How Embracing Differences Makes More Robust Agile Teams
An interview with Sonia Sotomayor about her childrens’ book Just Ask! starts with a story of how someone who once saw the Supreme Court justice injecting herself with insulin assumed she was a drug addict. Sotomayor explained that she is diabetic, and suggested, “If you don't know why someone's doing something, just ask them. Don't assume the worst in people.”
Making assumptions about why people act a certain way, when you can easily ask instead, can lead to problems and missed opportunities.
Once I was managing a team where, during one-on-ones, team members would complain that one person I’ll call “Fred” was hard to work with. Sometimes he’d spend much longer than expected on a task, without explanation. People didn’t know what he was working on, and they felt he was slowing the team down, with many assuming he was behaving badly.
During a one-on-one with Fred, I raised these concerns and discovered that Fred wasn’t aware there were issues with the team. He shared that he had a cognitive difference that made him get off track easily, often pursuing questions in more detail than necessary. It turned out that his intense attention to detail, while sometimes causing extended detours, also helped Fred identify major quality issues no one else caught.
As we talked, it became clear that the daily scrum was not working as well as it could have as a feedback mechanism. Rather than focusing attention on how we were collaborating, it had become a routine status meeting. While the one-on-one with Fred could have been entirely about how Fred was failing the team, it ended up being an opportunity to improve our processes in a way that could help the team work better.
This situation reminded me that even good agile teams can benefit from the communication a manager can facilitate, that work styles can differ from what you expect (and may not be problematic simply because they are different), and that if you don’t understand something, you should just ask.
Differences can be confusing and challenging, but differences can also be positive. I was once in a workshop where we were tasked with building a house of cards. One group built tall and quickly, only to have the house collapse easily. Another took longer to agree on an approach but had a more robust solution. The difference: The fast group was composed of people with very similar Myers–Briggs types, whereas the other group was more diverse. Communication was important in both cases, but the group with all similar personalities didn’t have someone to challenge their approach.
Not all differences in style and approach will necessarily be beneficial to a team, and not all problematic interactions are hiding a hidden benefit. But by being curious and trying to approach differences as a potential positive, you can build more robust, effective teams.