When the culture becomes the cult

Fourteen years or so ago, when I first encountered ‘agile’ the part that really appealed to me, the bit I loved the most, was the cultural transformation I saw. The move from an almost silent, stark, cubicled workplace where people communicated via written documents and email to vibrant, open spaces full of life and conversation. Where plans went from being a Gannt chart hidden away in a manager’s PC to a living, collectively owned representation on a wall. I would ask people how their work was different now and they would say things like “we know each other’s names” and “people look up and say good morning to each other now”. It all felt so much more…human.

It is only in the last couple of years that I have come to realize that this pendulum swing has actually just replaced one mono-culture with another. The tech workplace has gone from one favouring introversion, solitary work and quiet careful thinking to one (perhaps inadvertently) designed for fast-thinking, extroverted verbalisers. One where even our “resting” spaces are filled with intense collaboration (table football etc.) and it’s hard to get a minute to ourselves.

In truth we have (and need) all kinds of thinkers on our teams. Whilst highly collaborative working practices work well for some they disadvantage others, and even if you prefer a vibrant environment you might sometimes seek some quiet and solitude. I see and speak to people all the time whose gifts and contributions are passed by or their brilliance stifled by the accommodations they have to make to fit in to the environments we have created. If we are to create truly innovative products and solve the very trickiest of problems we need all kinds of minds. When posed with the question of whether agile has become a cult or culture, I feel like it’s the culture itself that now threatens to become a cult. Every time I hear the phrase “we recruit for cultural fit” a shiver runs down my spine. One of our next big challenges as an industry is to understand how to support and leverage the different brains we have. Our diversity can become our competitive advantage if we can make our collaborations truly inclusive.

(Sal is co-founder with Katherine Kirk of the Inclusive Collaboration campaign, raising awareness of supporting neuro-diversity in the workplace).

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