How Agile Ways of Working Can Improve Diversity

Written by Marie Hemingway

Can Agile ways of working improve organizational diversity and drive innovation? Research shows that self-organizing teams and bridging organizational silos can diversify organizations. Businesses that want to maintain a competitive advantage need to re-think their more traditional processes.

This article will discuss opportunities for embracing the agile methodology to improve organizational diversity, potential challenges, and the benefits it brings to businesses.

What Does Agile Have to Do With Diversity?

I first formally experienced Agile work practices and became a practitioner (SAFe agile methodology) while supporting a program that encompassed both software development and complementary business transformation activities within the Agile methodology. Fast-paced, collaborative, and always focused on what brought the most value to the end consumer, I found my perfect way to work.

At the same time, as a board member for the Women’s Infrastructure Network, I am passionate about equality, diversity, and inclusion and actively read on the topics. I recently came across the Harvard Business Review article, ‘Why Diversity Programs Fail,’ which challenged my accepted view of where organizations should focus their efforts to improve diversity.

In a nutshell, the article highlights how traditional and conventional approaches to increasing diversity — such as D&I training — counter-intuitively yield negative outcomes. Meanwhile, approaches like implementing self-managed teams and working across organizational silos realize more positive results.

I could not help but wonder: if self-managed teams and cross-training influence diversity efforts more positively than mandatory diversity training, performance evaluations, job testing, and grievance procedures, should organizations who want to accelerate employee diversity focus on embracing the Agile methodology? This question was the subject of a recent LinkedIn post which, after 75,000 views, I decided warranted a little more thought.

What Is Agile?

The word Agile has different meanings between different people and organizations. While the focus here is on Agile approaches born out of the software industry to deliver business outcomes, if you’re new to Agile and want to learn more, you can find helpful information here.

In software development, Agile approaches develop requirements and solutions through the collaborative effort of self-organizing and cross-functional teams and their customers. It advocates adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, continual improvement, and encourages flexible responses to change.

How Could Agile Approaches Improve Organizational Diversity?

Agile approaches inherently leverage self-managed teams and bridging organizational silos. Such business practices increase contact between diverse groups working together toward a common goal. This process consequently lessens bias and breaks down negative stereotypes, ultimately leading to more equitable hiring and promotion practices.

The creation of self-managed teams, for example, allows people in different roles to work on projects together. This collaboration increases contact among diverse types of people through mixing individuals from specialties that are still largely divided by racial, ethnic, and gender.

Organizations that create self-managed work teams see White women, Black men and women, and Asian-American women in management rise by 3% to 6% over five years.

Additionally, encouraging working across organizational silos (such as through cross-training programs) allows further inter-group contact, which delivers similar positive results.

Cross-training programs see an increase of 3% to 7% in White women, Black men and women, and Asian-American men and women in management over five years.

When it comes to increasing diversity, what’s promising about the broader adoption of the Agile methodology is that the approach will not suffer from being explicitly labeled a ‘diversity effort.’ Several studies have shown diversity programs promoted as such can ironically activate bias or spark a backlash, counterproductive to increasing diversity within the workforce.

What Are the Drawbacks?

From the lens of delivering using SAFe agile methodology and with a specific focus on gender diversity, there are two key challenges to implementing an agile approach:

1. Agile Promotes Co-Location of Teams

The approach advocates face-to-face conversation as the most efficient and effective method of conveying information. If adopted without consideration, this drives a culture of presenteeism.

A workshop held by the Women’s Infrastructure Network identified work flexibility as a critical requirement for organizations committed to increasing gender diversity. In this case, work flexibility encompasses working from home, non-standard hours, and part-time working.

The recent global shift to virtual working demonstrated the effectiveness of remote work’s large-scale proof of concept. The adoption of virtual face-to-face conversations would allow for accommodation of team members that require flexibility.

2. Agile Promotes a Structured Approach to Deliver Outcomes

The Agile approach advocates for frequent delivery, which is facilitated by a standard pattern of ceremonies (meetings) typically held over a 2-week period (sprint) within a planning cycle (increment).

The success of this approach relies on the majority of team members supporting these ceremonies, which can be a challenge for individuals with childcare responsibilities and part-time working arrangements.

In order to accommodate the entire team’s personal constraints, Scrum Masters need to collaborate in planning ceremony timings. For example, a daily stand up early in the morning for someone who has to drop their children off at school is logistically challenging.

With considerate implementation, it is much easier to mitigate these drawbacks and create in-built practices that promote inclusion within the team.

Agile approaches encourage consistent and frequent opportunities for all team members to participate in the creation, development, and delivery of team outcomes. These opportunities create space for individuals to understand and empathize with others’ views, be understood, and create a genuinely collaborative and equitable working environment.

Gaining a Competitive Advantage

There is an opportunity for organizations to drive diversity and inclusion efforts through less traditional yet more effective approaches, such as broader adoption of Agile working.

The business case for diversity in the workplace is now overwhelming. Studies show that businesses with:

  1. More gender diversity on their executive teams are more competitive, more likely to experience above-average profitability, and more likely to outperform their peers on longer-term value creation;
  2. A stronger focus on Diversity and Inclusion within their culture are more attractive to millennial job applicants; and,
  3. More diverse management teams have higher revenues due to innovation.

“More diverse companies are simply more innovative.” — Rocío Lorenzo

The opportunity for businesses to drive competitive advantage through diversifying their workforces is undeniable, and embracing the Agile work methodology presents a possible solution.

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This article was originally published by a WWCode member, Marie Hemingway, on her blog.

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