Resource Library Home
Article | Agile Teams

Agile Meets Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: How the Three Pillars of Scrum Can Help Us Be and Do Better

by Pamela Meyer, PhD

In the wake of the horrifying murder of George Floyd and subsequent aftermath, leaders in organizations around the globe are taking a deep, unvarnished look at how their businesses operate in respect to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Among questions they are asking are:

 

Does my organization replicate systems and practices that exclude or marginalize people of color? What about equitable access to leadership roles? How inclusive is engagement across all levels of the organization?

 

It was heartening to see many companies and brands recognize this as a time of action, rather than merely voicing support through well-produced marketing campaigns. Many brands began making long-overdue changes to their names, packaging, and logos, and NASCAR banned the confederate flag at all its events and properties. At the same time, Apple, Peleton, other tech giants and industry leaders have pledged significant funds toward a range of DEI initiatives and organizations.

 

Beyond these actions, organizations are embarking on a journey of self-introspection, trying to find out what more can and should be done to drive systemic change toward a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive society and workplace.

 

Making It Personal

 

The past two decades I have primarily focused on helping organizations that need and want to be more agile and innovative. Most recently, those enterprises are in the midst of full-scale agile transformations (scaling an agile mindset and Agile project management processes across their organization). In doing so, I counsel leaders at all levels to focus on the actions within their span of control and influence.

 

In my own journey of self-reflection I realized I needed to take my own advice.

 

George Floyd’s brutal killing, and the dizzying #saytheirnames list of other people of color who have been killed showed us that it's not enough to not be a racist. We need to be intentionally antiracist, but how?

 


Many of us can look to our own lived experience as a starting point. As a white, cis-gendered, LGBT+ female I came of age and came out during the AIDS crisis, which to date has killed more than 700,000 in the US, and like COVID has disproportionately afflicted racial and ethnic minorities and 33 million worldwide. During the early years of the AIDS pandemic, when a government response and research funding was non-existent, I marched, protested on the steps of the Supreme Court, and participated in other demonstrations, and community actions. As a theater artist, I co-created a number of pieces to raise awareness and provoke action. While many of my straight friends and colleagues expressed sympathy, they did not step up and join the fight against AIDS or for equal rights. They did not see it as “their fight.”  

 

Today I find myself many years later working in the world of business and with Agile teams realizing the same could be said of me and many others in the fight against racism. My years of activism do not give me a pass on learning and doing more. As a white person, I am still learning all the ways that I have benefited from and even been complicit in co-creating the inequitable systems, cultures, and practices.

 

Transforming Awareness into Action

 

It is not enough to be aware of the way racism is woven into the fabric of our culture and many of the systems and policies that have led to racial disparities. 

 

This awareness and openness has led to a new awakening and meaningful conversations in our communities and organizations. However this empathy, education and understanding are only a start. There is so much more we all can do to affect change. When we make it personal, we can reclaim our responsibility for our roles, and begin to affect change within our sphere of influence. In the world of Agile, this means starting within our own teams.

 

The good news is we don't have to start from scratch. The Agile frameworks, and their underlying pillars and values that many of us have embraced in our work, can offer us some valuable guidance. 

 

Agile 101

If you are new to Agile (with a capital A) in general or Scrum in specific, the approaches "center around rapid prototyping cycles (often called sprints) with each iteration focusing on delivering the highest value aspects of the project for inspection and adaptation. In close collaboration with the end-user or other key stakeholders, agile teams quickly receive feedback they use to inform planning and priorities for the next cycle” (Meyer, 2019).

Scrum is by far the most popular and widely used of these frameworks, with up to 75% of organizations currently using it either in specifically dedicated teams or more widely across the organization (VersionOne, 2020).

 

As articulated by Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber, founders of Scrum and taught by the Scrum Alliance, the Three Pillars of Scrum (Transparency, Inspection, and Adaptation) and the Scrum Team Values (Commitment, Courage, Focus, Openness, and Respect) offer guidance for effective agile teamwork within a rapid feedback loop requires intensive collaboration, communication, and coordination. If you are interested in a fuller history and description of Agile and its many frameworks, check out my three-part Agile 101 series.

 

Underpinning many of the Agile frameworks, the first value of the Agile Manifesto (Beck et al., 2001) that, for many, sparked their Agile transformation, is “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” This value recognizes that organizations are first and foremost human systems, not machines. Any systemic change must begin with and be sustained by engaging and transforming this human system.

 

Revisiting Agile with DEI in Mind

 

While not originally explicit in the Three Pillars of Scrum and the Agile Team Values, when we revisit them with a commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, their value exponentially increases. Racially and ethnically diverse companies have been shown to be “35% more likely to have financial returns above the industry mean and those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have returns above the industry mean” while diverse teams tend to process facts more carefully and be more innovative (cited in Rock and Grant, 2016). DEI, then, is good for Agile teams and Agile teams can become more Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive by intentionally practicing their pillars and values with DEI in mind.

 

"By understanding the foundations of Agile and Scrum, in particular, we can use that knowledge to tackle the complex issues around diversity, equity and inclusion. For years I’ve been teaching that the Agile mindset is transferable and can be applied to any industry and any vertical. The DEI arena is no exception." 

 

—Todd Williams, Director, Agile Transformation Office at The Standard

 

The Three Pillars of Scrum

 

Agile teams enact three pillars to uphold their ability to minimize risk and maximize the value they deliver with each iteration. 

 

 

Transparency means everyone on the team knows what is going on and has access to the information they need. It also means they understand how decisions are being made that affect their work. 

 

Inspection means the team checks their work and tests their assumptions along the way.

 

Adaptation means the team is able and willing to change direction in response to new information and discoveries.

 

These three pillars can also guide us in our work to create more diverse, equitable, and inclusive teams and organizations. To inspect and adapt our current systems of power and authority, we need transparency in how hiring, promotion and compensation decisions are made, and how resources (human, technological, fiscal, informational) are allocated. In other words, we need to know what is and isn't working and for whom so we can actively and intentionally change the attitudes, behaviors, systems, policies, and practices that are barriers to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

 

 

Inspecting and adapting simply means learning and changing. Those two words learning and changing seem clear and straightforward, at least when we think about how they apply to other people. Most of us can easily see how others should change their attitudes and behaviors; we have a much harder time when it comes to identifying (inspecting) and changing (adapting) our own mindset and behaviors.

 

Jyl Feliciano, Diversity & Inclusion Director, Advocate Aurora Health, based in Chicago has spent her career helping companies examine and shift their mindset and behaviors. “It is certainly a challenge for anyone to change their own behavior,” she said. “We are creatures of habit and we're all impacted by unconscious bias regardless if we admit it or not. I advise people to challenge themselves to move away from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. It's important to take time to educate people on why unconscious bias exists and that is something that is normal! Once that’s established, we can move into taking real action.”


The three pillars of Scrum are also intended to ensure agile teams rely on empirical evidence-based facts, data, and direct experience. In contrast, teams using a traditional waterfall approach rely on a predictive model. This assumes the input they receive when starting the collaboration and their plans to execute will be just as relevant when the product or service launches, even though that could be months, or sometimes years later. Software designers, as well as product and service developers across industries, long ago discovered the limitations of the linear predictive approach. Not only are new discoveries made throughout the development process, but the client or end-users' needs, as well as market conditions also change at a pace impossible to predict. Add to this unpredictable geopolitical volatility and a global pandemic. It is clear that no matter your business or industry, agile ways of working that are grounded in transparency, inspection, and adaptation have moved from a widespread innovation trend to an organizational imperative.

 

Organizations that were already in the midst of an agile transformation have found the capabilities they developed to enhance their ability to adapt and innovate also enabled them to quickly make the necessary changes to move to working remotely while serving their customers during the pandemic (De Smet et al., 2020). 

 

These same capabilities are critical if we are to make genuine progress in achieving racial justice and create workplaces where all can thrive and have access to opportunity. We must start with ourselves, and begin to hold ourselves and each other accountable. We must actively listen, gather feedback, adapt, and track the data to determine how we are doing. We must discover how we are recreating systems, policies, and work experiences that are not equitable and inclusive to a diverse population, inspect those systems, policies, and processes and make adaptations to improve them for all. We must learn and change.

 

Join the Conversation!

 

This blog post is a companion to the two-part webinar series I am facilitating for Scrum Alliance in collaboration with Comparative Agility. In Part 1: Agile Meets Diversity, Equity and Inclusion happening on September 24, you will learn from international leaders, including Todd Williams and Jyl Feliciano, quoted in this post, who are actively building the bridge between Agile and DEI. 



Register for Part 1: Agile Meets Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion on September 24 at 1pm ET

 

To inform the discussion during the Agile Meets DEI webinars, we invite you to take the complimentary DEI for Agile Teams assessment. Visit the link and answer the questions as they relate to your experience at your place of work. Your responses are anonymous and confidential. We’ll summarize the results at the start of the webinar and part of our discussion will address specific topics indicated through the survey.

 

In Part 2 of this post, I will be joined by journalist and DEI thought leader, Melanie Coffee. Together, we will plant some seeds to help you begin (or continue) your self-reflection and team conversation and action, using the five values of Scrum as a framework. We will also share some of our latest research on DEI in Agile teams and offer some best practices for fostering DEI in your team. 

 

Register for Part 2: Agile Meets Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion on October 8 at 1pm ET


 




Pamela Meyer is the author of four books on agility, innovation, and learning, including The Agility Shift: Creating Agile and Effective Leaders, Teams and Organizations, and is a Certified ScrumMaster®. Meyer helps leaders, teams, and organizations that are adopting agile frameworks. She also teaches courses in business innovation, organizational change, and adult learning at DePaul University in Chicago.


Melanie Coffee contributed to this article.

 


References

 

Beck, K., Beedle, M., Cockburn, A., Cunningham, W., Fowler, M., Grenning, J., . . . Thomas, D. (2001). The Agile Manifesto.   Retrieved from agilemanifesto.org

 

De Smet, A., Pacthod, D., Relyea, C., & Sternfels, B. (2020). Ready, set, go: Reinventing the organization for speed in the post-COVID-19 era. McKinsey.com (June). 

 

Rock, D. and Grant, H. (2016). Why diverse teams are smarter. Harvard Business Review, Nov