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The Value of Diversity

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This is the second in a series of discussions looking at factors that enable Agile teams to be successful. Diversity of gender, culture, opinion, perspective, skills and background is considered to be an important factor in forming and persisting high-performance teams. This news item examines the perspectives from variety of commentators.

Merely using the term diversity can cause contention – frequently associated with tokenism and politically correct quota systems, and any type of externally imposed artificial diversity will probably encounter resistance.

The Agile Alliance is sponsoring a program to identify and promote gender diversity in the broader Agile community looking to identify “awesome women” in the Agile community and tell their stories. This program has a key milestone coming up with an exhibition running at Agile 2010 highlighting some of the stories. A Google Group has been formed to track discussions and publicise the program. 

Diversity is important on effective teams, and not just gender diversity – Johanna Rothman ( is one commentator who has a series of posts on the value and importance of diversity – some of the key points she makes include:

  • Women tend to bring more collaborative skills and more empathy skills to a team. (That’s a gross generalization. I realize that.) 
  • The more complex the problem, the more personality and experience diversity you want on your team. That’s because different approaches to solving problems and backgrounds help the team see what their options are. 
  • I once worked with a team who were all introverted, quick to come to decisions, and all had the same kind of product experience. When it came time to develop a brand new product, they had trouble. They had no one who came up with wacko ideas on the spur of the moment, and no one who could keep options open for a while. They hired someone who liked to wait longer to come to decisions. That person also connected problems and solutions differently than the original team members did, so he was a very helpful addition to the team
  • New grads have a huge advantage over experienced people: They don’t know the problem you need solved can’t be solved. They’ve been trained through 4 years of university that all problems can be solved before the end of the semester. They will bring that optimism to work.
  • If you only look for senior people who’ve done the same kind of thing you have, you may get the people you want. But instead of pigeon-holing people, consider experience diversity to increase team capability.  

Pawel Brodzinski discusses why he tries to bring more women into teams he works with (after acknowledging that these points are generalizations - I will generalize here and I’m going to do it on purpose. After an hour or so of interview you can’t really say what kind of personality you deal with, so you have to go with your biases and prejudices anyway.) :

  • Women bring different soft skills to team talent pool. They’re usually more open and emotional than men. Do a simple test and recall your last retrospective or check the record from it. Can you see how different arguments were pointed by women than by men?
  • Women bring more culture. Pure-men groups tend to change into something like herd of hogs. Bringing a woman on board magically improves everyone’s manners and language. I mean hogs are nice but I wouldn’t like to work with them.
  • Women are more responsible. This may be one of my prejudices but I find women more responsible than men. I can hardly recall any woman who came to work having heavy hangover while I have no problems to name a long list on men who did.
  • Women are more accountable. It is connected with the previous point. Women tend to treat their duties very seriously. Even when it is something they didn’t personally commit to but rather something their boss expects from them their commitment is usually stronger. And I think here about these unrealistic expectations many poor managers set against their teams too.
  • After all, there aren’t many women in the industry so don’t make it even worse.

Having said that, I’m not going to hire woman over man just because of sex. If there’s a significant difference between two candidates I will always choose a better one, not the prettier one

Scott Hanselman has an audio interview with Aslam Khan a software architect and coach from South Africa. Khan deals with teams made up of people from multiple cultural backgrounds. In the podcast they discuss the importance of team members taking the time an putting in the effort to truly understand each other’s perspectives. This means getting to know each other in a deep and meaningful way – making the effort to understand the value systems and perspectives of your team mates.

Khan discusses the typical job advertisement that includes a statement such as “must be able to work well in a team” and asks what that actually means? Each team will be different, there is no magical formula for “working on a team” and it is important that team members consciously consider the impact of their actions and behaviour on their team mates.

He references the Zulu term “Ubuntu” as used by Desmond Tutu and how team members need to nurture this in each other:

A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu “God Has A Dream” 2004 Published by Doubleday

 Bill Gaiennie discusses some of the factors that have made teams he’s been working with successful, and how important diversity is:

Digging more deeply into what constitutes success in these complex adaptive systems (organized as teams), yields the result that diversity in experience, knowledge, personality, and drive is what allow them to truly excel. The equivalent in nature was captured by Darwin when he wrote that ”the more diversified the descendants from any one species become in structure, constitution, and habits, by so much will they be better enabled to seize on many and widely diversified places in the polity of nature.” A team’s diversity is one its greatest strengths, so long as the diversity is expressed and exercised regularly.

Do your teams treat each other with Ubuntu, is diversity a strength and asset in your organisation?


Rowan McCann discusses diversity in personality on InfoQ here.   




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