July 19, 2018 — If you work in the world of software development or for a business-to-business (B2B) organization, you probably already know about the “agile” approach. The basic idea of agile is to develop and deliver products as early and often as possible. Small teams from multiple disciplines convene to work on a project in short bursts or “sprints,” with each sprint offering a working product or functionality by its conclusion. Customer feedback is sought constantly, and priorities are changed—and products improved—in near-real time, based on that feedback. (This is an oversimplification; there are others who can explain it with more depth.)
If you don’t work at an agile organization, you might someday. Agile methodologies are making their way into the unlikeliest of business models. From tractor suppliers to newsrooms, more and more companies are evolving their project-based strategies and even their management styles to be more agile.
But what you may not realize is an evolution to agile is also an opportunity to level the playing field for women and align your company’s strategic goals with inclusion. Here’s how your agile team can help:
1. Clear objectives limit unwritten rules. Your team has to decide and agree to what your objectives are before you can begin the work. This allows for equality, diversity, and inclusion to be baked in from the outset of any project. And each team builds a custom framework for measuring outcomes, so each team member shouldn’t be individually evaluated by subjective means at all. One team, one set of goals, one set of rules.
Potential pitfall: If those who assemble the team don’t make diversity a priority, your team could wind up with very few women. If that happens, those women might not feel secure enough to promote inclusion as an essential priority. Your team managers, as well as stakeholders, should emphasize diverse teams.
2. Focus on team agility trumps sexism. Principle five of the Agile Manifesto states, “Support, trust, and motivate the people involved.” While no one wants to get stuck working on a team with people they don’t like, supporting each other’s work is necessary to get that work done. And luckily, each team is assembled to work quickly on one specific project with a hard and fast deadline. Adaptability is paramount, and priorities can shift quickly. With so much to do, there’s not much time for issues to build up between members. There’s also no room to ostracize a woman on your team, since each of you was appointed to perform a specific and integral function. Protection from sexist practices should be inherent in such a structure.
Potential pitfall: Bullies can exist in any organization and any team. Again, a lack of diversity on the team can make women feel unsure about asserting themselves. It’s your job as a team member to shut biased behavior down quickly, or risk having friction grind your progress to a halt.
3. “Fail Fast” relieves the pressure to be perfect. This is a central tenet of agile development: people will always make mistakes, so better to make them quickly (and learn from them) than try to avoid them (a futile effort). Failure is not only expected but encouraged as part of the process, so everyone can feel safe enough to fully engage in brainstorming and pitching to the team. The space to fail fast can give women the confidence to try, knowing that the stakes won’t be any higher for them than for the men on the team if they fail. Transparency—another core principal—means women can’t be unfairly punished when they fail. Plus, failing fast means less time can be spent over-scrutinizing the work of women on your team. The average “sprint” is usually a month long at most.
Potential pitfall: Your project can’t be expected to be perfect after only one sprint, and your team can’t be perfect your first sprint either. It’s important to communicate often and focus on solutions. Always refer back to the objectives your team agreed on at the start. Does singling out the only woman on the team align with your goals? Will it help deliver a viable product?
4. Multiple disciplines set the stage for inclusion. An agile team is made up of members from multiple disciplines. Each member of your team should be invited because of their abilities and expertise. This variety strengthens your team’s collective intelligence. A marketing expert will have a different point of view than an engineer, for example. Different points of view help you see problems in new ways, which can help you deliver new solutions. Since diversity of thought is so integral to success, it’s easy to make the case for building your team with members from diverse groups and backgrounds as well. A married mom is going to approach a problem from a different perspective than her single male coworker, for example.
Potential pitfall: Since many STEM professions and other fields are still mostly populated with men, you may not have any women in certain functions to invite to join your team. It’s your team manager’s job to ask department leaders to think outside the box when creating a list of candidates.
5. Customer engagement highlights women’s efforts. The third value of the Agile Manifesto entreats practitioners to engage the customer early and often throughout development. This is an opportunity for your customer to see the work that women on your team are doing and the contributions they make firsthand. Increased visibility is not only a building block to creating workplaces that work for women, but it’s also critical for each employee’s career development.
Potential pitfall: Your customer often comes from outside your organization, and could possibly be unconsciously or overtly biased against women. Giving your customer a chance to interact with women on your team could be a great way to change their mind about women’s abilities and worth, but it could also create a stressful environment for those women. Your support as a fellow team member is a way to mitigate this. But if the customer is sexist, do you really want to do business with them?
These are just a few ways that agile thinking can be leveraged to create more innovative and inclusive teams. Regardless of your organization’s methodologies, your company can benefit from evaluating why you do things the way you do. Ask yourself: is there a better way? A way that can create an environment in which women can thrive? Remember: workplaces that work for women, work for everyone.