What makes some agile organizations so incredibly successful? A focus on systems thinking and organic organizational structures can deliver impressive speed and accuracy in product delivery. But not all agile transformations are the same. While agile is a dominant philosophy for many organizations, several still fail to achieve an agile mindset throughout their delivery. Why? Most company’s agile implementations don’t take into account the human impact that comes with the process of iterative, creative knowledge work. Bringing your whole self to work requires emotional intelligence and cultural competence. Spaces where team members can be vulnerable with one another—where they don’t have to shrink to make others feel comfortable—are those in which thoughtful, powerful, disruptive work can take root and thrive. By embracing diversity as part of our agile practices, we can enable the mindset shift that agile transformations require.
Teams succeed together when members collaborate and rely upon one other for success. The more psychological safety cultivated, the more that process improves. Can your queer team members talk openly about being queer and the challenges they face being queer? If they can't, do they have psychological safety?
In our work at Theorem, we recognize the Venn diagram of DEI and agile approaches, applying them in practice. To make the most of your leadership and teams, it’s important to understand that each team member’s diverse experiences contribute to how they approach problem-solving, ideation, and execution.
On the surface, the core values of agile take a people-first approach:
- People and interactions take priority over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change vs. following a plan
At Theorem, however, agile means an organizational commitment to first principles, systems thinking, and cultural competence, to deepen our coaching objectives. To truly enable an agile environment, managers and leaders aren’t just trained on what diversity is. They are trained to be advocates for DEI practices., Committing leaders to provide equitable experiences and opportunities creates engagement—an outcome rooted in agility.
“We coach and grow product managers to lead cross-functional agile squads,” says Theorem Director of Product Management Steve Van Mierlo. “Psychological safety matters. Good ideas can come from anywhere. That’s why we facilitate a variety of different approaches and spaces, ensuring everyone can be heard however they’d like to be.”
By using an inclusion-based agile mindset, we focus on exceptional outcomes that allow everyone to contextualize their work through their diverse experiences. While that sounds ideal, how do you help someone “be agile” and not “do agile”? To meet such outcomes, we believe that building a foundational culture of:
- Autonomy: Teams empowered to make decisions quickly
- Systems thinking: Deconstructing hierarchical power structures
- Sense of ownership: Partnerships instead of “vendors”
- Psychological safety: Space for creative knowledge work
- Cultural competency: Enabling and celebrating cultural value differences
In thinking about the relationship between agility and diversity, let’s explore how the two build upon one another at Theorem:
Autonomy as empowerment
With agility, teams are empowered to make decisions independently, removing traditional hierarchical structures that relegate decision-making to those with organizational authority. When working in a distributed power structure, the best idea is the one that rises to the top, regardless of person, position, or department. Diversity, likewise, promotes systems thinking while deconstructing hierarchical power structures to enable psychological safety. By questioning systems and empowering individuals to bring their authentic selves and experiences to the table, we create opportunities to share insights and perspectives that fuel creative work and ownership. With an autonomous mindset, people can’t hide—one cannot simply put away their Blackness or queerness. Rather, this approach creates a space for psychological safety required for collaborative, creative knowledge work. Envisioning creative solutions and building innovative products can only occur in a space where people are allowed to fully embrace themselves and each other.
“We are overt about being your authentic self,” says Van Mierlo. “It’s about trust and setting people up for success to deliver their best work. That happens when people are given the freedom to be their true, honest, and raw selves.”
The feedback loop
The quality of your agile practices can be measured by the quality and speed of information. Agility relies heavily on a strong feedback loop. When new information arises, how do we respond to it? Consistent feedback from customers, developers, and stakeholders is vital for adapting to change within the iterative delivery process. The quickest way to reduce the quality of a product is to make feedback off-limits out of fear of upsetting someone. A product can’t meet the needs of the customer without being open to all feedback—even if it’s painful. Similarly, a culture of feedback must create a space for diversity feedback. By encouraging a mindset that values personal, intimate, direct, and challenging conversations, we set ourselves up to rely on a more diverse set of experiences and expertise. Honesty and candor help create better products and, importantly, open up a company’s ability to respond in the moment to collaborative solutions.
We are constantly asking our team for feedback, including monthly happiness surveys. In the spirit of agile, if there are people who feel they’re not included, heard, or represented, we hear it directly from them through a medium they know is safe, and we make the changes we need to accordingly. ”
<quote-author>STEVE VAN MIERLO<quote-author>
Rethinking biases requires continuous practice
Agile helps you understand that the process of delivery to production is difficult, simply because it isn’t always a consistent experience. Processes can be a struggle, something that requires work and effort. Agile challenges the inherent bias of processes and encourages teams to iterate on their practice. Similarly, DEI relies on continual practice to allow team members to fail fast and recover. A once-yearly training session doesn’t invite a better understanding of DEI in the workplace any more than a yearly release cycle produces satisfied customers. Rather, practicing and delivering every day creates an opportunity to reduce harm and rethink built-in biases. Recognizing the biases in power structures and encouraging a culture of continuous practice creates a space for better delivery of outcomes.
Starting with ‘Why?’
Agility and DEI: why are you focused on either? While we’ve highlighted the interconnectedness of agility and diversity, an organization may have several reasons for its diversity or agile transformation. Agile organizations deliver more customer and employee engagement. Likewise, diverse and inclusive organizations are known to outperform their less diverse peers in profitability. But a purely financial motivation will set up both your agile and diversity initiatives for failure.
One cannot address the concerns or create meaningful solutions without motivations rooted in people, inclusion, and empowerment. We know that human-based KPIs are critical to successful agile transformation projects. Likewise, a successful DEI program must start with the intention to create a truly diverse and inclusive organization. Rather than thinking exclusively about market success, an agile approach focused on developing a psychologically safe environment for employees to feel joy and be themselves is the pathway to innovation and progress. Intrinsically, agile and DEI won’t be successful without the other. To make the most of your organization and team’s approach, start with the right why to get an effective how.