3 ways to boost agility through diversity

5 mins read

Key takeaways:

  • diversity boosts the agile power of teams in complex or uncertain situations,
  • diversity brings more views and perspectives into decisions,
  • diversity gives access to weak signals,
  • diversity helps preventing bad decisions due to human biases,
  • look for possibilities to increase diversity.

Can your organization enjoy a higher degree of agility powered by diversity?

Before I start, I must admit, that I am not fond of agility or diversity just for the sake of it. If you see agility as means of exploring what is working and what isn't, it is only a good fit for certain situations. Agility must fit to the task at hand and the complexity and uncertainty of the situation. This principle holds for diversity too. Diversity means leveraging differences within a group of people.

To give you an example for ill applied agility: You would presumably be alarmed if a heart surgeon would try agility on you. What if, he tells you that instead of following a standard procedure he would see what is working and what not. Or a hair cutter or dry cleaner... Their tasks at hand or situations are

  • repetitive by nature,
  • precisely targeted to a achievable outcome, and are
  • clear without ambiguity.

These situations are best served by traditional waterfall projects. They are likely to be optimized.

Agility and diversity work best in complex and uncertain situations

On the other side, many industries now see massive shifts in the marketplace, in technology, in the value chain and workforce. It is not that clear, what the achievable outcome is. The tasks at hand are not repetitive and, for sure, there is ambiguity involved. And any organization will see shifts over the long run. There will be moments in corporate life in which agility will be the only way to go. Perhaps you currently find yourself in such a situation. You are in good party.

For example, look at the automotive industry. It is not clear, how mobility is going to be organized in the future. New forms of mobility (for example car sharing, ride sharing, ride hauling, e-scooter...) gain traction, whereas new technology such as autonomous vehicles might hit the road in a few years on larger scale. But also here, it is not clear, if the technology first finds traction in rural or urban areas. Or, if you will own a car or rent / share one. And on top of this, there is the question of the engine: electric, combustion or hybrid? Will infrastructure and battery technology be in place on time at the arrival of electric cars on large scale? Will the pleasure of driving an electric car outweigh the pragmatic disadvantages from charging? And who will be hitting the marketplace at a good position? All this has impact on OEMs, that have long product cycles and massive investments. It is clear that this and other industries will change. Creativity, learning and adapting are key in this situation. Here agility and diversity help most, assuming you are unable to cut the complexity and uncertainty of the situation as such.

A shift on the model for complex and uncertain situations

Unfortunately shifting from a traditional model to a model of agility demands effort. Old roles, rules, beliefs, values, mindsets, and behaviors are sticky. The brain's wiring sees the patterns of yesterday. Any major decision will cause many smaller subsequent decisions. Organizations need structural changes, such as widening the leadership span or adaptations of incentives and promotion policies. At the same time it is wise to invest in psychological safety, a common sense of belonging and the purpose and impact of the adventure.

Leaders know, that their knowledge is incomplete, even inadequate and thus seek to learn. They need to show honesty and candor. They recognize and balance competing views. They know, balance is more important than stability. But for employees too, this shift means to build new or strengthen old competencies such as awareness, communication, feedback, transparency, and a new sense of responsibility (more info e.g. here). This shift doesn't happen overnight, it is a process that can take a couple of years.

How will diversity help you to boost agility?

If your prime purpose of agility is learning and adapting, go beyond male, pale and stale [1]. Embrace differences in age, gender, ethnic or cultural origin, disability, religion, working style, perception patterns, dialect, or mental models.

1: You gain access to more views, perspectives and ideas

It is obvious, but still old patterns might stop you accessing new views and perspectives. You might still try to protect the outdated organization. Organizations can seek input from other industries to recognize the new pattern for the own industry. Smaller decisions gain from more views and perspectives too. For instance by crosschecking options with the purpose and intention as well as stakeholder needs. At the end you have a better decision.

2: You gain access to weak signals

Opening up to many voices through diversity helps to recognize important weak signals. Signals of changes in the marketplace, traction for new ideas etc. Quiet often, new innovations arise from the edges. Organizations with a sole focus on running the core business and competing might miss these important weak signals of change.

3: You cut biases

By exposing yourself to a larger and mixed audience and receive feedback or learn about other valuable opinions. That helps to overcome human biases that affect your decision making [2]. You will be able to learn about and fill your blind spots.

Look for possibilities to increase diversity on the short and long term

Be inventive of what could drive diversity in the short term and in the long term. Short term measures include e.g. exposures to other environments, such as in home visits, attending industry events outside your own, inviting external experts to join forces on a project. Long term measures are for instance changing the mix of the people, building an open innovation space or strategic employee sharing programs, international assignments...

In conclusion, diversity best boosts agility in situations of high complexity and uncertainty. If used with purpose and focus in mind, it is the helping hand for sound decision making and for gaining access to new ideas, views and possibilities.

[1] fun term used by Alf Rehn in his newsletter 07.2019

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases





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