Can change in mindsets make bureaucracies agile?

Hi Steve,

Thanks for the principles of agile – it’s very hard to disagree with them as desirable outcomes.

But the problem, as many agree, is with ‘mindsets’ as in “how do we change the mindsets of decision makers” or, as Marx put it on a bigger scale, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”


A provocative question:

·      Where did your mindset come from? When did you last change yours? What were the circumstances? What kind of change took place?

For me mindset is an onion concept, at the core of which lies identity and meaning. I can’t think of when I last ‘changed’ my mindset at this level. As a sister of an eccentric friend of mine once exclaimed to her brother in moment of exasperation, “Oh Peter, you have become what you always were!” Likewise with me. But one can change and add to the outer layers of the onion…

Mindsets are changed by experience. The most effective change process that I know of is the 13-week military boot camp that is used by armed forces around the world. It takes a group of disparate individuals from widely differing backgrounds and ‘mindsets’ and welds them into basic fighting force in about a hundred days. When effective, people add an extra layer to their onion. It’s an extension of identity and meaning into a military context that first crushes individuals to build cohesive teams and then gives them their individuality back in a new and enhanced form. They ‘grow’. It’s not about intellectual propositions. It’s about using what Kenneth Boulding called the TIE triad of systems that govern societies: Threat (political: “do this or else”), Integration (social: “do this to belong to the group”), and Exchange (economic: “do this for me/us and I’ll/we’ll do this for you”).

In practice like management we act our way into better ways of thinking (aka mindsets) rather than the other way around. Instead of our Cartesian, engineering focus on thinking and  ‘principles’ shouldn’t we be asking “What kind of compelling experience would help you see your way to change?”

In this context I don’t view Gary Hamel’s “Bureaucracy must die” slogan as helpful. For me it stirs uncomfortable memories of the reckless bombast from the late Michael Hammer during the re-engineering mania. It played to the worst instincts of American managers and ended up doing immense damage to many organizations. We need to think more like ecologists than engineers and to understand bureaucracy as product of an evolutionary/ecological process involving growth in scale and technological complexity. Of course changing from lever-pulling, incentive-dangling engineers to wise gardeners will take a very large change in the collective mindset…And that will take some very compelling experiences.



Speaker, Educator and Writer on Management,


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Associate Peter Drucker Society of Europe

Adjunct Professor, Kenneth Levene Graduate School of Business, University of Regina

Adjunct Faculty, Center for Creative Leadership, Greensboro, North Carolina

Contributing Editor, Strategy+Business

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