How Allies Can Make Room for New Ideas

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In any given moment, we are faced with around 11 million pieces of information. Of those bits of info, the brain can only process 40 at a time. If that’s the case, what do we do with the remaining 10,999,960 pieces? According to Timothy Wilson’s book, Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, the brain uses past knowledge to create shortcuts and make assumptions about the rest.

Those assumptions are commonly referred to as unconscious biases.

Bias can show in a variety of ways. Ordering the same meal over and over at the same restaurants because we know it tastes good. Buying clothes from the same stores because they usually fit the way you want. Teaming with the same people at work because we are comfortable with past interactions.

This topic and others were discussed at the second annual Women in Agile event at this year’s week-long Agile Alliance conference in Orlando.

During the open space session, Declan Whelan suggested a topic titled Helping Men Become Better Allies. “I am married to a feminist and my daughter is a kick-ass feminist,” he said. “And I come from Canada where our male Prime Minister self-identifies as a feminist. And yet as a man, I struggle with how to be a good ally for women.”

One of the women participants started the conversation with anecdotes about being regularly talked over, and even offering ideas that appear to get ignored yet a few minutes later when a man says something quite similar everyone applauds the idea.  It was insightful to watch the faces of the women in the group as they either lit up in anger or sadly nodded in agreement that they, too, had experienced that slight.

Our female colleagues face issues in the workplace that erode their influence and self-confidence and are a detriment to a team’s progress and diversity. The recent Google diversity memo scandal shows us how in environments where people are debating whether women have the chops to be in tech, those of us that know better need to be better allies.

Why does this happen?

Some unconscious biases can lead to behaviors that sap a work environment of safety, which has been linked to many anti-patterns. A capable coworker being marginalized by not being invited to important meetings because, “I just forgot to invite her.” Frequently being interrupted or talked over leads to her assuming her ideas aren’t valued so she stops sharing them. Not speaking up when uncomfortable language is being used because she doesn’t want to be thought of as “over-sensitive.”

There was a time when supporting women and minorities in the workplace meant just doing your best to avoid those and so many more anti-patterns. Unfortunately, today’s climate requires more to become an active ally.

We must make room for everyone’s voices in the workplace and make our support explicit. Here are a few examples to consider.

Make room in conversation

Far too often, meetings are exercises in waiting to speak and never listening to each other. We have become reliant on follow up meeting notes or slide decks to remind ourselves of what we discussed instead of taking the time to listen. This manifests in people not leaving space in the conversation for acknowledgement and letting all voices participate.

Next time you hear a teammate make a statement you agree with, take the time to acknowledge and repeat what she said. It seconds the notion and reemphasizes it for those less aware. This technique can also be contagious, and encourage everyone in the room to slow down their response and validate the thoughts of others.

Some have used a physical object to indicate who “has the floor,” to more directly encouraging listening and slower responses. By the time the item gets around to the one requesting it, the previous thought sinks in.

Making room for these voices can have a lasting impact on team dynamics. It creates a level playing field for interaction and will pay off during ideation sessions. While the emotions of team dynamics aren’t the only consideration, giving them some TLC will have a domino effect.

Make room for ideas

Far too often, I’ve seen extroverted speakers unintentionally step on the toes of others during conversation. Just like the previous section, this is caused by not making room for everyone. A perfectly valid idea can be dismissed by someone moving on to their idea before stopping to acknowledge the previous. Someone is skipped during stand ups and the group just moves on without apologizing for the faux pas. An insensitive comment is ignored or quickly passed over with an uncomfortable giggle.

These moments are almost never intended to hurt those around us, yet can cause lasting damage if not dealt with in the moment.

The most important tactic in these situations is to catch yourself and apologize if you participate in something like this.  Quick self-management goes a long way in changing habits and becoming more intentionally inclusive.

If you notice another person overshadowing quieter voices, use it as an opportunity to provide gentle and direct feedback. “I’m sure you didn’t intend this to happen, but that comment didn’t feel appropriate because…”. This allows the offending party to understand that you believe the best in their intentions, but still offer a chance to correct the behavior next time and preserve some of everyone’s dignity.

It can also be beneficial to create a “safe word” as part of your team norms. It can be a word not used in normal conversation, like “jellyfish”, or a blatant acknowledgement of pain, like “ouch”. This allows teams to directly address something inappropriate without having to specifically call someone out by name. The team can then rewind the conversation to the trigger and correct almost immediately.

Imagine the safety that can be built by feeling free to politely address delicate moments so much they get used to it!

Make room for diverse mentors and mentees

One of the greatest examples of unconscious bias in the workplace is choosing people that look and sound like us with whom to team up. Again, the best of intentions usually accompanies this behavior. It also unfortunately creates an echo chamber for ideas and does not allow for diverse ideas to grow.

Some men are afraid of the optics of mentoring or spending time with up-and-coming women in their organization. This “benevolent sexism” really holds back young women who don’t receive that one-on-one opportunity that their male colleagues get because it doesn’t come with any implications.

When searching for a mentor/mentee relationship, try looking for someone different than yourself. The more diverse the relationship to each other, the more potential you can find for diverse growth in both your lives. This encourages us all to address any potential biases we have and meet them head on instead of running the other direction. If you’ve not had a mentor or mentee who was a different race or gender from you, it can feel intimidating. Just acknowledge this and add that you chose this person because you value their expertise and ability to challenge some assumptions you’ve had for a long time.

It also causes a deeper understanding for those different than you, and an appreciation for the growth you hope to achieve.

Is all this necessary?

By not acknowledging these issues in the past, we’ve allowed these biases to become “normal”. When that happens, nobody speaks up to correct the behavior. We all know this happens every day in our offices, and we must all take responsibility for correcting it. The better of an ally we can be to others who are not like ourselves, the more we grow together.

What other ideas can you share that help men how to become better allies of the women they work with?

Agile Alliance is a nonprofit organization with global membership, supporting and serving the Agile software community since 2001. We support people who explore and apply Agile values, principles, and practices to make building software solutions more effective, humane, and sustainable. We share our passion to deliver software better every day.

Chris's first job out out of college was the weekend sports anchor at an NBC affiliate. If he had only known what was in store for his career! Interestingly enough, he still loves telling the stories of others around him every day. Each interaction is an opportunity to learn what made you unique, and understand where you came from. Chris thinks if you got to know each other more on a personal level, it would make the tough conversations easier to have. Come tell him your story!

No bio currently available.

Lynn Winterboer coaches and educates DW/BI teams on how to apply agile principles and practices to their work.

Ms. Winterboer’s career has focused on Agile and BI, serving in various roles within both professions. Lynn understands the unique set of challenges faced by DW/BI teams who want to benefit from the incremental, value-focused approaches of Agile and Lean development. She leverages her experience and training to help deliver practical solutions for her clients and students.

Lynn is Co-Chair of Mile High Agile 2017 and 2018, a 2-day, 850-attendee event in Denver, CO. Lynn also organizes the monthly Agile Denver Data & Analytics Meetup, which offers participants insight into data-focused perspectives on topics such as agile QA/testing, user stories, slicing epics, acceptance criteria, story mapping, kanban, continuous integration, agile data modeling, evolutionary design, and scaling agile practices for large data-focused teams.

Ms. Winterboer was a founding co-chair of the nation’s first post-graduate degree in business analytics, the MSBA at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business.

Lynn has worked in a variety of industries, including high-tech manufacturing and distribution, telecommunications, healthcare, insurance, banking, retail, education, and Internet security. Clients have included Cigna, Walmart, Intel, Capital One, The University of Colorado, Janus Henderson Investors, Amgen, Abbott Vascular, Bank Rate Insurance, Cobank, Wells Fargo, Dairy Farmers of America, Sports Authority, Polycom, MXLogic (now McAfee), GE Access (now Avnet), McDATA (now Brocade) , Level 3 Communications, Premera Blue Cross, SunPower, University of Denver Daniels College of Business, McKesson Health Solutions, and the State of Colorado.

Ms. Winterboer is a frequent speaker at industry user groups and conferences such as Mile High Agile, Agile Denver, TDWI and DAMA chapters, and Agile 2016. She teaches throughout North America and Europe for The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI) and The Cutter Consortium.

Sample Publications:

1. “Why is it So Hard to Find Experienced Product Owners?” Guest Post on Lissa Adkins website, Coaching Agile Teams.
2. “BI Product Owners Love an Agile PMO!” Published by Cutter Consortium in Executive Update.
3. “Agile DW/BI Testing – Just Get Started” by Ken Collier and Lynn Winterboer Published by TDWI BI This Week.


This is an Agile Alliance community blog post. Opinions represented are personal and belong solely to the author. They do not represent opinion or policy of Agile Alliance.

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