The Agile Tipping Point

Teams that embrace sgile often discover that the framework not only helps offset the problems engendered by traditional waterfall development, it also fosters a workplace environment that supports greater diversity and personal growth. According to Laura Powers, the co-CEO at RADTAC U.S., agile creates an ecosystem that provides practitioners with the opportunity to design a more satisfying career over the long term versus just working on a particularly satisfying one-time project before returning “to do drudge work.”

Powers is a Certified Scrum Professional® (CSP®), Certified ScrumMaster® (CSM®), and a Certified Scrum Product Owner® (CSPO®) with a 25-year career in engineering and management for companies such as Hewlett Packard, Collabnet, eBay, and “What I’m seeing now is that when we help teams evolve towards really being agile, it becomes this super satisfying experience for everybody. It’s not just that the company gets great business value but their people are changed. They are personally transformed by this opportunity.”

Related: Agile Challenges and CEO Advice from Jeff Sutherland

Does Agility Really Yield Better Results?

Yes, yet for all its benefits, implementing agile does not provide an automatic guarantee that everyone on a team — especially women — will experience a positive outcome, including the opportunity to advance their careers.

In some cases, this is because some people don’t believe that there’s a gender-related problem when it comes to accessing opportunities in the workplace. A survey conducted by McKinsey & Company (Women in the Workplace 2015) helps clarify why human resource managers continue to experience resistance when they attempt to implement or broaden gender-based diversity initiatives. The study revealed that although 70 percent of male survey respondents believed that gender diversity was important, only 12 percent believed that women had fewer opportunities. In fact, fully 13 percent of the men believed that gender diversity programs had made it harder for them to advance within their organizations.

In other cases, the problem lies in the fact that even in 2019, some men continue to make inappropriate (and sexist) assumptions when they meet women in a professional setting. Chris Murman, a senior agile consultant for SolutionsIQ, points out that he still needs to defend the amount of time he spends working with a female co-worker.

“I’ve had many situations where other men ask me if the woman I’m presenting with at a conference or hanging out with is my girlfriend,” Murman said. “I think the most counterproductive thing I’ve seen is wondering why a female is taking an interest in work. I would never do that if a man wanted to have a follow-up conversation after a presentation.”

Despite these challenges, Powers believes agile remains an inherently inclusive community filled with people willing to acknowledge the “importance of diversity across the spectrum.” 

“I think that the average agile dude is more cognizant and plugged into the importance of the need to support diversity and is concerned by reports of things that run counter to that,” Powers says. “That said, it is still extremely male-dominated. There are places where it’s a challenge to have your voice heard because the way we’ve done things in the past tends to be a predictor of how we’re going to do things in the future. There are a lot of systems and structures and groups that it’s been difficult for women to find a way in."

How Leaders Can Amplify Women's Voices at Work

For men, one easy way to promote a more inclusive agile environment is to simply hit pause and stop talking. (At least for a short while.) And that’s because when you’re a woman, being able to finish a sentence before being interrupted can feel like a minor miracle.

Numerous studies not only confirm that men routinely interrupt women with significant frequency, but they also dominate conversations, talking over female colleagues, leaving less time for women to contribute to the conversation. This phenomenon is so prevalent that it inspired an app called Woman Interrupted that tracks how often a woman is interrupted every time she speaks.

Bringing awareness to the impact caused by the constant interruption of women’s voices is critical—but it requires embracing a key agile value: courage. Powers recalled a recent example of being talked over in a meeting and how she eventually addressed the problem by bringing the conversation to a halt. The meeting took place at a client site and involved two men whom Powers knows are deeply supportive of women in technology. Nevertheless, she remembers that she “stopped counting at 30 times where one or the other interrupted me or did not give me space to say something.” She finally called for “a time out.”

When she pointed out the number of times she had been interrupted, Powers said her male colleagues were “horrified.” And yet they also admitted to being “completely oblivious” to their “dominant way of talking over each other.” Fortunately, once she pointed out what they were doing — and how it was dampening her ability to contribute to the conversation — “it became a little bit of a game to rework our meetings where we were valuing the space between sentences and giving people a chance to speak up and things like that.”

Despite her heartfelt admiration for her colleagues, Powers admits that “agile men don’t always realize the subtleties of the habits they’ve formed over their careers. How those habits don’t give space for the female voice or diversity in general.”

When Allies Come Under Fire

Murman’s advocacy and professional collaborations with women in the agile community has sometimes led to uncomfortable moments behind the scenes. “You get asked questions about why you’re spending time with a co-worker. Or the off-hand comment about a female’s physical attractiveness and why it’s good she’s on the team.”

When that happens, he feels it’s “vital not to laugh and instead [to] speak up about the value of the colleague that has nothing to do with how she works. That kind of talk only stops when men speak up and say ‘That’s enough.’”

His advice to men is this: “Cherish the perspective and intelligence that people who don’t look like [you] bring to our work. Understand that we don’t naturally make room for others and that’s why we need to work extra hard to do so. Our work is better off for it.”

In spite of his advocacy for women in agile, Murman is also realistic. “As someone who was raised in Texas, appearances are very important and there isn’t a man who wants to give the appearance of impropriety.” He points out that this desire to not give the wrong impression invariably leads some men to ask themselves questions, such as, “Would hiring this woman make my significant other feel I have other motives? If this female co-worker wants to partner on a work effort, will people think we are together?”

For Powers, the most frustrating aspect of this form of gendered misinterpretation is that by and large women “want to earn our right at the table and at the same time that means people being willing to have that space available for us and be willing for us to join them at the table. So it’s a two-way street.”

Challenges of Being Young, Female, and Agile

Natalie Warnert is the principal agile consultant for CA Technologies as well as a CSP and CSM. Although Warnert is becoming increasingly well known within the agile community, she still encounters credibility-related issues that stem from being “a young female in a community that is predominately men who are older than her.”

She recalls how a few months earlier one of her managers asked if he and a couple of the sales guys could sit in on one of her regular classes. She demurred, explaining that although she was fine with their listening in, she was worried about “the perception of three guys sitting in the back of the room watching me teach.” Previous experience had revealed that her students would likely leap to the wrong conclusion. Specifically, that she was “on some sort of improvement plan” or that the men were in fact supervising her.

Her concerns weren’t unfounded. “I’ve gotten comments before when I’ve been working with and pairing with another coworker who is obviously older than me. People assume the other guy is supervising me or that it’s my first time doing this, not because I don’t have the experience, but because I look like I’m in my twenties.”

Creating an Inclusive Environment for Women & Minorities

Some men don’t always make room for women and minorities in the workplace, which Murman believes can be attributed to “unconscious biases” that have the unfortunate side effect of making “meetings, team interactions, and environments [feel] unsafe.”

“It took me a long time to understand the privilege I have as a white male,” Murman admits. That realization was followed by the assumption that the more he could understand his biases, and actively combat them, the more room he could then make for others. “This speaks to the agile principle of giving the right environment and support for motivated individuals. Making room for everyone on teams speaks to the core of who we are in the community.”

Below are three ideas that can help organizations and individual agile practitioners create a more diverse, supportive environment that encourages greater participation by women and minorities.

  1. Open a Dialogue with Your Team & Community
  2. Implement a Training Program for "Soft" Skills
  3. Elevate the Would-Be ScrumMasters in Your Organization

Related: CEOs Ignore HR at Their Peril

Open a Dialogue with Your Team & Community

Then listen to their ideas about what would be helpful.

Product developers know that the most valuable and effective solutions are those that solve actual pains being felt by the market. Which is why soliciting input from key stakeholders is so critical—they can point you in the right direction so that you don’t waste time and money. That’s Business 101.

That same approach can help organizations to design supportive teams and workplaces. “I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for men to seek that understanding before we try to help,” Murman says. “Second, don’t be afraid to ask female colleagues for their opinion. Are there things I’ve said and done that may have potentially been harmful? Are there situations I can be part of the solution?”

Powers concurs. Her advice to male advocates is relatively simple: “Slow down, ask questions and listen. Come into spaces looking to be more inclusive.”

Event organizers can make it a point to regularly solicit their membership for topic suggestions; a development that Powers feels is long overdue. “I think we do far too much in the world of agile where the scrum gathering next year is going to look a lot like the scrum gathering from last year. Let’s ask if there’s something that might serve the community in a different way and see what people say.”

Implement a Training Program for "Soft" Skills

Although the basic framework for agile can be taught in just a few days, Powers points out that successfully transforming your organization to agile ultimately comes down to how well you account for “the people aspect.”

She recounted a story of attending a local technology Meetup where the host was prone to giving incredibly awkward introductions that struck some people as being sexist. Powers, who had listened to the host give identically uncomfortable introductions to guest speakers of both sexes believes his problem was not necessarily sexism, but “social awkwardness.” More specifically, that he was simply unaware of the impact of his behavior on his audience or guest speakers.

“As much as we talk about investing in Scrum training and we talk about investing in engineering practices training, we also need to talk about the softer skills and how do we teach those interpersonal skills to technical folks,” Powers says.

Elevate the Would-Be ScrumMasters in Your Organization

Identifying the right candidates for ScrumMaster training can have a dramatic impact on team interactions.

“Somebody on that team needs to be capable of noticing those changes in body language, those changes in conversation, the places where something landed a little odd,” Powers says. Then that person needs “to have the skills to be able to open that conversation and help people work through it.”

She goes on to explain that ScrumMasters are basically coaches, who serve as a “bridge between people when it’s necessary on a team. A great ScrumMaster is someone who understands coaching and conflict resolution and has the skills from an empathy perspective to be able to spot those problems” that prevent teams from successfully collaborating together.

The process of creating a supportive workplace is a “really delicate balancing act,” but as Powers is quick to point out, “We have to figure this out. I want my leaders to lead from the heart [but we also] have to know where the lines are.”

Strength in Numbers: How Men Can Become Better Allies

Implicitly supporting women in the workplace is not enough. Creating workplace cultures that are healthy and encouraging requires a willingness to lend support in highly visible ways.

Challenge the lack of diversity in conference speakers or panels. The increasing attendance of women and minorities at technology events is not always reflected in the list of speakers. This is true whether the event is a large national conference or a small local meet up. Instead of accepting this as the status quo, get in touch with conference organizers to encourage them to diversify their speakers and help them spread the word about open submission periods for new speakers.

Encourage women to take new risks. Warnert encourages men and women to issue a personal invitation to women to become more involved in the Agile community. The idea is to encourage a habit of taking calculated risks that can help women to become comfortable with taking on new challenges that can lead to greater visibility. For example, Warnert likes to get women to volunteer to take the “hot seat” at a panel or share their expertise in front of an audience.

Leverage platforms to highlight new voices. The popularity of podcasts, blogs, and YouTube channels has made it easier than ever to connect with agile practitioners who live and work around the world. And yet, these platforms can start to resemble an echo chamber, where the same people or the same ideas are rehashed over and over again. Engaging in an active practice of interviewing new people with dissimilar backgrounds or worldviews can draw attention to fresh approaches and encourage the kind of free-flowing exchange of ideas that can lead to breakthroughs.

As Warnert points out, “If you’re in a position where you have influence over the community, for example, if you have a popular podcast or you’re doing some sort of publication, then expand your horizons. Don’t go to the people that everyone always goes to, that everyone recognizes. Try to be cognizant of how do you can expand the community. Ask yourself: How can I talk with people that aren’t talked to all the time and get those new ideas out there? That’s the only way we’re going to be able to continue to grow the community.”

Insist that industry events promote a Code of Conduct. Although Codes of Conduct are becoming increasingly widespread, the practice is still not universally embraced. While some conference organizers believe that a Code of Conduct is not necessary, for some speakers and conference attendees the lack of clear guidelines is a deal-breaker. In fact, some speakers require that organizations establish and promote a Code of Conduct before they will agree to join an upcoming event.

Participate in Women in Agile events. Women in Agile is a crowdsourced initiative designed to encourage women to share their experiences and strengthen their involvement within the agile community. The gatherings promote inclusion and diversity, and provide a unique opportunity to support and learn from women’s diverse perspectives. Far from being an extended male-bashing session, Warnert explains that the events are inclusive. “We love to have everybody there to help solve some of these problems and get the collective group together.” Like Powers, Warnert advises men to show up and listen. “Ask questions. Try to truly understand versus trying to put your opinion on people. I would say that to either gender.”

Murman agrees. “It took me a long time to understand the privilege I have as a white male. I can’t emphasize enough how important that is for men to seek that understanding before we try to help. Second, don’t be afraid to ask female colleagues for their opinion.” He asks himself questions, such as: “Are there things I’ve said and done that may have potentially been harmful? Are there situations I can be part of the solution?”

Identify opportunities to partner with a new colleague. Experienced presenters can offer to partner with colleagues to write an abstract during open calls for submissions. Alternately, they can jointly work on developing a presentation. “Allyship is really important,” Warnert says. “Try to pair with someone on a presentation or on writing an article. While it benefits the entire community by getting that content out there, it also benefits the people who are doing it.”

She went on to explain how the benefits of mentorship flow in both directions, providing insights that are useful to both newcomers and experienced Agilists. “I find that a lot of the newer people in the community have a lot of interesting new ideas. I love to see new speakers and see their fresh take on things.”

Despite all the challenges of being a woman in agile, Powers remains optimistic about the value agile brings to companies as well as individuals. “Agile is the secret sauce that helps high performing teams to emerge. It becomes a super satisfying experience for everyone.”

Related Case Studies
Forbes Embraces Agile

Spotify Scrum@Scale

PayLease Reaps Agile Benefits


Stay Connected

Get the latest resources from Scrum Alliance delivered straight to your inbox