Zen agility: When agile methodology meets mindful awareness

By Taylor Holland

Most CIOs these days have heard of agile methodology processes like scrum and lean. Originally created for software development, these are highly collaborative, iterative project management strategies that get fast results, involve the user throughout the entire process and welcome changes even after development has started.

This framework makes sense for software development — technology evolves rapidly, and so do business needs, making speed and adaptability critical for a successful launch. But development isn't the only area of IT where agility provides an advantage, nor is agility the most important attribute for CIOs.

As leaders of digital transformation, CIOs must be primed to make decisions to manage their overarching goals and the smaller projects that comprise them. That requires both big-picture thinking and the ability to focus on and commit to the long-term vision, which can be difficult when CIOs must constantly put out fires to keep up with the aggressive speed of innovation. In this environment, CIOs need to maintain calm minds and clear vision to effectively lead digital transformations, rather than reacting to every hiccup and shiny object that arises. When CIOs cultivate a Zen agility mindset, it can transform every aspect of what has become an increasingly strategic, collaborative and challenging job.

Workflow agility meets mental agility

Inspired by the 2001 "Agile Manifesto," agile methodologies are systematic approaches to software development. Using the more traditional waterfall method, development happens in siloed stages — planning, design, coding, testing and so on — and the software doesn't actually work until the end of the process. The key to this approach is relentless focus, with the team putting energy toward specific areas they can change and deprioritizing distractions. With agile development, small teams collaborate closely on short sprints in which they produce working features every two to four weeks. And this methodology is catching on: According to the "State of Agile Report" from VersionOne, 98 percent of respondents said that their organization has realized success from agile projects.

However, modern CIOs are responsible for more than developing and maintaining enterprise technology. They're also tasked with budgeting, strategizing, getting executive-level buy-in, collaborating with leaders from marketing and other digital-driven departments and prioritizing corporate wish lists for both consumer-facing and internal technology solutions. That requires more than workflow agility. It also requires mental agility — the ability to stop and think while everyone else is running around, to stay rooted in the present while looking toward the future and to give up control and embrace change. All of this fundamentally requires mindfulness, reflection and a commitment to Zen agility truths.

How can Zen agility help CIOs become more focused, productive and adaptable? Try these three mantras:

1. Think big, work small

Agile methods vary in terms of process, but they all require the project manager to create and prioritize a product backlog, a list of requirements that must be implemented in the final software. Each sprint addresses one or two of these requirements and has its own backlog of to-do items. CIOs rarely work on software development teams, but they do oversee plenty of large-scale projects — from migrating legacy systems to the cloud to implementing new data security measures and restructuring departments. By breaking these projects into small, incremental steps, they're more likely to anticipate possible challenges and roadblocks.

Zen agility requires CIOs to focus on the present rather than be distracted by thoughts of the past or worries about the future. It also teaches the importance of seeing the big picture — recognizing that each person is just part of a greater whole and that each vision is part of a greater goal. CIOs need both focused agility and mindful awareness of the long-term vision. Think of it like soccer/football: Agility helps players make it down the field, but they need to know where the goal is to score.

2. Plan to scrap your plan

According to Zen teachings, all suffering in life is caused by attachment to one's views, desires and fears, and inner peace can only be achieved by letting go of these attachments and embracing change.

Agile methodologies invite and accommodate change at any point in the development process because the best-laid plans do, in fact, often go awry — especially in the digital age. Technology evolves quickly, business needs can shift overnight as new disrupters enter the scene, and as CIOs know all too well, stakeholders can and do change their minds frequently.

CIOs must plan for anything, including change. That means keeping budgets flexible, investing in scalable technology and cultivating teams that know how to focus on the work at hand and go with the flow. It also means getting not just comfortable with change, but excited about it. After all, change is the only constant in life — and especially in IT.

3. Always be learning

Retrospection is an important and often overlooked component of the agile methodology. To keep getting more productive and innovative, development teams meet after each sprint and each project to discuss what went right, what went wrong and what they've learned from the experience that could help them work more effectively the next time around.

Learning and self-reflection are equally important for Zen agility. As famous Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh once said, "We have to continue to learn. We have to be open. And we have to be ready to release our knowledge in order to come to a higher understanding of reality."

Self-reflection is essential for any job. However, due to the nature of technology, the CIO's learning curve is always in flux. By intentionally stopping to review both wins and losses, and by challenging the status quo, they can learn from both and do an even better job in the future.

These are just a few ways CIOs can cultivate Zen agility. The bottom line is to approach problems, projects and decision-making in a collaborative, systematic and flexible way while also remaining focused and present. To maintain self-reflection and a clear mind, consider regular meditation, which is a rising trend among executives looking to boost their agility. After all, the more agile CIOs are, the more agile their companies are — and in the digital age, that's a huge competitive advantage.