Get more out of Agile. 5 Tips for cognitive diversity

Agile methodology is based on collaboration and communication. To be successful, the practice needs a skilled team of fast and flexible workers that think more broadly than a technical spec.   

With the Agile Manifesto promoting collaboration over contracts and interactions over tools it’s very easy to start to believing that your Agile maturity is an indicator of how well you are also achieving cognitive diversity.  

We want our teams to be self organising and adaptive but without considering diversity are we letting the right culture be a driving force?    Companies adopt Agile because they are hoping that it will help them become more efficient and cost effective.   There are also multiple reports that show gender and cultural diversity improves ROI – so it should make sense to combine the synergies.

1. ‘Agile’ does not mean ‘Diverse’

As part of the Agile process, engineers, designers, project managers and product owners work together to devise, develop and launch or implement a product. Each team member brings their own perspective, presenting ideas and arguments about user experience, function, monetisation and execution.

Including contributors across your organisation leads to meaningful conversations; however, it does not mean you have diversity.

True diversity in an Agile workplace does not relate to job titles or roles. It also requires more than employing team members across genders and ethnicities. Diversity takes into account things like family status, age, sexual orientation, religion, physical ability and even skill levels. It makes sense that a product should reflect the community you are aiming to engage or that combining different views creates innovative ideas.


2. Fostering diversity within an Agile team is about more than cherry picking from minority groups.

Unfortunately, throwing people from a wide range of backgrounds into a room and calling it diversity is merely lip-service.

This can do more harm than good, particularly if there are misunderstandings, language barriers and communication breakdowns. Clashes of expectations may slow the team down and there is a risk of people not feeling supported or heard.   It can be a challenge for team members to understand each other’s differences and to grasp that people with different skill sets have different ways of working.

The above can result in a group which does not have enough common ground or learned respect to do great things. This outcome is why organisations often get excited about diversity and Agile but end up putting it in the too-hard basket.


3. Create a truly diverse Agile team

As well as hiring people to fit each job title, you must look at their so-called ‘soft skills’. This includes their communication, problem solving, implementation and leadership abilities and be aware that sometimes soft skills should rate higher than straight technical ability.  You should also be careful when “cultural fit” rates too high in your selection process as its often a red flag for unconscious bias.  Build an Agile team with a cross-section of technical and soft skills and you will likely end up with a group who are also diverse across family status, gender, ethnicity and religion. This will give your team the power to better understand your customers and approach product development from all the necessary angles


4. Unlocking diversity in your Agile teams

The right Agile team will be a force to be reckoned with when it comes to sprints and product launches. Diversity plays a huge part in this by bringing different user-journey perspectives as well as different strengths and abilities.

And just like an Agile transformation, it is not enough to create a diverse team and leave it to its own devices. For it to succeed, there needs to be proper support, starting from the top down.

For example:

The Executive Team has a clear understanding of what diversity involves and has a long-term commitment to supporting, promoting and implementing it.

HR develops policies on diversity which cover hiring, training and encouraging people of all backgrounds to build their careers within the business. This should also include looking at the diversity in contract and consultant hires.  They have an open door when it comes to people feeling discriminated against and actively encourage a constant dialogue.

People Leaders – look for life experiences, soft skills and technical ability when hiring.  They use tools such as Textio to check job add language.  They use consultancy firms that go beyond lip service when it comes to finding diverse contractors / consultants. They build in frameworks to support remote working or split shifts.

Scrum Masters / Coaches are clear on the company’s policies. They see it as part of their role to ensure team members feel included and are able to communicate with each other. They can identify when someone is feeling out of the loop and take the steps to help them. They should also have a conversation when they feel the team is not diverse and needs new views.    Talk to other coaches about practices that assist diverse teams to find their voice.  

Team Members are educated about diversity and motivated to create a supportive environment. They feel confident expressing their ideas and are able to provide honest feedback / input.


5.  Build Diversity In

Organisations continue to focus their diversity statistics on permanent staff.  A huge opportunity is missed when the same lens isn’t applied to our consultants and contract hires.  Parachuting in new ideas with contractors is a great way build diversity in quickly to your team and you may also be able to attract talent that would normally not be available to you full time.

Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an entire company to truly unlock diversity. And the benefits are wide reaching, leading to happier staff, higher productivity and a more profitable bottom line.  


Nicki Doble