Institute News28

Are agile organisations inclusive? Join our research team to find out...

Evan Leybourn

March 26, 2020

Join our research team to explore D&I in agile organisations...


Through the lived experience of some people with diverse attributes, the recent trend towards agility has resulted in the introduction of ways of working and associated cultures that have made inclusion worse for them. For others, it may have improved the situation. It appears there has been limited conscious design of inclusion into the agile ecosystem, yet it has been introduced widely and thus removed many workarounds created by diverse individuals.

There is a widely held belief that agile, as it is often implemented, is more inclusive – but is this true? If not, we may not be realising the enormous potential benefits agility can bring – but we may believe we are.


There are three hypotheses to test:

  1. Despite the positive intent, mindset and values of Agile, agile organisations are at risk of further excluding already marginalised staff and customers. Through interviews with 50+ companies, we will examine, document, and consolidate the D&I policies of agile organisations, the lived experiences of people inside those organisations, and real D&I outcomes of these organisations.
  2. That organisations who embed D&I directly into their agile transformations outperform those organisations who don’t. We will start by identifying organisations (if any) that embed D&I into their agile transformations. The performance of their agile transformation will be compared against the sample group in part 1.
  3. That a modern version of agile is possible that puts diversity at the heart. If agile was to be re-designed with the same outcomes in mind, but with a modern customer-centric (where diverse staff/practitioners of agile are the customer) design overlay, then businesses would see an increase in diversity thus leading to increased innovation, better customer outcomes and increased revenue.


There may exist an opportunity to not only correct any negative inclusive impacts, but also go further and create a culture and way of working that materially improves workplace diversity as has never before been possible through the rethinking of the current practices. This is akin to applying modern principles of Human Centred Design and Universal Design principles as might be done when creating a product for a consumer to agile itself. The core of agile was created ~2001 via a group of non-diverse 17 white male engineers who had a very specific purpose – software engineering - in an era when many of the more modern design principles were not widely used.

The benefits of a diverse and inclusive workforce can include increased innovation, better customer outcomes and increased revenue as demonstrated through many recent studies – thus the business imperative is considered strong. Alternatively, a diverse workforce, without inclusion, can negatively impact businesses and teams and would be unlikely to produce any material benefit over a non-diverse team.

It also is very clear that, by not designing for inclusion (and even excluding some who were previously included) the strong ethical goals often associated with an agile culture are fundamentally being disregarded eg Respect, Courage, Inclusiveness and an Open/Growth Mindset.

Research Commitment

We anticipate a commitment of 4 hours per week (on average) for 3 months is required. This time will include a weekly call, literature review, identifying and interviewing companies, and writing.

Initial Research Approach

  • What are common issues with diversity, inclusion and agile?
  • What existing research exists around the current state of diversity, inclusion and agile?
  • What existing research exists around the benefits of diversity, inclusion and agile?
  • Have modern inclusive design principles been applied to the agile ecosystem itself in any organisations?
  • What is the current state of inclusion practices in agile organisations, what is considered current best practice and is anyone achieving meaningful results?
  • What might be considered the most impactful changes a company/team could make if inclusive design was applied?

The size of a test would need to be large and lengthy to be statistically meaningful. Thus we could instead consider testing some of the potential adaptions that could have larger impacts. This could include measuring organisations that have adopted some practices even if ‘not by design’, but that do happen to support inclusion. Examples of tests could be a ‘digital first’ organisation or training a set of agile coaches on a subset of new inclusive practices to implement in their teams. The exact bounds/nature of the test would need to be better defined down the track.

The bulk of the research should consider companies >= 50 employees to ensure diversity can be material enough. For testing and more detailed analysis, it may be necessary to go to a team level, which could thus include smaller companies.

Research targets include:

  • Agile expert practitioners e.g. coaches
  • Transformation Leads
  • HR Leads

Ideal Research Team

Research team of 8-10

Great specialities:

  • Agile experts/coaches
  • Diversity/inclusion experts
  • Human centred design/universal design experts
  • HR specialists

Mix of diverse attributes such as:

  • Disability – physical and mental
  • Sex
  • Race
  • Ethnic/cultural background
  • Age
  • Sexuality
  • etc

Informal Analysis to Date


Firsthand career ending experience of non-inclusive agile widespread practices as someone with a visual disability. Issues are created such as:

  • Agile emphasises visualisations.
  • Uses concepts such as MVP that often excludes and amplifies exclusion.
  • Creates a culture of copying and not of embracing change/innovation in agile itself to address inclusion issues.
  • A focus is needed on including all people, yet the skills don’t exist.

Discussions with:

  • ~100 agile coaches and experts
  • People experiencing negative impacts
  • Those undergoing transformation to or working in agile organisations
  • Agile organisations of varied maturity

Online research into diversity and inclusion best practices and benefits.


Benefits of diversity and inclusion:

  • Benefits include: Innovation, talent attraction/retention, customer understanding, growth, revenue, ethical alignment and social responsibility
  • Many studies out there, including BCG that states 19% revenue increase for companies that are doing something about diversity – but many more exist with larger benefits. These studies are based on what can be considered an immature and incomplete level of diversity and inclusion in leading companies today (very few, if any, companies are fully inclusive and diverse), so it could be expected that the benefits could be even greater.
  • Negative impacts of lack of diversity: Customer impacting examples such as CBA Albert payment terminal; Dominos pizza in US; Robotics company in US. Own recent experience with Xinja who have used agile to create their product – a product I can’t use because they have not included simplest accessibility into the MVP and don’t have it as a priority to be done within the next 6 months.
  • Many failed agile implementations are discussed in the agile community, with copying and groupthink appearing to be a potential root cause of many problems – indicating a lack of diversity and inclusion.

Current approaches to diversity and inclusion not working:

  • Despite evidence as to the benefits, little on the ground action takes place – not considered a high enough imperative for individuals to prioritise and act day to day.
  • All evidence shows little improvement in diversity and inclusion. Where there is improvement it is too slow and not comprehensive.
  • Awareness does not translate into action, yet most focus is on awareness alone.
  • Negatively impacting diversity and inclusion is considered acceptable and can be even rewarded in the name of progress.

There is a lack of knowledge and understanding:

  • Limited understanding of what diversity means, with often a focus only on one or two aspects being enough to be considered good practice and providing ‘satisfaction’ to organisations and individuals that they are addressing diversity.
  • An almost non-existent understanding of what inclusion actually means and how to be inclusive.
  • Importance of holistic inclusive and diversity practices (and their interplay) not understood.

Agile introduces practices and culture that hurt inclusion and thus diversity:

  • As per own experiences.
  • Discussions with others who are experiencing their own introduced issues directly as a result of agile practices. A few ‘me too’ conversations held confidentially. Most will not call out issues due to fear of recrimination, including of being seen as not being on the agile bus. Individuals also have a right to privacy and make their own choices as what to disclose and to who. For example from some people reaching out to me – those with poor eyesight that struggle to read physical visualisations such as cards/postit notes in walls, mothers who need to care for children and thus can’t be in the office at certain times, people in different physical locations who don’t get enough information or included, those from different cultural backgrounds who get dominated in ceremonies, those who are introverts who hate things like standups, people with hidden hearing difficulties who can’t hear when ceremonies are conducted on open floors, people with mental health issues that don’t like being in groups, older people who feel they are discarded and dismissed, people short of stature or in wheelchairs who can’t reach to put postit notes up on walls or read the high up items, people who write at 10% the speed of others and thus can’t participate in ceremonies that require real time written updates, colour blind people excluded through things like using coloured postits to mean things, legally blind people who have had non-accessible software introduced as MVP who use screen readers and thus couldn’t do their jobs anymore, people on the spectrum who voice strong and different opinions, dyslexic people who struggle with the theatre/pressure of ceremonies and so forth.
  • Research into best practice inclusive practices show direct conflict with some agile practices and beliefs.

Rigid belief systems hinder acknowledgement and action:

  • When raised, it is not acknowledged that any systemic issues exist. Rather, it is almost uniformly dismissed as something such as a one-off piece of ‘bad luck’ for individual situations, not impacting enough people to action, or resulted from agile not being practised properly in that circumstance.
  • Common strongly held beliefs that hinder improving inclusion:
    • The Agile manifesto without question is correct and does not need improvement.
    • Agile is far more inclusive than previous practices.
    • People will disclose difficulties if given the right environment and psychological safety.
    • Inclusion can be met by adjusting after someone is in a team and discloses any difficulties.
    • Great Agile coaches and teams know how to be inclusive.
    • If you have diverse team members, you must have inclusion and get the benefits diversity brings.
    • Any issues are because people aren’t practicing or embracing agile properly (#fakeagile). Issues are thus due to the organisations and/or teams people have experienced.
    • “I am an expert, have the right mindset and I haven’t seen any problems in inclusion”
    • “I know people who are diverse and they don’t have any issues, so it’s just you”

Agile, and it’s various implementations, have had no conscious inclusive design:

  • Products should be designed with customers in mind. Practitioners of agile in this case are a customer.
  • Any system that does not explicitly design for inclusion introduces exclusion to someone.
  • Agile was not designed for inclusion, yet inclusion is assumed.
  • Agile requires inclusion more than traditional approaches in order to succeed.
  • Study from this institute showed no material difference between companies who are agile and those who are not in respect to diversity. This would support the theory above – that there are winners and losers when anything is not explicitly designed for inclusion is introduced.
  • Some people with diverse attributes develop their own ways over time to overcome difficulties they encounter in a traditional workplace. Some of these methods may have taken years, even decades, to develop. Introducing new ways of working that doesn’t consider diverse needs throws all of those away in an instant and renders them back to square one/likely unable to perform as they used to.

Not yet being addressed in the agile industry:

  • Query around vision impairment raised to ~10 companies such as Atlassian, Spotify, ING, Westpac, NAB, ANZ – none were addressing, but were interested on how to address.
  • Raised question around vision impairment within Agile Alliance diversity slack group – conversation ceased pretty quickly and no one had any solutions/seen it addressed at scale.
  • Held one talk – impacted the audience, however no one had tackled it and wanted to know how to handle it.
  • Diversity and inclusion are growing trends and smart business – so this is an obvious gap that has been ignored in order to ‘progress’ as fast as possible.

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