An Agile Mindset and Powerful Questions

An Agile Mindset and Powerful Questions

Cynthia Carroll a CEO (2007-12) of one of the world’s largest mining companies – Anglo American PLC, with 25 billion dollars in sales, 162, 000 employees (with two-thirds of all employees in South Africa). Four months into her job, she got the news  that one of the miners in Rustenburg had lost his life, yet another fatality.

She had to decide if she was going to shut down the mine or continue business as usual.

The video creator walks through the thought process of an Agile mindset. He analyses the steps that a CEO with an Agile mindset would take, while making a decision in an uncertain and complex environment.

So, how does an Agile mindset work? or more appropriately how does an Agile mind actually think?  For Human Beings, the ability to make a decision depends upon the foundation of their belief systems, which is a set of values that we use to validate our decisions. For example the decisions made with an Agile mindset are based on a clear understanding that;

a) the future cannot be predicted and

b) it’s natural for situations and circumstances to change unexpectedly and

c) we simply cannot anticipate all the relevant variables of a situation ahead of time.

These beliefs guide our actions and as a result of those beliefs People with an Agile mindset;

  1. Try to plan and strategize as they go or craft their Strategy. Henry Mintzberg, “Crafting Strategy”, Harvard Business Review, July, 1987,
  2. Experiment, learn and then adjust their thinking, planning and actions based on that learning.
  3. Make decisions quickly, but still postpone till the last reasonable moment, without waiting for all the information to be revealed – knowing that there are always ways to recover from mistakes.
  4. Make things visible and transparent.
  5. Create processes, structures, rules and systems that are highly adaptable and emergent

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For simplicity let's divide the thought process of an Agile mindset into smaller steps:

  1. Sensing – sensing what is happening in the current moment

In the presented case study, the CEO needs to listen actively to the problem and ask these questions;

  • What am I hearing?
  • What is standing out in what I’m hearing?
  • What is missing or unknown in what I’m hearing?
  1. Analyse the situation, based on what was just said, also using some of these powerful questions:
  • What is this situation revealing about the organization and about me as a Leader?
  • What is the no-brainer in this situation?
  • What factors control or impact my next steps?

As the CEO continues to sense and think through the situation, with the help of those powerful questions, a certain hypothesis begins to formulate. Then when the hypotheses is tested with the help of experiments, the necessary actions that need to be taken will start to unravel. The next questions the CEO needs to ask herself at this point are;

  1. what future do I want to create?
  2. what actions do I take?
  3. what outcomes do I want?
  4. what experiments can we try to explore the unknown?
  5. what is my expectation?

Shut down or not to shut down?

What you are learning in this investigation is that either the practices are not being followed correctly or  they could have been safer – People have died!

So, the  three-step thought process to make a decision for that CEO  in that particular situation would be:

  1. Sense and make sure that she has heard the problem correctly by asking herself these questions:
  2. What am I hearing? The answer in this particular situation would be: I’m hearing that I am a CEO of a company with the 25 billion dollar in revenue , 160, 000 employees and a minor who has lost his life.
  3. what is Standing out here when I remove my judgment and think objectively without any emotions or selfish motives The reply would be: there is a minor, who has lost his life while working in the mine.Anything else is an unknown in this case.
  1. Analyse what was sensed by the CEO by asking 3 more powerful questions;

 1. What is this situation revealing about our organization and about me as a Leader? – there are safety issues and as the company’s CEO Cynthia Carroll is accountable

  1. What is the no – brainer? – the mine should be shut down, unless Cynthia Carroll is ready to risk the lives of other miners. This is an absolute no-brainer that she should shut down the mine immediately, but only temporarily.
  2. What controls her next steps? – Stakeholder analysis is so important when we think about change. Stakeholders care about their interests so you need to start there, but that’s not enough, you have to then identify where to invest the most time and effort.

Let’s say the most important Stakeholders in this case are the Shareholders.  So, the next steps will depend upon safeguarding their interests. The Shareholders are looking for profit so she needs to get everything back to normal as soon as possible without causing any panic in the stock market.

So the created hypothesis with the limited data available is that it is a safety issue and she needs to resolve the issue ASAP without causing panic among the shareholders. Simplicity is the key even when you are a CEO.

  • Test the hypothesis by conducting some experiments
  • She can hire independant professionals to investigate the issues related to safety
  • She can then put a timebox on that investigation and follow with communicating that timebox to the Shareholders ensuring that Shareholders are updated with the progress on a regular basis
  • She can then take steps to make this situation as transparent as possible by publishing it on the company page or via emails making sure that Shareholders have all the information they need to make informed decisions. If the issue is resolved at the end of the timebox , she is in position to re-open the mine and if the issue is not resolved she needs to update the Shareholders and keep running the timebox experiments until the solution is found


Sense and response enncapsulates the entire thought process of an Agile Mindset, when navigating uncertain and complext situations.