Women in Agile: Humanizing SAFe

“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”Alexander Den Jeijer

Laura Powers closed the Women in Agile session with that sentiment at the SAFe Summit 2017, tying a bow around her theme: Humanizing SAFe. If the Agile Manifesto states that we should value individuals and interactions over processes and tools, where does the Scaled Agile Framework fall? She pointed out that when we talk about scaling Agile, we talk about working with more and more people, which requires us to understand others’ experiences and emotions. In other words, it requires empathy and the ability to work with diverse groups of people.  

Girls in STEM

Powers is an active Agile trainer, coach, speaker with over 25 years of product development, marketing and sales experience. She holds a BS and an MS in mechanical engineering, a field which to this day only one in ten women choose to study. Which is why Women in Agile wants to encourage girls to dive into science, software development and Agile. The San Antonio local user group partners with Girls Inc., a nonprofit that helps girls explore and celebrate their strengths, their voices, who they are today, and who they will become. The program empowers girls to choose education focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).  

According to a Time article, STEM majors were predicted to earn the highest starting salaries in 2016, offering graduates better chances of getting employed right out of college. More than half the employers surveyed planned to hire graduates with bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields, making them the most sought-after candidates entering the job market. Engineers were expected to start out making $64,891, compared with education majors who can expect to earn $34,891 in their first year of employment.

Unfortunately, women are falling behind in STEM bachelor’s degrees. The Washington Post reported that women received just 18 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded in computer science in 2014.  

Women in Management

Not only do women bypass higher salaries and more job opportunities by avoiding degrees in STEM, technology organizations miss out on potentially great managers. Agile managers champion Agile mindsets and support the necessary mindshift in everyone around them. And according to Gallup research (Business Insider), female managers are better at engaging employees than their male counterparts. Women leaders themselves tend to be more engaged (41%) than men (35%), which likely results in more engaged, higher-performing teams.

But besides increasing the percentage of women in technology fields, what can we all do to be better at managing and leading people?

The Era of Empathy

Powers gave the (packed) room an overview of the 3 Eras of Management, a brief history of the evolution of management from an Harvard Business Review article earlier this year. The three eras are:

  1. Era of Execution
  2. Era of Expertise
  3. Era of Empathy

Nobody was putting any thought into “management” until the Industrial Revolution, which is when the Era of Execution began. Value was in goods and services. You executed tasks, optimized outputs, and uniformity was valued over everything. The mid-twentieth century brought on the Era of Expertise, with the birth of Six Sigma and the “waterfall” method of software development. This period also gave birth to the first management theories. In the last two decades, however, the rise of the knowledge worker has brought about a need to manage “human resources” differently.

When all the value in an organization walks out the door each evening, a different managerial contract than the command-and-control mindset prevalent in execution type work is required. – Harvard Business Review

In a recent podcast with Fabiola Eyholzer on Agile in HR, she reminded us of Theory X and Theory Y of management. “Type X managers believe that people need to be forced to work and they need to be micro-managed. They need to be controlled, and they need to be told constantly what to do, and how to do it, otherwise they’re not going to move. Whereas Theory Y says: ‘No. We believe that people are intrinsically motivated. They want to be part of a great team. They want to do their best job.’”

Agile aims to liberate knowledge workers, and yet many of these intrinsically motivated employees are caught in organizations that continue to treat them as resources, not as people. Although we are in the midst of a shift into the Era of Empathy, the Eras of Execution and Expertise are still all around us. When you as a coach are brought in to help with a transformation, you see that many parts of the organization are stuck in the Era of Execution, and old-school leaders are stuck in the Era of Expertise. This may be why, according to the HBR article above, many organizations today are seen as promoting inequality and pursuing profit at the expense of employees and customers.

To change the status quo, all of us as Agilists need to bring our whole self to work and to realize that the larger the organization, the more people we need to interact with. And that requires us to develop empathy towards others, to celebrate our differences, and be curious. Our identities have been shaped from various experiences inside and outside of work; why then should we leave our humanity behind for the eight hours a day we spend at work?

In every organization, employees at every level form communities. In Agile organizations, we encourage the formation of empowering communities that tap into the potential of knowledge workers and everyone that supports them. The manager is a steward, a coach and developer of people who values connection and impact on the world and the organization. Organizations at the forefront of technology and business stand to gain the most by leaving the old Eras behind and embrace the Era of Empathy. The more heart and soul we bring to work, the bigger the impact.

Wo(men) in Agile

Lack of diversity in technology organizations, and in top leadership, hinders our ability to develop empathy towards those with different opinions, and those of different ethnicities and gender. Which is why it is so important for all of us to do our part to open doors for women in tech and Agile. At the Women in Agile event at SAFe Summit 2017, Eric Willeke called for women, and men, to not just wait for the next Women in Agile breakfast, but to go out and spread the word and actually do something. Help women find their voices and seed new local communities. Mentor a girl and encourage her to embrace STEM. Especially if that girl is your daughter.