We are all looking for that formula that makes our organizations more successful, more resilient, more…agile. I will tell a story of discovery, where the role of equity in that formula was unmistakably enshrined, and help you understand how personal accountability for equity is what will help you find your own secret sauce.
Managing Director, Delivery; Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan
Ilana Sprongl has been in “Delivery” for over 30 years, in both software and hardware, supporting and leading teams around the world. She has worked in the Toronto area Financial Industry for over a decade and is an active speaker and participant in the local agile and project management communities. Passionate about people, Ilana is a mentor within several organizations and strongly believes that everyone wins when we all have a voice. She considers herself a life-long learner and is always looking for new ideas in management and delivery techniques.
I'm going to talk today about having equity and agility together. But before I get started, I really want to ask you to reflect on something as we spend this next bit of time together. How do you, as a leader or a team member in your organization, how do you model equity? How? Think about that. Does some of your behaviors actually impede it in your organizations? Again, think about how.
A little bit about me first. I, as was mentioned, I've been in the financial industry in general for about 30 years now. I'm what I consider an avid learner. If there's something new, I want to know about it, I want to read about it. I like to think I'm self-aware. I understand where my faults are. I try to model those behaviors that I want to see in others. But when I started at a new organization, I was shocked, surprised. People didn't see me the way I saw me. They thought I was prescriptive and dictatorial. I knew I had to get to the bottom of that. When I did, I realized that in the context of DEI, like diversity, equity, and inclusion, we had to make sure that our actions actually matched what we were doing at every level of the organization. When I think about what was going on with me, what I thought I was doing wasn't aligned with what was going on inside my team. Before I go a little deeper, I want to outline, I'm sure you guys have all seen these two images about equality and equity. Equity is interesting. It ensures that everyone has an even playing field. But it also demonstrates here that when you do that, some of these solutions are awesome for one person, not everybody. We can see our person all the way on the far side has a solution that doesn't actually work for them. They can't use that box. Then on under equality, again, the middle person's got it best. We build something for somebody to stand on that they don't actually even need. Spending time doing things that actually don't make a difference. When we look at equity, we're actually saying, how can we bring everyone to the table so that they can solve it at that individual level? That's really the important piece when we think about equity. It looks at it at that individual level where people working with people. Conceptually, the diagram on this slide is illustrative and helpful. It is also, I believe, very easy in surface level. It's very easy to see that a ramp can help somebody. It's very easy to see that if you've got someone who's deaf, putting a sign language interpreter in the room is helpful, but it's only surface level. It's not what we really need to say. There we go. Sorry, apologies. There we go. We need to go deeper.
I want to share some of the common interpretations, and then I'll go a little bit into why I feel these things are true. Because I do believe that equitable solutions come in two flavors, hard and less hard. Let's start with the less hard. Visible equity. As I mentioned, physical equity lies mainly in the domain of physical supports. They often take the form of those concrete surface items. They're all important, and I'm not saying that they're not, but it's very, very easy to stop there. They're measurable, they're easy to track, and it helps people participate. It's actually getting to all of those equity checkboxes that we think we need to have. But I really, truly believe addressing equity in this way is a little bit shallow. You might think you're being equitable with physical supports, but you are likely and critically missing the boat. Those difficult, invisible, hard to quantify deep work lies in creating an equitable environment that addresses cultural traits, emotional supports, personality traits, psychological predispositions, and both long and short term transient disturbances.
Equity on a psychosocial level means enabling people to contribute their best at a personal level. It's much more of a challenge than providing those physical aids. It's a challenge because we as leaders are only human. When we walk into a room, we have a set of biases that we may or may not even realize that we have. I know we all like to think we're self-aware, but as I mentioned, we all have blind spots and I got smacked up in the head by a blind spot of my own. I was a very short time into a new role in a new organization, and I was thoroughly enjoying the conversations and debates that I was having with my team on multiple topics. Then I got some feedback that was, I'll use the word unsettling. I didn't really feel gobsmacked, maybe. It's probably a better word for how I felt when I got it. My team felt that I wasn't listening to them. They thought I was shutting them down. They thought I was dictatorial and a command and control leader. That really impacted me. I truly, I didn't understand how that could possibly be. Once I got over that initial shock, and you might be able to see, it still rattles me. I said, "How am I going to get better? How am I going to do better? How am I going to understand what was happening so that I could fix it." I started out and it was a smallish team, it was about 40 people. I met with my directs and then I met with everybody else on the team, individually, so they could know that I heard them and for me to be able to assure them I wanted them to be heard. I wanted them to express alternate viewpoints and to be vocal if they disagreed with me. As part of the feedback I got was they were afraid to say no to me. Again, I'm still like, "What?" Basically, they knew I came from a firm that was complex and hierarchical, and they were afraid I was going to bring that in. They had their own notions before they ever met me, which I think we all need to expect. I didn't.
My organization that I joined was already mid-journey in their agile transformation, and they were afraid that I was going to drag them back to the older style of leadership that they had just gotten out of. I didn't know. I had no idea. For those of you who've had a chance to talk with me, and maybe some of you can hear from the stage, I'm really passionate about this stuff. This is my bread and butter. My heart. Brings me joy to sit here and talk to folks and be this way. But the same excitement that I bring that I feel was taken and interpreted as being directional, that I wasn't taking feedback because I was so passionate and so excited, I didn't hear it. I never thought I would ever in my life hear someone say she doesn't listen to me because I try really hard to listen to everybody. One of the people on my team took some time to warm up and actually trust my intentions that I actually wanted to remedy this situation. But the fact that I had reached out and been transparent was the first part of that new dynamic I was building. I found out some of the folks on my team thought I was stubborn, that I was ignoring what they had to say, being dictatorial. That came up a lot. I was shocked. But I took it in. Then I asked for more. The feeling from my team, was that I couldn't be told no, and that really left me confused. When I asked where this came from, I was given an example which included a conversation that had raised some alternatives to an idea that I had. When I got those alternatives, I gave my opinion back. I thought it was a fruitful discussion. We were talking, we were trading ideas. All seemed fine. But I never once heard a "No, I don't agree." It was just postulated as different conversation points.
I didn't realize that people were even concerned. In the context of equity, that actually makes sense. If you fear that someone's dictatorial, you don't have that psychological safety. You don't have the ability to talk. You might have a seat at the table, but you're not going to say anything. It's not an equitable exchange or conversation. But in order to build that safety, they have to feel safe. How do you voice dissent when you don't feel safe? How do I know if they don't feel safe to say it? It was a catch-22. It takes psychological safety for the need to express that need for psychological safety. They did what they could actually, and they went to someone that they trusted. That's actually how I got the feedback. Another piece of feedback I got, a learning moment for me. I have a habit, I mentioned I'm a lifelong learner. I share articles. "Oh, look, that's interesting. You should read this." "Oh, hey, I just read this cool thing and I think it's relevant. Can you read this?" People thought that those articles were being sent as required reading in order to comply to how I wanted them to think. Again, shock. What? I saw a lot of people nodding just a minute ago. We all do that. But when it comes from a leader that you fear, they don't trust your intentions. I want to stress for a moment, there would have been no resolution to this if I had simply told members of the team the things that bothered them were my style. "It wasn't intended. I'm sorry you took it that way," and then done nothing else. That would have been lip service, defending my style, not working with the team to build a relationship. It actually would have reinforced that perception of me being closed and fixed in my ways. Instead, I expressed my intentionality and I said, "By having these meetings, understanding and communicating, this is what I intended. How do we make this better together to build equitable solutions that will work for us as a team so we can work together." Some of the remedies were really simple.
For example, when I share those articles, just saying this is optional reading. Pretty simple to do. Never ever thought to do it until we had those conversations. If it was an optional reading, I'd just say, "Why?" I want them to read it so we can have the discussion on the topic later and then come to some agreement as a team. But of course, that was easy. Some require a greater degree of psychological safety to work through. It's a journey. I'm not done. We're still working together. Sometimes we have cautious conversations, but we're having those conversations. We're moving closer and closer. I'm really, really thankful for the organization that I work for because they're a very feedback-focused organization. I mentioned I joined in the middle of a transformation. The leadership in that organization took the transformation to heart. That fact that they could trust somebody else in the org, let that feedback it to me so I could action it. I think most of us have a really good grasp of why this is important. When our employees don't feel valued and they don't feel heard, they don't have that voice at the table that we all strive for, they disengage completely by exiting the firm, or partially, by lessening their involvement and contributions. If they check out psychologically, holding back those rich, diverse counterpoints of perspective that we need for an optimally functioning organization, it can actually lead to regrettable loss of team members. Those folks who actually know what they're doing leave because they no longer feel valued. They feel like they're not being heard. They're not interested in participating anymore. When people like that leave, it affects morale, innovation, quality, performance in the marketplace, attraction, retention, precisely the opposite of all of the goals we have for agility. The discussions that I had with my team over the course of that very uncomfortable month actually set the table for the equity discussion because it wasn't just about giving them a platform to stand on. It was about making sure that they could use that platform appropriately. In this case, I was making sure that we could actually have that conversation we needed to ensure that everyone felt comfortable speaking their minds. Each individual act on its own is really small. But when we take them all together with that full transparency from the start, it helped shift the conversation to allow those equitable cultures to begin to bloom. How did I know that? We do employee ratings, and my scores went up significantly as a result. Across all 40 members on the team, they were willing to talk to me. They felt empowered to be able to bring up topics, and they still do, so I shouldn't use felt, and understand my passion is not a disagreement, it's just I'm passionate. They can tell me a different way to do it. Someone actually told me no the other day and I was thrilled to have that where someone can come. It wasn't even one of my direct reports. It was someone in their teams. It made me feel like I made a difference.
There were lots of changes on my part, obviously, and also on my team members part, because, again, we're a team. They too said, "I will state my intention before we start the conversation." I no longer had to wonder, "Do you disagree? Are you sure? Because we know." Why is all this important to agility? Well, if agility in a general is about being able to change, allowing people as individuals to have meaningful interactions and to problem-solve and implement a pace, then the ability to bring your whole self to work, that clean flow of communication and the transparency that underlie equity are highly correlated. Just as one addressing DEI, subtle acts of exclusion can create barriers to effective agility. What I've spoken about so far has really had a lot to do with communication, and we heard a bit about communication this morning as well. But it's important. The more people feel supported, the more they feel that they can speak, the more perspective and ideas are available, and the better decisions and directions become as a result. If agility is to give agency to individuals and teams so that they can make decisions, then we need to strive to create a self-feeding system and agility can then support equity and require equity at the same time. To do this, we just have to take a look with a different lens. According to the Business Agility Institute's paper Reimagining Agility with DE&I, agility presents opportunities to improve inclusion and equity in the workplace while perpetuating exclusion and inequity, thanks to a combination of culture, practices, transformations, rituals, and customer experiences. If you're embedded in the existing culture, it can be really difficult to understand the subtle acts of exclusion that exist. Ask widely. Open communication, even if you think there isn't a barrier to communication, and clearly state your intention when you do. Consider what you need to adapt. Staff with mobility challenges, maybe we don't call it a stand up. If you have people working for you and their primary language isn't yours, don't do a rapid fire Q&A with them. They need to think about their answers. They're translating.
You need to train everyone on DE&I, have them understand what equity really means. Have them think about it. As a leader, we want to provide that psychological safety. We want to understand. Question anything that seems formulaic. Don't adopt a framework just because it's there. Does it work for you? Yes, pick and choose. What are the things that will work in your organization with your teams and your people. There is no one true way. There's the way you can do it that works for all of you. Show your curiosity, demonstrate adaptability, communicate transparently. All of these things are critical. But don't fake it because your team will know. Consider instead how you can learn to be these things. How do we do this? I think there's three key steps. The first is to build the personal trust. People need to trust you to feel that they can be vulnerable. In my case, I got a nice little jump start because of my team and my boss and the fact that they were willing to go there. But once you have that foundation, you can build it from your team to your department, to your whole organization, and that's important.
Look around and think deeply. Where can you go next? What are you not hearing and how can you get to hear it? As MassBio states in the article, Equity: the Missing (and Misunderstood) Piece of D&I, creating an inclusive culture through equity requires an intentional, adaptive, and transformational approach that impacts behaviors and mindsets as well as policies, practices, and programs. So too, I believe, does true agility. It thrives on the presence of diverse cultures, experiences, skills, and philosophies. Individuality is a useful currency within an agile workplace, not one to be managed over. Agility at a level of excellence, therefore, both supports and requires practices that are adapted to the needs of the team at hand and the behaviors that foster trust and free sharing of diverse and innovative ideas. That is equity. Thank you.
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