Diversity and Agility - a question of mindset... and training

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Christina Stauner is a project manager at EWC Edelweiss Consulting GmbH located in Wien, Austria. Christina studied business with a major in change and diversity management which allowed her to gain profound knowledge about the power of innovations and the added value of having diverse teams within different organisational structures. At EWC and external projects, Christina is using her skills for HR and organizational development projects.

Christina, why did you start working on the topic of diversity in the context of agile working?

The topic of diversity has already been part of my studies and subsequently of my job at a consulting company for accessibility and diversity management. These experiences combined with EWC Edelweiss Consulting's focus on agile working clearly show that diversity is a cross-cutting issue and should not be overlooked in agile environments. It is important to me to get a holistic picture of organizations and their teams and of course the view on diversity within an organization must not be missing.

Why do you believe that diversity plays an important role in the context of agility?

Diversity management is a multidimensional, strategic approach that aims to create a framework for dealing with diversity in an appreciative manner within the company. This diversity can be reflected in visible dimensions such as age, gender or skin color - or in components that go beyond the dimensions that shape personality, i.e. in cognitive preferences and the experiences gained on the basis of personal biographies. These components have a significant influence on teamwork: Am I more deliberate in my choice of words or do I put my thoughts into words spontaneously and bluntly? Do I need minute details or is the big picture enough for me to get involved in a project? So it starts with me recognizing that in every utterance I perceive, the biography of the respective person also resonates.

Even in school or college, we learn differently in order to get a good grade. This is just as true for teamwork: What types of learners or workers are there in my team? Those who  recall everything by writing and others who form a picture in their head just by hearing things? These are all facets of diversity that we are so familiar with in our daily lives without consciously attaching the diversity label to them. 

So it's primarily about getting to know different approaches and gaining the diversity of perspectives as a result. Especially for the concept of agile collaboration, different ways of thinking and perspectives are important in order to be able to adapt quickly to new circumstances and thus remain competitive as an organization - which is exactly what diversity is supposed to enable.

Even at school or university, we have found that we learn differently in order to get a good grade. This is just as true for teamwork.

What are the challenges of implementing diversity in practice?

Both the comprehensive introduction of agile working methods and raising awareness for diversity in all its forms do not only mean changing methods and processes, but above all the creation of new ways of thinking and a breaking with old habits. This also requires a new type of manager who has internalized this attitude and can thus authentically exemplify it. 

In agile working, it is expressly intended that people with different experiences, skills and perspectives work together dynamically and efficiently. As a result, people with different perspectives and opinions cooperate within an organization. A "digital native" often perceives things differently than a person who is still getting to know the working world without technical aids. This means that there is potential for conflict, but there must also be room for it to be resolved. Although heterogeneous teams take longer to communicate and tend to disagree, risks and new ideas that might not have been recognized without controversial exchange are often seen in advance. This way, challenges can suddenly become opportunities. 

You work as a project manager at Edelweiss Consulting. How does Edelweiss meet these challenges? What experiences have you already had with this topic? Are there any concrete examples?

EWC Edelweiss Consulting is characterized by a rapid company growth - we have grown from two initial partners to 15 people by now. As the number of projects has increased, so has the need for personnel. In the beginning, the diversity aspect was not part of our recruiting as no need for diversity measures was seen. In the meantime, we have recognized the importance of the topic due to our continuous growth. Therefore, during the application process, we actively pay special attention to those people who bring qualities or qualifications that we do not yet cover in our team. As a systemically oriented consultancy, we are striving for more diverse teams when working on projects. This is why  we also work more and more with heterogeneous team constellations in order to achieve the best outcome for the organizations we work with.

We see ourselves as a learning organization and know that we can still improve in many areas. Diversity is a continuous process and - just like the establishment of agile work structures - means a change in culture.

In the German language there is both a male and female version for e.g. job titles. The male version is commonly used to address both genders in order to streamline texts.

The example of "gender-equitable language is a good illustration of the challenges we were facing when being confronted with this "puzzle piece" of diversity: We had completely different viewpoints on this topic, which were reflected in the inconsistent spelling within the company. The spectrum ranged from "women are meant anyway," to the indented I, to spelling with gender asterisks or underlines, which also makes non-binary gender identities visible. As part of an internal training session, we took up the topic and created awareness that words construct realities. Raising awareness and sensitization often does not work overnight, but takes time, resources and the will to implement. 

Raising awareness and sensitization often does not work overnight, but takes time, resources and the will to implement.

Outlook: How would you and your team like to advance diversity management in the coming years? What is your goal?

I would like to ensure that the topic is dealt with on an ongoing basis and that everyone has a point of contact for questions relating to it. Another important concern of mine is to ensure that our semi-annual internal training sessions always include a diversity block. 

Another major goal is to open up our view of the application process. We are still relatively new as a company, but the first steps have been taken and we are moving in the right direction. The journey is the reward.

Outlook: What is your future vision for this topic? How should diversity be combined with agile working in the best case?

My vision is that the topic will become less and less important. Not because it is no longer relevant, but because it has been accepted by people and being valued in all our diversity is seen as a matter of course. Diversity should have found its way into both society and the workplace in the 21st century. 

After all, a corporate culture that lives and breathes tolerance and inclusion enables existing and future employees to work in an environment that accepts them as they are. The more colorfully mixed the teams are, the more diverse the variety of new ideas and professional approaches. Heterogeneous team constellations - flexible and cross-functional teams - are completely common in agile structures.

My experience has shown that diversity in such systems is an essential catalyst for better team performance. But it also strengthens resilience in the face of rapidly changing conditions. This requires an open mindset of the managers, who use the opportunities created by diversity to offer all people, with their most diverse biographies, a place where they can develop and contribute with their strengths.