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Talk at XP: Unity in Diversity


Glass marbles of different sizes in a color pattern as methaphor for multicultural community coexistence

The Productiv Power of Diversity

In its recent series on „Diversity and Inclusion,“ McKinsey again notes that “the business case for gender equality, diversity, and inclusion is strong and growing stronger”¹. Diversity as a new productive power for the economy is about more than just ending discrimination against women and minorities. The potential of a diverse workforce is found in the different experiences, perspectives, skills and ways of thinking among diverse individuals. Diversity therefore promises creativity and innovation.
The OECD’s comprehensive analysis of the research literature on diversity in the workplace however, finds that most companies fail to realize this potential of diversity². In many organizations, a culture of conformism still reigns: the newcomers, who are always strangers at the beginning, must submit to their new environment. And that’s why conformism is one of the greatest impediments to creative and innovative solutions. In my presentation I argue that the productive power of diversity can unfold particularly well within the Scrum Framework. In doing so, I also emphasize the special importance of the Scrum Master. However, in order to fulfill this role successfully, they need a special competence, the diversity competence.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

The combination of the Scrum Framework with the approach of Diversity Competence is quite logical, as they both respond to the same changes in business and society. The common goal is to shape social interactions in a way that they provide the best possible base for the complex tasks of our time. The social foundation of both concepts consists of voluntary cooperation, extensive coordination, and effective communication. Both therefore focus on optimizing interpersonal interactions with special attention to individual needs and skills. It is therefore not surprising that there’s a rather large overlap, for example, in the aspired values such as respect, openness and courage.
Now, I would like to illustrate three socio-economic relevant trends in times of diversity.

With the rapid technological progress and the flexibilization of the economy comes a dramatic acceleration of interpersonal relationships. For example, labor relations are becoming increasingly uncommmitted and short-lived. This is reflected in the growing number of temporary workers and external contractors. At the same time, working relationships are also becoming more and more superficial. There is often a lack of interest in getting to know one’s colleagues and the corporate culture extensively. Strangers therefore often remain strangers or just representatives of a certain status category.

According to the Diversity Report of the OECD all its member states are becoming increasingly diverse³. This process affects all areas of society and all groups of people. These include the growing visibility of the LGBTQ community, the rise of women to executive floors, or simply the growing number of immigrants. At the same time, a decline of traditional values, social norms and role concepts can be observed. Social diversity and the complexity of everyday interactions are multiplying, while the disorientation within society increases.

Economic acceleration, growing uncertainty and dependency within the world economy also pose new challenges to collective collaboration – especially for knowledge workers. For cooperation to be effective despite a complex division of labor and a high degree of specialization, conscious planning of interactions and effective communication are needed. This results in the need for a flexible social framework and individuals with good social skills (Empathy, Awareness).

I would like to summarize these three tendencies in the words of the Polish journalist Kapuscinski: “When I reflect on my long travels through the world, I sometimes have the impression that the most troubling problem was not so much the borders and frontiers, […], but rather the uncertainty I often experienced regarding the form, quality and course of the interactions with the other, with different people I met along the way. I knew that a lot, often even everything, could depend on this. Every encounter was unknown. How will it go? How will it develop? How will it end?“⁴.

For Diversity Representatives and Scrum Masters of diverse teams, this development poses the following problem: While the need for and the complexity of cooperative work is rapidly increasing, it is also losing its traditional foundation: relatively stable social relations and the relative similarity of the workers. In other words, conformism, which used to be an important aspect of cooperation, loses its rational moments and becomes more of a brake on the development of the productive forces. The Scrum Framework and the Diversity Competence approach emphasize quite different aspects of this process and therefore make different practical conclusions.

The Scrum Framework and Diversity Competence

Let’s start with the Scrum framework. It tries to counter the growing complexity by giving a new structure to the outdated forms of interaction and a new orientation to the overwhelmed individuals. Scrum events make the work process and work product continuously more transparent. The roles and values of the Scrum Framework give individuals clear areas of responsibility and guidance for day-to-day interactions. It even prescribes a role whose primary task is to optimize social interaction.
Thus, the Scrum framework enables a high degree of cooperation, collaboration and communication, but only for relatively homogeneous teams. Neither the Scrum Guide nor the Scrum community deals in depth with the growing challenges of diversity, especially its negative aspects.

The Diversity Competence approach focuses exclusively on the diversity of individuals and the resulting change in interactions. Commonly, diversity competence is described as a set of skills and qualities intended to help individuals deal in a reflective way with similarities and differences. Analytically, three levels are distinguished: 1. feelings towards and perception of diversity; 2. behavior towards strangers and unfamiliar people; 3. knowledge about different groups of people. However, it is a scientifically well-documented fact that the transformation of the affective and the behavioral level usually fails. One of the most popular methods for promoting diversity competence is the diversity training. It is obvious that a single, two-day workshop cannot remove decades of internalized and mostly unconscious bias. But even institutionalized ways of promoting diversity competence, such as diversity departments, often fail in this task. They are too distant from the day-to-day interactions in which problems with diversity occur. Instead of dealing with interpersonal issues in the immediate situations where they arise, they are deferred to an appointment with the diversity manager. This makes it difficult to successfully gain diversity competence. Moreover, these institutions are often experienced as disciplinary entities, which unnecessarily increases the risk of diversity conflicts and thus makes learning from mistakes significantly more difficult. The problem of diversity competence can be summarized as follows: It lacks a social framework to effectively enhance diversity competence in everyday life.

Against this background, it seems logical to achieve diversity competence through the role of the Scrum Master. First, problems with heterogeneity can certainly become impediments to a team’s collaborative capabilities and therefore to its effectiveness. Dealing with this is a classical task of the Scrum Master. Second, the individuals who hold the role of the Scrum Master usually have the emotional and social skills necessary for this task. A diversity-trained Scrum Master has the opportunity to do the continuous relationship work in daily interaction that is necessary to remove prejudices and stereotypes. The aim of the Scrum Master should be to liberate the perception of the Scrum Team from rigid categories and pre-formulated judgments. Only then, the actual productive power of diversity can flourish. In the following, I would like to briefly present two methods of how the Scrum Master can fulfill their new role as a Diversity Trainer.

The behavioral level

In everyday interactions, the Scrum Master has a good and reliable influence on the behavioral level of the team members. Their long-term goal here is to reduce pains resulting from insensitive remarks or behavior. First, however, they must limit themselves to addressing the resulting conflicts. After all, it can take a long time for team members to get to know each other well enough that such missteps no longer occur. The idea is to empower the team members to deal with their diversity conflicts on their own.
In my reflections I refer to the outstanding work of the sociologist Erving Goffman⁵. He describes with remarkable precision how individuals resolve their everyday conflicts. In his opinion, two aspects are of central importance. First, the severity of the conflict must be reduced by those involved. Secondly, it must be possible for the person harmed to articulate the problem, and it must be possible for the person who caused the problem to make amends for the mistake. The „Ouch and Oops“ rule is a useful tool for diversity conflicts. I would like to share a personal example of this simple rule of conduct:

In Germany, there is a widespread saying “then Poland will be open” . Since the Nazi invasion of Poland, this phrase has acquired an extremely problematic meaning. However, having a discussion about the meaning of this saying is usually not very helpful. While I don’t feel understood, the other person often sees themself as being placed in the company of the Nazis. The „Ouch and Oops“ rule allows such conflicts to be resolved more easily and in a less time-consuming manner. When I first heard the unwelcome phrase in my new team where this rule has been established, I responded with „Ouch“ which was followed by an „Oops“. In over a year, this idiom has not been used another time. On the behavioral level, it is not yet relevant whether the anti-semitic and nationalistic character of this statement was understood.
The most important thing is that the hurt individual has the agency to articulate their feelings, without stigmatizing the offender as a racist, sexist, etc. This makes the variety of individual feelings within the team visible and accessible to collective reflection.

The Emotional and Perceptual Level

However, reducing the fear and uncertainty that diverse interactions present to individuals is not enough to unlock the special potential of diversity. This requires a change in the perception of and feelings toward diverse groups of people. In practice, this means that the Scrum Team must deconstruct the culturally prevalent stereotypes, and prejudices towards the marginalized groups. Only then the real differences of the individuals can be recognized and thus become a part of the collective skill set of the team. Critically reflecting on the dominant ways of perception of your own culture is an emotionally challenging process. It can take years to discard, for example, the male gaze on women, the heteronormative view on homosexuals, and so on. Now it is not realistic to assume that every member of the Scrum Team is ready to go through this lengthy and difficult process. The good news, however, is that it is enough for the Scrum Master to have the necessary skills within the team to foster the innovative and creative potential of diversity.

Heidi Möller and Harald Pühl have suggested ethnopsychoanalysis as a method for exploring unconscious prevailing patterns of interpretation and perception within a corporate or team culture⁶. By empathizing with the unfamiliar subject, the Scrum Master recognizes their own cultural imprintment. Empathy makes one’s own prejudices accessible to awareness and thus to change. The prerequisite for this emotional way of cognition is the questioning of everything that seems normal, obvious and natural. Loosely following Kristeva: Only when we are strangers to ourselves, there are no strangers anymore⁷.

I’d like to illustrate this method with a practical example. A team that for a long time consisted only of men gets a new, female member. After some time, I notice that there is a significant difference between the two genders in estimating the User Stories. It needs no further explanation that, of course, the male majority reliably prevailed in the discussions. At first, I suspected that this was a normal familiarization phenomenon. But when the difference did not diminish even after quite some time, I suspected that it was a matter of gender. Confined by my male socialization, I suspected that the problem was caused by the lower willingness to take risks or the lower self-confidence of my female colleague. I resist my first, immediate impulse to coach my colleague in confidence or perseverance. In a retrospective focused on the gender relationship in our team, I addressed my observation. After a longer and intensive discussion, it turned out that two different ideas of complexity prevailed in the team. While the male team members used a relatively linear notion of complexity, the female understanding of complexity was much more multidimensional. In addition to the difficulty of a task, she also included the amount of work, the dependency on other actors, the current teamwork, and so on, in her estimation. After this difference was made aware, the team agreed on the female colleague’s concept of complexity. So instead of making our female colleague conform to the male view of the team, we changed our culture and made it more diverse. Thus, through collective reflection, the female colleague became an important innovative power of the team. The aware and emphatic Scrum Master makes the differences and similarities of the team visible and thus usable.

Unity in Diversity

It should now be clear that Unity in Diversity is not primarily about shared norms and values. This concept of cooperation is fundamentally based on a conformist idea; it is a remnant of times past. Rather, it is about a collective process of recognizing and acknowledging diversity. As long as the vast majority of the population does not yet possess the skills necessary for this process, teaching and promoting it is a central task of the Scrum Master. The reward for their efforts is nothing less than a more resilient, innovative, and creative Scrum Team.

¹  view: Insights on Diversity and Inclusion | McKinsey & Company [last visited on 01.07.22].
²  view: All Hands In? Making Diversity Work for All | OECD iLibrary [last visited on 01.07.22].
³ ibid.
⁴ Kapuściński, Ryszard (2008): Der Andere. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
⁵ Goffman, Erving (2009): Interaktion im öffentlichen Raum. Frankfurt am Main. Campus-Verlag.
⁶ view: Organisationsberatung als lebendige Ethnopsychoanalyse [last visited on 01.07.22].
⁷ Kristeva, Julia (1990): Fremde sind wir uns selbst. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

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