be busy.

You’ll see Agile as only being relevant to IT projects because you want Agile to be about processes and systems and mechanisation and predictability and control. A development project is self-contained. It has a beginning, middle and end. What you won’t see is that everyone in the business can be liberated to think and act more quickly and easily if Agile is really about people choosing consciously how they need to work in order to contribute their part to the success of the whole. But to accept that you’d need to trust people, you’d need to let go of control, you’d need to allow people to invent their own ways of working and allow them to iterate those ways of working (and the way they think) as they learn what works and what doesn’t.

You’d need to see Agile not as a set of processes and systems that you import and impose, but as a state of mind that could take people, and the business, anywhere.



What if the pain of the workplace isn’t inevitable? What if your business can be a force for good in the world? What if people are at their best when they are treated like human beings and not machines? What if people could think and act quickly and easily? And what if they, not you, are best placed to work out how to do that?

It’s by adopting this state of mind that Agile can truly be revolutionary not only in your organisation but to the way we live our lives.

Blaire Palmer is the keynote speaker at the inaugural Agile Working Event in London on 29th March. For more details visit

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To book Blaire as a speaker for your next event, please contact your preferred speaker bureau. To work with Blaire as a coach or consultant please email

Blaire Palmer

Blaire Palmer

Agent provocateur, CEO, columnist, world authority on the future of leadership, keynote speaker, Former BBC Today Producer

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