Agile Thinking

For the second Inclusive Growth show I spoke to Andrew Jones, who is the Founder and Chief Executive of Agility in Mind. Andrew founded Agility in Mind nearly a decade ago with the company’s tenth anniversary coming up this summer. To begin, I asked what the company does.

“The thing that we do with our clients is provide them with consulting, training and coaching that helps them to improve the way that they’re working. The outcome that we’re looking for is what we call business agility. That’s the ability to respond to changes, even big ones. Thinking about the situation at the moment [the coronavirus pandemic], across the world, how do we respond to things like that? Fortunately, we don’t have to respond to big things all the time, but we should always be inspecting and adapting our organisations to make them better.

I got into this because I’d spent a lot of time in the software industry and discovered quite a lot of challenges, especially developing and delivering complex systems to clients. I was always looking for a better way of doing that and I discovered Agile ways of working.

I set up Agility in Mind really to take that agile way of working into organisations. And I do remember, back then, that the message was that this is about people as individuals, not about people as resources in an organisation. We are reminding people that we’ve come a long way since the industrial revolution and what we should really be doing is thinking about people and about how they work together.”

When I asked Andrew my next question, “What is Agile?” he told me that this is actually one of the questions they ask their job candidates by video interview and that they get varying responses, even from experts in the industry. He continued “The way that I like to think about it, is that it is a set of principles. It’s summarised in something that’s called the Agile Manifesto, four items which tell you where you should put the emphasis when you’re trying to get teams of people working together. What’s happened over time is that the manifesto, which is around people working together and their interactions, has been turned into frameworks which are more structured in their approach. Ultimately, it’s finding ways to get people to collaborate around common goals to produce artefacts, whether that’s at a team, product or business level.

It’s quite a complex thing because there’s such diversity of people out there and we’ve all got different perspectives. Trying to get those perspectives together towards a common goal is the real challenge.”

I was interested to find out more from Andrew about how the Agile Manifesto can drive inclusivity in organisations.

“The first line of the manifesto says that we should put more emphasis on individuals and interactions, rather than process and tools. If the focus is only on process and tools, you start to make quite a lot of assumptions about the tools that people can use and the processes that they can engage in. You might then start to make assumptions about how an individual might engage with an organisation and tend to generalise around that. If you put the emphasis on individuals and interactions, you start to think that every single person that you bring together into a team with a common purpose has got an individual outlook, personality, capability, challenges, whatever, but we are all unique.

When we do that, we realise that the more we can get different perspectives into the things that we’re doing, the more effective we are going to be. So I suppose the manifesto sets out the agenda of how we should work. Although it doesn’t prescribe how you get past some of the challenges of making Agile working inclusive, I think it’s the starting point.”

I was keen to hear more details about how HR Directors or Diversity and Inclusion leaders could start to apply Agile in their workplaces to make them more inclusive. Andrew explained that for him the starting point was to understand those underlying principles and not make the mistake of jumping into a particular framework.

“If they were to research Agile, they might come across something like Scrum, for example, which has got a defined process and roles. It’s great as a framework but what we do is take people back to the fundamental principles. Understand why we’re going to do it, what we’re going to get out of it as an organisation, what the outcomes might be and how the organisation will be different.

We are trying to think past the things that are measurable right from the start, like the key performance indicators. Let’s try not to do that. Let’s think about what it would look like and how will it feel for people across our organisation? Or for people that we want to bring into our organisation? How will it be different for us because we’re starting to apply these principles?”

I asked Andrew, “So if an organisation does apply Agile working and the manifesto principles to help it become more inclusive, what could they expect this to look like on a day to day basis?”

Andrew replied that the organisation should start to see “teams of people working towards common outcomes. Collaboration, talking every day about what will help them to get there. Each morning, they get together and say, ‘Look, these are the things that I did yesterday. I’m going to do this today because I know that it’s aligned to outcomes we are trying to achieve.’ Or it could be, ‘I want to deliver this but I’ve got an obstacle in the way. Who can help? Once you start those conversations, you realise that it’s now not just a bunch of individuals. You’ve now got a group of people using each other’s skills and respecting each other’s different contributions to achieving those shared goals.”

“Andrew, When I interviewed you for my book Inclusive Growth you were featured in the chapter called Colleague Experience and Design which was about organisations stopping trying to fix individuals but instead fixing the processes or cultures that hold people back. As an example from my experience, businesses create programmes like women in leadership. The programmes focus on trying to fix the individual, putting them through mentoring or pairing them with a mentor and not looking at the things that could be holding them back, like a culture of presenteeism or expecting people to work late hours and things like that. In the chapter we talked about how we can use Agile as a way of redesigning processes and systems that do hold people back, so how could we use Agile to achieve that?”

“We like to get teams to map out the process of completing a piece of work and identify each step that they go through and the contributions that they make to the individual steps. The next step, the crucial thing, is asking how do we want it to be? What is going to work for us as a team? The team thinks about what works fine and where they get stuck and why, how they could improve it. It becomes an inclusive process because people are seeing things from other perspectives. They’ll see it from the perspective of different practitioners and individuals. It’s a great way to get people to think about organisational work processes.”

My final question for Andrew reflected the challenges we all face from the global coronavirus pandemic. “I think that diversity and inclusion can play a crucial part in enabling businesses to bounce back and grow out of the economic crisis, as well as the health crisis, that we’re in.

From your perspective, Andrew, how do you think greater inclusivity helps businesses grow and in particular, how does it help Agility in Mind?”

“To be an effective business, you can’t treat your customers as if they are generic. We know that the more that we understand about our customers, about the way they work, the better. Because we work with lots of people in organisations, we can’t, for example, categorise some people into being the difficult people. If someone says that to me, I’ll say, ‘Well, the interesting thing about those difficult people is they’ll probably say that you’re the difficult person.’ The different perspectives depend on whose viewpoint is taken. Recognising diversity of thought, of interaction, of preference, of ability, and disability and challenges allow people to engage better.

To me, it’s common sense. Why create processes, facilities or a culture that excludes or prejudices people whose skills can make a big contribution? Everyone’s circumstances change in life, in our careers, through accident or illness. It’s very easy to write off men in their 50s as just waiting for retirement. I’d feel quite resentful if people started to say that about me because we’ve got a contribution to make.”

All that remained for me to do was thank Andrew for his time and his brilliant insights. To find out more about applying Agile principles in your own business, go to Agility in Mind, or email [email protected]

Agile Thinking - Mildon