“What to do if one of your teammates is giving you inappropriate comments based on your gender or sexual orientation?” – I got this question from Kate – a friend of mine, while celebrating my brother’s graduation. Kate seemed to be upset and tired of dealing with a person at her workplace, who was disrespectful towards her and others. “We are an agile organization and thanks to this we should never experience such discriminative situations”.
It is not the ﬁrst time I have heard such a story. We often think that by working or transforming to agile, we will create an inclusive environment in which everyone feels welcome. Although agile seems to be a highly eﬀective approach to team and organisational management, we cannot claim that it is a better, more inclusive system than its predecessors. The Business Agility Institute investigated this problem and found out that 17% of their report’s1 respondents indicated that they had directly witnessed exclusion and inequity inside agile organisations. A further 26% believed that agile itself could actively create exclusion and inequity. Therefore, agile might have the potential for improving inclusivity and equity, but it all depends on the culture it is being implemented into.
Diversity, Inclusion and Equity (DI&E) – complex concepts for complex times
There are plenty of books, articles, and reports explaining Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity. But here I would like to grasp the essence of the meaning of these complex concepts. When talking about diversity we should keep in mind various aspects including gender identity, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical and mental abilities, religion, and personality types. Inclusion is the act of welcoming and applying these diﬀerences. In organisations, we usually understand it by fostering various processes, behaviours, set of values and mindsets so that everyone feels welcome. Equity ensures that all people have equal access to opportunities and fair treatment. All these three concepts set a path for organisations to create their cultures and values which eﬀectively guide them through agile transitions.
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
By saying we care more about people, we tend to believe that DE&I will be a core component of an agile transformation. We automatically think that agile ways of working are doing the job of DE&I. It also happens that senior management trusts their existing HR policies which are dedicated to equal opportunities in the workplace. While this legislation contributes to creating equitable and inclusive environments, it will not constitute the culture and values of the organisation.
As an eﬀect, the main focus is put on agile processes and tools instead of the mindsets. “By assuming that these ways of working are supporting DE&I well, exclusion and inequity can continue under the radar” (Business Agility Institute). This leads to various problems including decreasing employees’ wellbeing, worsening team cooperation, reducing outcomes and values, and missing business opportunities.
Another disbelief that occurs when discussing DE&I in agile transformations is hoping that if someone asks for more diversity and inclusion, the organisation will magically adapt. It automatically puts the burden of change on the person who is being marginalised and who might not feel comfortable disclosing their diversity. No matter how psychologically safe the environment is, we should not rely on our team members to ask for support. By doing this, we might be creating inequalities and exclusion in our organisations.
Often, moving from a conservative and strictly managed hierarchical structure to an autonomous and spontaneous agile approach can be challenging. People might ﬁnd it diﬃcult to accommodate or can even feel excluded. This could be a sign that leaders are implementing agile as a band-aid solution without examining the root causes of concerns in their organisation. It is not clear to team members why agile is being used and how it might relate to current problems.
Client – the heart of an agile organisation
Are you and your team reﬂecting and understanding the needs of your clients? If you can easily communicate with them, comprehend their problems, match products, and create more innovative solutions, you are on the right track. Unfortunately, it might happen that teams do not understand their clients, their demographics, and their diverse needs. This lack of alignment taken together with a lack of clearly deﬁned an inclusive culture within the organisation might disturb agile ways of working which automatically impacts the customers and your relationship with them.
Enable and include
During the Women in Agile Europe Conference last year, Pia-Maria Thoren, a consulting advisor and the founder of Agile People, clearly stated that we need to stop seeing people as resources and start seeing them as living organisms. With this in mind, we should put our business strategy in a new light and see if it clearly shows that DI&E is being executed. What are the key aspects to consider?
- Hold everyone in the organisation equally accountable for their behaviours, respect towards others and their interactions.
- Soft skills training might be helpful – think of giving workshops on problem-solving, empathy, agile leadership or conﬂict resolution.
- Do not be afraid of using your organisation’s data to identify high-potentials, help facilitate career progression, establish mentoring programmes and employee resource groups. However, be careful when using the staﬀ surveys – it is not simply about relying on the numbers but mostly having conversations and listening to people’s experiences.
- Reach out to organisations that assist in setting up a culture based on DI&E. Working along with D&I coaches might change your way of perceiving your leadership and cooperation skills.
- Use an agile mindset and methodologies to establish an inclusive culture. You can work with your teams by using various facilitation exercises and Design Sprint techniques to identify their diverse perspectives and needs for inclusion.
- An additional tip for ambitious DE&I ambassadors – as Pia-Maria Thoren puts it – let’s re-create the position of a CEO as a Chief Enabling Oﬃcer. It is time to start creating environments that will foster learning organisations by establishing the values of collaboration, psychological safety and inspiring leadership.
Recently, I have had a few long conversations with a friend of mine to understand why her colleague was still creating a hostile environment. Unfortunately, the situation has not changed since our last call. Based on my observations, I can tell that one of the issues was the management’s assumption that agile is a band-aid solution to all problems. Surely, there is more to analyse and discover but it clearly shows how the lack of established culture and values inﬂuences employees’ wellbeing and team’s cooperation.
The key lesson here is not to assume that agile is inclusive but rather that there is work for each one of us to embrace our differences and make room for diverse opinions. Agility and DE&I can support and enhance one another when thoughtfully integrated. They bring the potential to create great opportunities for organisations and their growing businesses.
Social innovator and enthusiast of diversity, inclusion and equity. Magda is a Scrum Master whose one of life’s goals is to promote and create an agile culture based on DI&E. She made her first steps into agile with AgilePMO, a project management office, and Akademia Zwinnej Liderki, a community of female agile leaders. In her free time, she manages a cook up project and leads her book club.