“A diverse set of thoughts, backgrounds, and perspectives is just good business. One of the primary benefits of agility is constant feedback loops and collaboration. Without creating the environment and taking deliberate steps to incorporate diversity of thoughts and opinions, it’s a missed opportunity to improve employee engagement and build a better product or service for your customer.” Nate Nelson, Partner and Managing Director, ADAPTOVATE USA.
Each human being has a different lived experience, based not only on the choices they make throughout their life, but also on the various “dimensions of identity” they hold.
Team members see the world through a lens of their overlapping identities; if their teammates have different identities, then they likely see the world differently and are able to add unique perspectives to every conversation.
Kayla Cartwright is a project lead for ADAPTOVATE in the US. Kayla has extensive experience in both Diversity and Inclusion and Agile Consulting. Kayla explains, “Given that agile values discussion and shared perspectives, having a variety of identities on a team will generally make for a richer discussion, with varied assumptions unearthed and weighed to make meaningful prioritisation decisions for the team.”
“It is this same focus on dialogue and democracy that makes agile teams more inclusive by design, further fostering an environment of inclusion than a typical command-and-control team,” Kayla says.
While diverse teams enabled by an inclusive culture can add a treasure trove of knowledge, experiences, and insights to teams, it does require extra effort to (a) shape an inclusive culture, and (b) go deeper in conversations to align on how each team member is seeing the world or a specific scenario.
Corporate anthropologist Geert Hofstede identified defining cultural factors that shape multinational enterprises (for better and worse). The four original Dimensions included:
- Power Distance
- Individualism v. Collectivism
- Masculinity v. Femininity
- Uncertainty Avoidance
These cultural dimensions impact both organisational cultures and individual country cultures, and when you bring team members in from different cultural backgrounds, you need to bring them together to get clear on where they are coming from and why they may see/experience their work differently.
This is not a negative thing as long as you actually take the time to align on backgrounds and to suspend judgment as to why someone may be making a certain choice, as it very well could be based on their individual identity/culture.
THE CLONING PROBLEM (or employer bias).
In research run by The Open University in the UK, it found that 29% of senior managers admit they hire people just like them. David Willet, Director of The Open University says, “An organisation of clones lacks the breadth of life experience and thinking required to drive creativity, innovation, and retain a diverse client base…”.
This applies within the organisation when setting up Agile teams as well. Ray Freeman is a project lead in our USA division. Ray says, “One of the challenges with building a team of people who think just like you do is that you agree all the time. There needs to be some intentional push and pull between people to highlight variances in perspective.”
While one person may build trust by receiving all the pertinent data, another may be overwhelmed and lose trust immediately. The best innovations in the world come from people who challenge one another’s thinking, forgetting about their differences, and focusing on a common set of goals.
UNDERSTANDING COGNITIVE DIVERSITY
Janine Schindler, a coach and facilitator explains Cognitive Diversity as “the inclusion of people who have different ways of thinking, different viewpoints and different skill sets in a team or business group.”
Actively fostering cognitive diversity within an organisation is a surefire strategy to succeed. Agile enables organisations to compete and succeed in their given industry by maximising the creative potential of teams through distribution of authority and empowerment.
Those closest to the work are authorised and expected to determine how they might best meet their goals or business objective. “This approach leverages the collective intelligence and creativity of the team,” says Patrick Fitzgerald, senior consultant in our US division.
The more diverse a team (ability, age, identity etc.), the more diverse their collective thinking.
Diversity in thought invariably engenders a host of creative solutions to challenging business problems. The opposite is also true, where a homogenous group with nearly identical backgrounds and thought processes will likely have a very limited perspective on a given business challenge.
Aleksandra Truś, an Agile coach for ADAPTOVATE in Poland agrees and uses age as an example. “Diversity boosts innovation and creativity, brings different perspectives to different issues, older people often see things differently than younger generations, that does not mean that the team should disrespect or disregard their opinions,” she says.
CROSS-FUNCTIONONAL TEAMS – DIVERSITY IN SKILL, DIVERSITY IN IDENTITY
Agile transformations are due in large part to a change in team structures – cross-functional, dedicated teams are established to execute work. Teams are required to be cross-functional so they can define, build, test and implement work without heavy reliance on other functions and therefore, without slowing down.
These cross-functional teams have differing skill sets, which allow for a more innovative, less siloed understanding of customer needs all the way through the value chain.
Steve Walton, our principal in Melbourne says, “Just as cross-functional teams bring different skills together, diverse team members bring different perspectives. This is important as it is the variety of perspectives which directly influences the breadth of problems identified and solutions created.”
So, in addition to diverse skill sets, it is just as important for the team to have diverse backgrounds and identities to contribute to the define, build, test and implement phases. These different viewpoints allow the team to come to better solutions – we know this because research tells us that intentionally diverse teams usually spur innovation faster compared to their counterparts.
AGILE TEAMS CAN BE A MIRROR OF THE CUSTOMER
One advantage of diverse thoughts and identities on agile teams is the ability to mirror your customer base in your teams. Imagine a team that can fully represent the diversity of your customer base in age, family composition, socio-economic class and other identities.
Together, a team like this can create solutions that meet customers on a deeper level than a product or service. Teams can curate an experience, a brand, that speaks to your customer in a personal, memorable way.
As customers demand more and more personalisation, diverse agile teams can respond with industry and personal knowledge to challenges. The outcome is simple: teams feel connected to the customers and their work, and diverse customers experience tailored solutions that delight.
PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY IS NON-NEGOTIABLE IN THE MODERN AGILE TEAM
Collaboration can sometimes prove difficult with diverse teams – there may often be differing opinions and consensus may be difficult to achieve. However, teams can overcome this through a focus on the Scrum values of openness and respect.
Teams that can communicate respectfully, acknowledge, and respond to others’ viewpoints, and share their own perspectives in a psychologically safe environment can reap the rewards of their diversity.
Creating an atmosphere where this can happen requires consistent education on the diverse identities we have (ability, age, gender, sexual orientation, learning differences, etc.) and commitment from the team to focus on empathy. Inaya says, “I’ve seen teams do one or the other – training or commitment – but without both, the benefits of diverse teams are likely to be diminished and conflict can arise.”
Aleksandra provides this example, “One may claim that such things as sexual orientation or family composition should not matter at work, but… let’s assume we have in a team one gay and one openly homophobic person, who is expressing their negative opinions on gay people, refers to things as “gay”, etc. Will the team perform well, given that one person does not feel welcome and cannot be their true self. The answer is simple: no.”
WORKING FROM HOME – A NEW CONSIDERATION
In 2020 during the height of COVID-19, the Forward institute in the UK released a report on how organisations had responded to COVID-19. They found a key issue in the “shift in what employers know, and need to know, about their employees’ personal circumstances.” They also did not find one organisation that prior to the study “knew their staff’s home-working conditions or had a framework to record these prior to the crisis. This meant the first crucial decisions were taken in the absence of any knowledge of whether people could work from home, had the means, space etc.”
This has led to a question organisations world-wide are grappling with, “How much should employers know about their employees’ personal lives and home-setups?”
The aligned concern also comes with the psychological safety of employees working from home.
“In the world where we work remotely, often showing parts of private life to others, we should be much aware that people are diverse and we should not make anyone feel uncomfortable,” says Aleksandra.
It will be extremely crucial in the coming years, to ensure ongoing safe consultation between staff and organisations in regard to working from home and how this data is used to inform decisions impacting the psychological safety of employees.
Thank you to the follow contributors:
Kayla Cartwright, Project Lead, USA
Inaya Dzouza, Associate, USA
Patrick Fitzgerald, Senior Consultant, USA
Chris MacLeod, Senior Consultant, AU
Jessica Montri, Associate, USA
Nate Nelson, Partner & Managing Director USA
Alex Truś, Agile coach, Poland
Steve Walton, Principal, AU