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Reimagining Agility with Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Ignacio Inchausti and Ashay Saxena about the recently released Business Agility report: Reimagining Agility with Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI).

Key Takeaways

  • There is a misconception that Agile approaches are inherently more inclusive than other ways of working – this is not true
  • 26% of participants in the survey believe agile approaches actively create exclusion and inequity in the ways of working
  • the teams or organizations that embracing DEI, have a far better understanding of the diverse needs of their customer and eventually serve them better
  • There are a multitude of biases which we need to work at consciously and deliberately overcoming
  • The act of considering others opens the door to better understanding and minimizing the risk of marginalizing others
  • Agile leaders and coaches need to become proficient in DE&I


Introductions [00:17]

Shane Hastie: Good day folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. Today I have the privilege of sitting down with Ashay Saxena and Ignacio Inchausti. Did I get that right? Ignacio?

Ignacio Inchausti: Perfect.

Shane Hastie: And you've both been principal contributors to the recently released Business Agility Institute Report,re-imagining agility with diversity, equity and inclusion. Tough topic. Why did you even want to go down that path?

Why the BAI report was produced [00:49]

Ashay Saxena: We found it interesting Shane, the simple premise found in the world that we live in going to what all of us have experienced over the last year or so. Just the fact that the voices are increasing around diversity, equity, inclusion. And in fact, we had recently completed one year of the George Floyd incident in America, where there was so much conversation around determining what happened there, was it right. Obviously, it shouldn't have happened. So, there was just so much commentary around that. So this entire notion of bringing every people together, especially at an organizational level is starting to take place. And what we tried to do in this research, we are trying to combine it with a very old phenomenon of agility and why I call it very old, it's been more than two decades now we're talking about it. And then we try to see whether there's correlation. Do they go hand in hand or what can be done so that we enable a better future.

Shane Hastie: I'm going to take the stance of an agilist who's been around for most of that 20 years and say, but surely, agility, the whole set of principles and the values about individuals and interactions. Wasn't agility automatically more inclusive?

Agile approaches are not more inclusive than other ways of working [01:59]

Ignacio Inchausti: That could question Shane, perversely, it wasn't. And that was one of the key findings in the research that the assumption was made that because individuals contributing would be empowered to add their voice, add their thinking, that hey would collaborate. It was assumed that everybody would respond in that fashion. And clearly not everybody fits that mold. So, we're all unique individuals. And I guess agility has been brought to account to respect and discover and understand the variability of a group and organizations so that they can get the best outcome, I would say from their agile implementations.

Ashay Saxena: There is evidence from our report. I mean, what you asked Shane, is obviously the first thing that comes to mind. But if I were to go with our research findings, what we found was there was 17% of the individuals who participated in our research, witnessed exclusion and iniquity inside agile organizations. And there were 26% of participants who believe agile itself actively creates exclusion and inequity in the ways of working, the way practices have been defined. So, these are pretty high percentages. I mean, if agile in itself was doing things the right way, then these percentages should have been far lesser.

Shane Hastie: What are some of the ways that the agile practices create this exclusion?

Ashay Saxena: Just the way some of the practices are defined, I would say. But I'll get more specific into some of the practices. For example, there's this notion of daily standup. The way the practice was written, the idea was that the entire team comes together. They are pretty much standing next to each other, giving updates in terms of what has been done. But are we doing justice to the fact that individuals are different? What if somebody is not comfortable just literally standing up and speaking to the team members? That's one point. The other practice I want to talk about, let's say something like a retrospective. Retrospective is an integral part of being agile. And that is where you have this notion where, what if someone is an introvert versus an extrovert? Are the voices of introverts being heard equally as they are for an extrovert? That's another example I have.

But again, if I were to generalize at a broad level, agile to me is a very visual way of working, the way it has been drafted. Now you have your story walls, where you have your post-it notes moving from one state to another. Or you have your virtual boards where everything is very transparent and visible how things are moving. Now, is that something that makes everyone comfortable in a given team? Or are there people who feel that, hey, you know I'm not okay just being out there, being so visible, transparent to how things are progressing?

Ignacio Inchaust: I can't top what we've heard from Ashay, except to say that as a result of those things, there was evidence of continuing biases and microaggressions, which were created as a result of what Ashay said. These assumptions, the way the practices were formulated and the tools that they're used, it was universal. And everybody would instantly be comfortable with it, warm to it, be involved and engaged. And there were instances where clearly that was not the case.

Shane Hastie: As researchers, what were the things that surprised you?

There was a general assumption that agile approaches would be inclusive because of the focus on people and interaction – this is not the case [05:07]

Ignacio Inchausti: The fact that these assumptions were so hidden, so well hidden until they were not, and they were discovered. Agility, this all powerful, all-encompassing energy and life force, which is evangelized through technical teams and technology organizations as being the knight in shining armor that would increase speed to market, raise customer responsiveness and stickiness. All of a sudden, you see that, well, that's a bit of a glossy overlay. You really don't know what's happening underneath. The sense of inequity, the sense of being marginalized when you are trying to participate in something that's goodness and richness. So, there's that dissonance that was quite confronting, I would say.

Aspects of Diversity [05:50]

Ashay Saxena: And I mean, just to add to that, for me, it was also the perception that some participants or organizations had regarding what is diversity, equity and exclusion. I mean, still we found that the understandings at a nascent stage where diversity means male or female, or a certain section of the communities that we are talking about. Whereas obviously diversity is much more than that. I mean, it could be something as intricate as introverts versus extroverts. That is also one way of classifying diverse people. So that understanding has to go deeper. When we use these terms, we still try make it very much black or white, but there may more layers to it that organizations need understand to fully embrace it in their workplaces.

Shane Hastie: Can we maybe delve into the three elements there? Diversity, equity and inclusion. You deliberately pulled them apart in the research. So what do we mean by diversity? You've touched on that, is there something we can go a bit deeper?

Defining diversity, equity and inclusion [06:52]

Ashay Saxena: For us, the working definition for this research was diversity is pretty much the mix. We are referring to all the people differences amongst us. We are trying to welcome all the differences that exist amongst us. That is what diversity means. Inclusion is the act of welcoming all people. So inclusion is more an action where we say that it's more an act where we are welcoming all the people that are part of the community. And equity is very interesting. Equity is where we say that all people have equal access to opportunities and fair treatment. So, this is not about saying that every individual has the same resources. It's a bit different than that because again, when we say everyone has the same resources, we are trying to neutralize that everyone is okay working with the similar resources. Here what we are saying is, maybe some individuals need more resources. They need that extra delta to be on the level field as someone else. That is what equity is, where, whatever resources, whatever tools, whatever processes, we emphasize for the people that enables them to have equal access to opportunities and they get fair treatment.

Ignacio Inchausti: Yeah, it's interesting that as you say, Shane, we prize them all apart. But when you look at it, it's really, they are all interconnected and interdependent. It's like a three-way yin and yang. They all circle around each other. It's a virtuous circle when you get that right. The mix, the diversity, the inclusivity, which is okay, warming and including everybody. But the equity, as Ashay said is, not only does everybody have resources, but we make sure that the resources are assessed as on a needs basis. And so that nobody gets, felt left out and they hum together.

Shane Hastie: There's the really lovely image in there of the three people watching a sports event, showing the difference between equality and equity that comes from the Interaction Institute for Social Change. We'll make sure that that image in fact is included in the show notes because it's got a lovely depiction of one person standing on one box, another one standing on two and that way they can all see what's happening in the sports field.

Ignacio Inchausti: Yeah, it's a lovely example of a picture paints a thousand words. You can instantly get it.

Shane Hastie: I do want to go into, why should we care? If I'm a technologist, our audience here is the technical teams and technical influencers. I want to build software. Why should I care? And I'm being a little bit devil's advocacy here.

Why this matters [09:25]

Ignacio Inchausti: No, that's good because on the premise that you want to build software, the assumption is that you want to build great products. You want to build products that will be used by all of your target clientele, your target market, all of it. And so caring represents understanding what that all is composed of, because if you didn't care, then you'd miss opportunities.

Ashay Saxena: In fact, I'll take that line of thought forward. As Ignacio said, I mean, when we are writing software, I mean, we are eventually trying to build products for our client or for the end users. And when I say client end users, we are talking about some individuals there, right? And the moment we get to that level, as the organization, as teams building software, they need to understand these end users better. It's only then can they involve those features or those elements into their designing. And that is the correlation that we found to our research as well. Where the teams or organizations that are embracing DEI, they have a far better understanding of the diverse needs of their customer and eventually serve them better.

The example of incorporating non-binary gender choices in software [10:32]

Ashay Saxena: Again, there are a lot of examples that we can talk about. One of the examples that we had was while the payroll system was being designed and the gender section had a binary male or female as input, but then one member of the team that was designing it said, "Hey, why do we have it as binary? You might as well make it non binary. That'll be a better proposition for the client." And the client loved that. They said that, "Hey, yeah, I mean, that's a feature that a lot of us, once we got it, we felt that this is the right thing to do." So that's just one example. And similarly, we had other examples as well, where clearly what we saw teams, organizations that were being more inclusive, that were trying to be diverse within their community, they were able to better serve their clients or better meet the needs of their end users.

Empathy is enhanced when you consider diversity, equity and inclusion [11:19]

Ignacio Inchausti: To add to what Ashay said, it's about being able to walk in somebody else's shoes. Quite clearly, if you want to demonstrate that you understand and comprehend the needs, the restraints, the interests of the end user, it's like you're showing empathy, you're being empathetic. And empathy is enhanced when you consider D, E and I, diversity, equity and inclusion.

Ashay Saxena: In fact, I recently read a book again, it's a fantastic book, this book is called, Invisible Woman: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. And it talks about how some of the data decisions are driven by how men think about the world that we have inhabited. And I think that was very startling for me in the sense that some of the decisions are driven purely by how men think. For example, in Canada, where there is so much of snowfall, a genuine question was asked around, where should we mop up the snow first? Should it be on the main routes or should it be on the pathways where people are trying to walk. And guess what? The decision was, we should mop the main first on the road so that people can drive cars. But that's a biased decision. We only looking at how men think about the world because they want to drive cars, drop the kids to school or go to office for work.

But probably the other side of the coin was the woman felt that, hey, mopping up the pathways should have been done first since we get to walk to a nearby store to buy groceries or to go to our neighbors to meet our friends. Or it could be as simple as dropping our kids to school, we can just take them by a simple walk or a ride on a bicycle. These are some of the biases that the book talks about, but yeah, that's just one way of looking at it.

Shane Hastie: What are some of the other hidden biases that came out in the report that we do need to bring forward and to be conscious of, to address them?

Examples of biases that came out in the research [13:03]

Ignacio Inchausti: Apart from the gender bias, which Ashay has highlighted, there was also an educational culture bias that was quite evident in some of the responses. As you've probably seen the report covers quite a diverse global reach. So, we had a good opportunity to probe into different cultures. So culture bias was pretty prevalent. I think education was another bias that was in full view.

Ashay Saxena: The other thing I would like to add to that is, again, a very intrinsic element of introverts versus extroverts. I mean, there were people who said that look, agile is very on the spot and who can talk. I mean, it caters to people who can value this time boxed meetings, go with the agenda and give their inputs, serving the purpose of all the meetings. But there are obviously a section of people who need some time to process information. They're probably not that quick on their feet to provide an idea in the spar of the moment. So there were individuals who said, "Hey, look, you know me, I needed some time to process information. Just because I couldn't give my input during the meeting or I couldn't process all of it at once, I felt that, hey-look, I was being a bit left out or I felt that I'm not able to contribute to it. But hey, that doesn't mean I never had good ideas. If you'll give me some time, I can process everything. I can maybe give better ideas than what was discussed on the table."

Shane Hastie: One of the chapter headings in the report is conscious and deliberate action. What are the conscious and deliberate actions that we should be taking as team members, as technical influences as team leaders? What should we, what can we do?

Conscious and deliberate actions needed [14:42]

Ignacio Inchausti: Well, as team leaders and technical contributors, we need to take time on a regular basis, consider our team. Consider our team members, our fellow contributors, perhaps have a ritual where at a regular point where we sit and consider each other. I guess it's the act of considering others that opens the door to better understanding and minimizing the risk of marginalizing others.

Ashay Saxena: Just to add to that, when we talk about being technical contributions while we are developing software, it's very important we welcome all the diverse perspectives from the team members. Again, I mean, be open to discussions, be welcome to any changes that others suggest and try and let all of that be present on the table, so the right decision, the best decision can be taken. That's very, very critical. That's one of the things we want to add.

Create an environment of psychological safety [15:30]

Ignacio Inchausti: Yeah, and on top of what Ashay just said, I guess fundamental of that is trying to build and establish a sense of psychological safety and trust because that's where we feel most comfortable in. As Ashay said, making sure that everybody can be heard, nobody is afraid to say something. Everybody understands that their views will be heard, will not be judged, maybe debated and challenged, but in a sense of professional manner. I think that's important too.

Agile leaders and coaches need to become proficient in DE&I [15:55]

Ashay Saxena: And I think, I mean, the way I look at it, I'll have to take it a level higher as well, because for, just to be enabled, we need agile leaders and coaches to become proficient in D, E and I. That's very, very critical because unless suddenly we have leaders and agile coaches who can walk the talk, it will be very difficult to percolate this within organizations, within teams. So again, we definitely require leaders and more importantly, agile coaches who are proficient in D, E and I. Who can understand the diverse perspective that teams bring to the table and then coach them accordingly. That is going to have a significant impact on how teams function, how teams value these elements. And, yeah, I think that's going to be very, very critical for organizations.

Ignacio Inchausti: Yeah, and one thing that occurred to me from what I can recollect is leadership has to be present. Leadership has to be continuous and consistent because when that fails or when that falters, that will send the wrong signal. So if agile concepts has our frameworks, the implementation of agile is to be more successful in D, E and I, the D, E and I constructs, then leadership has to mandate that organization adopts that sense of recognition and the things that Ashay said before about continually making sure that we don't stray from the path. That we understand, we develop empathy, we develop trust. Yeah, that's critical, a sense of constant leadership and reminder from the top.

Ashay Saxena: So again, Shane, just to summarize this particular response, I look at all of this as a very intricate web. Again, it all starts with the leadership and that's where the business strategy is defined as well. If leaders’ business strategy can inculcate elements or DEI, it is going to percolate all the way to the systems that are being designed within an organization. The policies, the processes that have been defined within organizations to align with that. Once that happens, that is when people will have better opportunities and people will be able to grow and learn together and embrace D, E and I. And obviously when that happens, the outcome of this is going to be the business results, the innovation that you're going to see on the table, and that is going to lead to more satisfied customers, better products coming out. So for me, this is like an entire chain that we are talking about, starting with the leaders, coaches, flowing to the way systems are being designed, and then going to the people who are part of teams and organizations embracing it as well. That's going to be the entire block.

Shane Hastie: Gentlemen, what piece of advice would you give? And perhaps, I want to also stop there. We're three gentlemen, I see from the list of authors that the group who undertook the research is much more diverse than the three of us. The two of you were the two who were available when I came to asking about getting somebody on there. But I would like to acknowledge that this has been produced by a very diverse group of people. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that group?

Background to the research and the team [18:51]

Ignacio Inchausti: I came late to this, but I'll provide what I know and Ashay, perhaps you can elaborate. I understand that this piece of research work was instigated by Mike Green, who if I may say has a visual impediment. And he recognized that as a result of that, there were gaps in his interactions or perhaps the recognition from others in the professional field. And so I think that's where this report came from. The lack of recognition by others which led to this notion of, is it homogeneous? Does it need to be diverse? And then the inclusivity and then the equity. So that was the beginning. And along the way, there was a collection of what I believe are practitioners, agile practitioners. And I think that's where it started. Maybe Ashay, you can probably add a little bit more depth and dimension than I can.

Ashay Saxena: I can continue from where Ignacio left. We were a very diverse group, not just from a gender perspective. We were a good mix of male and female, but we were also very culturally diverse, the group that we are talking about. So we had participants from Australia, as Ignacio said, we had Mark Green, he's the man from where the idea originated. And then we had Deanna, we had Ignacio himself. We had Isabel, they're all based in Australia, giving us the perspective from that region. Then it had myself, we're based here in India. And we come from a completely different culture. And then we had participants from the European land as well. We had Jazmin who was based out of Spain, giving us the European flavor. And plus, we had participants from other part of APAC region and Africa as well. So that whenever we got together as a crew, it was a lot of diverse perspectives coming through.

What this enabled us also was it increased our reach, the organizations, the participants that we spoke to, they were very, very spread out. So, we spoke to organizations across 20 plus countries. And the reason we were able to get so far was we had people across different parts of the world, so they can try and access organizations in their region and try and get the buy-in for this research. So that also allowed us to have a rich perspective from these organizations that are spread across the world.

And not just spread across the world, they were also diverse in their functioning. So we were looking at IT industry. We were looking at some of these national level banks. Obviously then we were looking at some of the consulting organizations. So, these are pretty much the kind of organizations we were also looking at. So, all in all, the diversity for then our research group enabled us to get a more diverse view in terms of the participants who got involved on this research. And to put this thing in perspective, we had 425 participants. And these 425 participants cut across more than 26 countries that we are looking at.

Shane Hastie: Thank you so much. One final piece of advice from each of you. What would you say to the technologist in the team?

Start by acknowledging that there is a problem [21:39]

Ignacio Inchausti: First, there needs to be an acknowledgment that there is a problem because without that, then you're not seeing the differentiation, everything is the same. You've got to be able to acknowledge that there's a problem. Now, how that gets introduced is a different story. But if you don't take that first step and say, like, if I'm drinking too much and nobody tells me, "Hey, you're drunk, you're falling over." If I don't admit it, I'll keep drinking. But if somebody says, "Hey, you're drinking too much." I say, "Gosh, he's right. I got to stop." So, it's acknowledging that there is an opportunity for change and improvement. I think that's the first step.

Ashay Saxena: Well, after that, the second thing that I'll talk about is it's very contextual. There's no one size fits all prescription that we have over here. So all the technologists who are listening to this podcast, they need to look within their organization, within their teams and try to make an effort to understand the people around them. Again, we acknowledge that all of us come with certain biases, when we deal with people, when we deal with the environment, we come with our biases. And we're not telling people to get rid of their biases. That's not right. What we are asking people is, embrace your biases, understand that you come with certain bias, but then make an effort to understand who are the people that are a part of the team or the people that you're working with.

So it's very contextual. People need to understand their setting and then design how they want to take this forward. The good part about this research is, it is accessible to all and everyone can make a difference now. All you need to do is read this report, understand the elements, understand some of these recommendations, and then go back to your work setting, organizations, understand the setup, then look for intervention. So what needs to be changed.

Shane Hastie: And get involved. And we'll make sure the link in the show notes includes how to access the report from the Business Agility Institute. Ignacio, Ashay, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us today.

Ignacio Inchausti: Thank you, Shane, it was a pleasure. Thank you, Ashay.

Ashay Saxena: Thank you, Shane. It was an absolute pleasure speaking to you and your audience. And thank you, Ignacio, for all your thoughts as well.



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