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Can Agile Principles Promote Equity?

The values of Agile are underpinned by a belief in people and that complex problems are solved through collaboration and teamwork. Agile ways of working also contain the tools and techniques organizations must use to build diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces. However, context is everything; just like within the wider society, an Agile organization can still contain bias and unequal practices, if not challenged. Being an Agile business doesn't automatically ensure equity, but it holds the answers. By embracing an Agile mindset, organizations can acknowledge and adjust imbalances and, by doing so, enhance business success.

What is business agility?

In today's complex and uncertain world, organizations seek more resilient, innovative and adaptive working methods. No matter the industry, companies around the globe now require pace and business agility to remain competitive. Traditional business processes and operating models must be faster and able to respond to the disruption and digitalization that now characterizes modern life. To deliver value at speed, organizations recognize a need to evolve their ways of working, and the pursuit of agility sits at the heart of this business goal.

People over process

The essence of Agile is to place your customer at the heart of everything you do and incrementally deliver value through a feedback-driven loop of plan, do, review, adapt. The key to adopting this Agile 'virtuous cycle' and rapidly responding to customer needs is to work in multifunctional teams rather than individual siloes. Instead, these teams have all the skills necessary to complete the project phase. Moving at pace, we trust these teams to self-organize and use visualization techniques to collaborate and make transparent, real-time decisions. Some tools and frameworks that enable these ways of working, such as Scrum and Kanban, are now commonplace.

At the core of the Agile mindset is the belief in people and their ability to solve complex problems by working together through a test-and-learn cycle. Basing an Agile organization on mechanisms and rituals, such as team retrospectives and daily check-ins, makes it more humancentric. The overall aim is to build an environment of physiological safety where people openly discuss feedback, failure and how to improve.

If viewed this way, an Agile organization naturally promotes equity. However, organizations and ways of working are always contextual, and if the context lacks diversity, can we say it's truly equal?

What is equity?

Equity recognizes that we do not all start from the same societal position. It acknowledges the need to address this power imbalance for everyone to access the same opportunities in life. Intimately connected with diversity and inclusion, equity concedes that even with greater representation and voice, certain groups and minorities are disadvantaged through traditional processes, policies and systems.

For example, suppose a job description lists seven years of experience in a particular role and a specific degree as must-haves. In that case, recruitment will only come from an existing pool of people, which may be primarily white and male. Equity recognises that a black female who is just as able but perhaps holds transferable skills from another industry or role should have the same likelihood of being hired. In this case, equity addresses the underlying workplace policy and infrastructure that must change if we are to build more diverse and inclusive organizations.

Why is equity important? Studies show that diversity wins. McKinsey reports that more diverse companies, especially at the senior level, are 25% more likely to have above-average profits. Gartner cites progressing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) within organizations as a top priority for CEOs and HRDs. DEI metrics are also now an integral part of Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) reporting, which increasingly influences companies’ access to investment and equity. Finally, as companies fight for the best talent in the market following the pandemic, surveys show that more than half of employees would leave a job if they don’t feel that they belong and 44% wouldn’t accept a job if an organization wasn’t proactive in DEI.

Do Agile and equity automatically align?

If we compare Agile organizations to those with traditional, hierarchical, command and control structures, we can argue that business agility directly challenges the legacy of systematic workplace bias and discrimination. We need to redesign many processes to achieve equity, such as performance management, reward and promotion, and these are the same systems to re-engineer when embracing Agile ways of working.

For example, servant leadership is a central pillar of Agile. First attributed to Robert K. Greenleaf and now synonymous with Agile roles like Scrum master and Agile coach, a servant leader is responsible for building a team environment of trust and collaboration. By serving the well-being of people, a servant leader supports self-organization, shared decision-making and power.

However, what if this self-organizing team is all male and white? Indeed, the origins of Agile precisely reflect this, with the Agile manifesto written by a group of white males of similar age. When we look at the tech sector, we see it is far from diverse. In the UK, women only represent about 19% of the tech workforce, and 77% of tech directors are men. Looking at ethnicity paints an even worse picture, with only 3% of women being black or Hispanic and Asian women representing just 5%. Interestingly, processes like the language used in job ads and misalignment of workplace benefits are considered significant barriers to women entering the tech industry.

A study by the Business Agility Institute also questioned the assumption that Agile organizations naturally align with DEI outcomes. It noted that while many Agile processes and rituals support trust and psychological safety, they mostly suit the majority and are not consciously designed to create or encourage diverse and inclusive teams.

For example, a familiar Agile ritual is the daily scrum which in Agile is often referred to as the daily stand-up. However, many organizations have realised that this is not a very inclusive term from the point of view of wheelchair users, for example, and have adopted the term daily check-in. Also, if you're the only Asian female within a group of white males, will you feel comfortable speaking up in a team retrospective, even if the focus is on feedback and improvement?

Agile tools can build truly equitable organizations

So, while an Agile organization is not necessarily equitable by default, an Agile approach contains all the ingredients needed to build a truly diverse, inclusive and equitable organization. By embracing a growth mindset and using the Agile tools of inspect and adapt, organizations can identify barriers and biases to remove. The magic of applying Agile within HR and workplace design is that it becomes genuinely human-centric because the customers are our people.

How to start

  • Define why you are 'going Agile' and align your organizational transformation with specific outcomes, such as equity and diversity.
  • Use the Agile value of 'people before process' to promote workplace equity.
  • Actively hire for diversity when building Agile, multiskilled and multifunctional teams.
  • Harness Agile rituals such as team retrospectives to inspect and adapt behaviours, ways of working and restrictive policies.
  • Make being an ally part of team-working agreements and a responsibility of servant leaders.
  • Run design-thinking sprints where employees explore the different lived experiences of minority groups to empathize and co-create DEI solutions.

Companies worldwide have embraced business agility to help them solve complex problems and rapidly innovate ways of working. Building a truly diverse, equitable and inclusive organization is an excellent example of a complex problem to solve. By applying the same Agile tools and techniques businesses use to research, prototype and test customer solutions to DEI, organizations can quickly redesign the workplace to be accessible to all. What's more, by solving the problem of DEI, Agile organizations realize greater diversity of thought, skills and behaviours which in turn powers better financial and business outcomes.

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