Agile Leadership

Agilists Discuss Allyship

by Brent Barton, Mike Knight, Brandon Raines, Steven Rodriguez

Though none of us are new to the ideas of diversity, equity, and inclusion, the business world is collectively rising up to meet these needs in new ways right now. In lieu of having these discussions behind closed doors, we at Scrum Alliance invited our community of coaches, trainers, and staff to answer some of the most pressing questions leaders must ask themselves as they strive to understand and embrace those who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color in the world of work today. We hope these questions and answers help fuel your own self-inquiry and that they help enable the creation of a diverse and inclusive workplace.

Q: How can organizations get feedback about the type of support Black, Indigenous, and people of color want and need in a way that isn't marginalizing or tokenizing?

A: [Brent Barton, CEO] Agile supports direct conversation. Scrum values include openness, respect and courage. For me, acting color blind feels disingenuous. I prefer to name a person’s ethnicity. I can also follow up and ask them how they would like me to refer to it, like I often verify that I am pronouncing a person’s name correctly. For example, Chris co-founded a company with me. He is half Native American. I asked him how he wanted me to refer to his ethnicity. Turns out he didn’t care, even though he was proud of the heritage and that his tribe extended into Canada, so he has First Nation status. 

A: [Michael Knight, Product Owner] Just ask. That’s the easy part. The more difficult part will be hearing that feedback, and most importantly, visibility to the plan/progress to address the issues that are identified through that feedback. Transparency will be a key component to this. 

A: [Brandon Raines, Coach] This is tricky. I think it’s about the approach. Acknowledge that the organization has not attended to these subjects in the past, if that is true. Express that the organization would like to listen and that there is a real willingness to act. Also, recognize that there is a wide swath of answers. There isn’t one answer. There is no monolithic Black answer. However, at some point, gather the courage to simply ask, engage the conversation, especially if there is a sincere desire to correct what is wrong in the organization and the broader society.

A: [Steven Rodriguez, ScrumMaster] This subject is difficult to talk about, but it’s important the conversation happens and there’s a commitment to keeping it open and honest. The method for that feedback can be important, but sometimes if you think about it too much you end up running into the problem you were trying to avoid from the start. In my opinion, the most important thing is having the courage to discuss any topic. Especially if you can acknowledge your shortcomings during the conversation. 

It takes courage to discuss these things, admitting you don’t know everything about it, and people will generally respect you for having an open dialogue. This isn’t an excuse to be unprepared either. Preparation is important, but no one is all knowing. We need to all be understanding of that.

Q: How can leaders create a safe space for discussions about race, inequality, diversity, equity, and inclusion? 

A: [Barton] The same way we create safety for everyone. Declare company values and ask people to live those values. Reinforce at every opportunity. Invite people to learn about each other. Appreciative inquiry and the opportunity to learn about people with different backgrounds and perspectives strengthen us. We should not squander the opportunity. I had a developer choose to come out as transgender while on a Scrum Team. The individual showed courage by going to the People team (HR in some organizations), then the Scrum Team and then the rest of us. Our job was to respond with support. A company declares safety and asks us to align with that and adopt the values associated with it. We have a responsibility to live the values. That learning about the transgender experience was a first for me. I had to ask how to support the person and find ways to be helpful, asking for feedback from time to time. 

A: [Knight] It should be the same as for everyone else at your organization. I would say it’s more about removing the obstacles and making everyone in your organization feel welcome and equal.

A: [Raines] Acknowledge and be forthright that there is a real willingness to listen. Those who engage in this conversation will likely get things wrong, but are willing to be corrected. Say this. Also, be open to having done their own research before and after conversations on race. Acknowledge their own fallibility in the past on these matters and how they are doing their own improvements. Starting off asking the populace, “how can we make this space more safe for these conversations?” are great places to start. 

A: [Rodriguez] I think there are a few parts to this: learning, feeling heard, and trust. If people find value in the conversation, if they learn something from it, they’re more willing to keep the conversation going. Similarly, it’s important people feel heard. No one wants to feel like they’re wasting their time. When people feel heard, they are more willing to open up, which is really important when having difficult conversations. 

As for trust, just because a safe space is being created doesn’t mean it immediately starts with that trust built-in. It’s one of those things that just takes time to develop. When having an open and honest conversation, the culture and values of the group are important to building that trust. 
Judgement is anger disguised. It’s important to keep an open mind when trying to create a safe space for conversation.

Q: How do businesses create spaces where Black, Indigenous, and people of color not only see themselves, but where they actively want to be?

A: [Barton] Many ways. One way is to create additional mentorship programs that identify and support people with an emphasis on cultural diversity. In my opinion, there are fundamental reasons why this is imperative. For example, technology is pervasive and has globalized the world like nothing else. Software development implements a “moral philosophy” in that evil programming in a robot is a premise that is a foundation of apocalyptic movies and books. We cannot have myopic views of right and wrong that create exclusivity. The result will degrade society. We need people from all perspectives actively participating in framing our mental models (and breaking old models). This imperative alone is enough for us to create attractors and seek people from all walks of life. 

A: [Knight] They need to see themselves at the organization or at least variations of the standard white male. This is even more powerful when there is representation at the leadership level.

A: [Raines] I’d love to see more investment in grade school education programs to cultivate kids earlier in life. I’d also like to see more outreach for college interns and building a pipeline from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) and seeking POC in traditionally majority academic institutions. Mentorship is also a powerful tool in organizations. 

Having the organization state why diversity matters, not only morally but to the bottom line, sends a powerful message. Following that message with actions is even more powerful. 

A: [Rodriguez] There’s a number of ways this can happen. The most obvious one would be seeing more people like yourself within an organization. I think where it gets harder is in cultural differences. It could be an organization that will observe holidays not celebrated in the states or is not a Christian holiday. For example, I know of organizations that close for Jewish holidays or  3 Kings Day (a holiday commonly celebrated in Puerto Rico, but not the US). Flexibility in benefits provided to employees goes a long way here. That’s not just holidays, there are a number of other things such as physical appearance, expressions, and practices to be considerate of and reserve judgment.

I focused a lot on differences, but the most important thing to keep in mind is we all have much more in common than we think. We all just want to be respected, to have a purpose, and to be loved (yeah I said it).

Q: How have Black, Indigenous, and people of color asked to be supported by the business world right now? (DEI, tech support, etc.)

A: [Barton] Respect. It is OK to be different. Safe.

A: [Raines] Access is key. To quote the play Hamilton, put people in “the room where it happens.” Intentionally mentor POC who are ready and/or who have potential to be ready to take on influential positions within an organization.

A: [Rodriguez] I won’t speak for everyone, but from my point of view I believe people are asking for others to really listen and take real action. Make an impact where you can around your business domain. Even smaller actions can feel big sometimes. Social media posts make people feel warm and fuzzy, but until there’s real action, that feeling is short-lived and eventually feels disingenuous.

Q: What proven, long-term strategies should companies consider to ensure people of color are represented and safe?

A: [Barton] Culture matters. Our values need to be reinforced at every opportunity. 

A: [Knight] Add it to the company's mission statement (not just as a tagline at the end or in an HR handbook) and create tangible goals that ensure the company is measuring the progress of those goals.

A: [Raines] Internships, HBCU pipelines, real mentorships and opportunities for positions of influence. Also having access to an internal team, consultants who focus on diversity and inclusion sends a powerful message that diversity counts. Continue doing the internal reflection asking, “are we diverse enough?” sends the organization on the path to discovering a new culture to consider as it pertains to diversity and its importance. 

A: [Rodriguez] I’ll be honest, I’m not sure there is a proven method. If there was, this wouldn’t be a problem and this discussion wouldn’t need to happen. A business with a respectful and open-minded culture is a great starting place. Being mindful of the different needs of people within different cultures is also hugely beneficial because it allows for the opportunity to address the needs of those groups. It’s also important to keep in mind, from a diversity perspective. Where does your business stand at the moment, and how can you make improvements?

Q: If your company currently lacks diversity and isn’t hiring, how should/could that be addressed, and what other avenues should they pursue in support of the current revolution?

A: [Barton] Every time a new hire is to be contemplated, I find myself speaking about how much diversity matters to me. This isn’t enough, however. Software developers, in particular, have less diversity. Outreach programs, internships, and educational partnerships may help level the playing field. Sadly, I see this in larger organizations almost exclusively.

A: [Knight] Reaching out and partnering with other organizations to offer support in other ways. Such as volunteering at an organization or doing talks that expose minorities to the opportunities that may arise at the company in the future. Also, a mentoring program would be extremely beneficial where employees will be encouraged to connect with someone in their profession.

A: [Raines] Begin by asking why aren’t we diverse? Continue the journey by asking why diversity is a benefit to our organization. This question can be followed by what is diversity to us? I would hope these answers lead to practices about recruiting and hiring, such as, be intentional about wanting to hire for more diversity by changing where you are looking to hire. Recruit where there is diversity. 

A: [Rodriguez] There’s always an opportunity to do something. If you can’t hire, are there organizations focused on helping underserved communities you could donate time or money towards? Are there volunteer or internship opportunities within your organization that you could provide? Generally, I’m not a fan of unpaid internships, but if money is an issue then maybe that’s the best you can do at the moment.

Helping someone get experience in a particular area is better than doing nothing.

Q: Many business leaders hesitate to take action during times like these, often fearful of doing or saying the wrong thing. Some fear damage to their brand for being “political.” What are the risks of inaction?

A: [Barton] The demonstrations in cities internationally continue because systems need to change. Business leaders have to balance their fiduciary duties with their other responsibilities. Leaders cannot tell a person to behave outside the workplace in a certain way but they can say that while at work, these behaviors and norms are expected. 

A: [Knight] I don’t see how removing barriers and leveling the playing field is “political.” Doing the right thing should always take precedence and be woven in the very fabric of an organization's brand. If your brand can’t figure out how it is for everyone then you might want to rethink your brand, since you would be excluding a substantial group from your customer base. Nike partnering with Colin Kaepernick is an excellent example of how this can work and increase their bottom line. Diversity is good for business.

A: [Raines] Inaction because of fear will likely be interpreted as being complicit with those forces against change. The organization should take a stand. Inaction or silence is a stand. Acknowledge that the response won’t be perfect. There will be mistakes, though listening and correction is encouraged.

A: [Rodriguez] In the United States, in particular, it’s pretty difficult to keep anything from being political. Science has become a political issue, unfortunately. Businesses can’t lean on the excuse of being perceived as political because even inaction can be deemed political nowadays. Worst off, your inaction gives you no say in how that political stance is perceived. You opted not to have a voice.

I firmly believe we’re hitting a tipping point where action or inaction will affect how long you will stay in business. I’m part of the millennial generation, and people within my generation and younger are paying much more attention to the practices of any business they’re investing their time and money into. That’s not to say older generations aren’t paying attention, they can be just as woke as anyone else.

We live in a time where the social capital of a business is just as important as the value they provide to their customers. This is why the idea of Certified B Corp businesses are gaining more and more steam. It’s a badge of honor for people who find social and environmental issues to be a big deal. Improving diversity isn’t just a way of improving a business’ ability to deliver value to its customer base. In a global economy, it’s key to survival.

Q: What agile practices and principles translate well to organizing and empowering social activist movements? (supplemental read: Adapting in a Time of Rapid Change.)

A: [Barton] Cross functional, self-organizing teams. Vision and values-driven. Autonomy. Transparency, Inspect and Adapt. Empirical Process. 

A: [Knight] Transparency, self-organizing teams, courage, and my personal favorite “people over processes.”

A: [Raines] Transparency, inspect, adapt. Responding to change over following a plan. Commitment, courage, focus, openness, and respect. Retrospectives.

A: [Rodriguez] All of it. From a practice perspective: cross-functionality, incremental improvements/delivery, measuring progress, etc. From a principled perspective: focus, commitment, courage, openness, respect. I could go on, but it’s all important. Brand it however you want, these are things all organizations need to be able to do to be successful.

Q: In what ways can individual members of the agile community support those who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color right now and in the future?

A: [Barton] Seek to understand and respect differences. “...not because of the color of our skin but because of the content of our character.” I am not always courageous enough but on reflection, it seems to me that every time I broached the subject of racial differences directly with people, it worked out OK.

A: [Knight] Reach out and talk to them. Each person’s needs are different and having a personal relationship with someone will go much farther than general support such as donations (which are good also).

A: [Raines] Be willing to look inward as well as sincerely reaching out in efforts to understand how racial inequality affects POC, to those whom you already have a working relationship. Reach outside of our normal social and professional circles to recruit, mentor, and promote underserved and under-represented voices and faces. 

A: [Rodriguez] There’s a number of ways this can happen. A few ways that are sticking out for me at the moment are providing job training, helping people discover themselves, or helping entrepreneurs get their business started. Agile principles and practices are fairly universal. They can be used in any number of ways to help people and organizations be successful.

Q: What questions should leaders be asking themselves and their teams right now?

A: [Barton] Ask ourselves: “Is it enough to accept that I respect differences I do not understand? Am I assuming my mental model of what is right or normal is the standard I judge others with? What blind spots do I have that cause me to make bad decisions? Do I have the courage and moral imperative to do something about it?”

A: [Knight] Are we a reflection of the world? We should be as diverse as the world we live in. 

A: [Raines] How do I view race? Have I done work in the area of implicit bias? Does our organization reflect society? What practices within our organization have prevented our organization from looking more like the broader society? How can we benefit more by having a more diverse workforce at all levels?

A: [Rodriguez] The most important thing to do first is self assess. What are your personal values? Where do you feel you can be most helpful? Where does your team or business stand in the grand scheme? What improvements do you need to make personally and professionally? Understanding the current state of yourself and your business is important in order to know where you need to go.

Q: What questions should HR professionals be asking themselves and the businesses they serve right now?

A: [Barton] Does our workforce demographic demonstrate bias? Are we diverse enough? Do we have programs that emphasize diversity? Are we a trusted group where people can safely engage? Do we have outreach programs to develop opportunities beyond our walls?

A: [Knight] How can we look at diversity as a skill set? Much in the same way we look for soft skills or in some cases hard ones. This would help with the mind set that it’s needed in your organization. No one bats an eye or thinks of a soft skill such as “excellent communication and mentoring skill” as a political problem or “lowering the bar” (which is racist by the way). They bring added value to the organization and are looked at as a favorable trait.

A: [Raines] Do our HR practices encourage diversity? Do our HR practices actively monitor that there is equality of pay, promotions amongst the workforce? How do we view race? Have we done work in the area of implicit bias? Does our organization reflect society? What practices within our organization have prevented our organization from looking more like the broader society? How can we benefit more by having a more diverse workforce at all levels?

A: [Rodriguez] This is another area where self-assessment is important. How diverse is your business internally and externally? What are the ultimate goals of your company? What can you do to help that? What are the risks and rewards of any particular method for increasing diversity? That last one is a pretty important one too. Increasing diversity for diversities’ sake won’t help anyone. It’s important to understand why you’re seeking more diversity in order to do it reasonably and effectively.

Editor’s note: These are the experiences and feedback of just four people in the agile community — though we invited our broader community to contribute, many have been engaged in other important conversations

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Scrum Alliance or its affiliates. We believe Ally is a verb. We will continue to iterate, to listen to our community members, and to use our voice and our platform to work toward a more loving and just world. We welcome your feedback or ideas and encourage you to email to continue the discussion.

Mike Knight is passionate about creating a successful and wholesome Coaches team at Scrum Alliance. A skilled and tactical Product Manager, he leads cross functional teams from product conception to product adoption. A technical professional who thrives in a collaborative, fast-paced environment within a culture that values hard work, analytical thinking, business acumen and creative problem solving. 

Brandon Raines is an Organization Design and Certified Enterprise Coach by the Scrum Alliance, who has worked with public and private entities, both large and small. He has helped organizations emerge from near failure to thriving models of success. Brandon is a noted author, speaker and presenter on topics of leadership, organization design and team work. His main passion is partnering with organizations driven to build a great culture.

Brent Barton is one of the earliest Certified Scrum Trainers and has been implementing Scrum in organizations since 2005. He served as a hiring manager at Intel and SolutionsIQ, and as CEO at Agile Advantage. He also functioned as site manager at Rally software where he worked with the People team on diversity and specific personal needs. As a consultant and trainer, he helps small, medium and Fortune 100 organizations overcome intractable problems and successfully deliver mission-critical solutions. He has used Agile practices since the late 1990s as a Chief Technology Officer, development manager, project manager, software developer, ScrumMaster, Product Owner, coach, consultant, and trainer.

Currently a ScrumMaster at Scrum Alliance, Steven Rodriguez uses his technical background to provide invaluable insight on upcoming projects with the goal of guiding teams toward effective problem solving and maximized value delivery for their communities. Before transitioning to a ScrumMaster role, he spent some time as a technical program manager and a full stack developer when he first began working with the company in 2014. He has also been an integral component of their full-scale agile transformation, spanning the last several years. The things that make him tick professionally are exploring what makes people and organizations successful, data science and analytics, and the effect of innovative technologies on business and economies.