Agile Lessons from the World of Roller Derby : Diversity

men action 11There’s roller derby and there’s men’s roller derby.  I can’t think of another assertive team sport with large amounts of physical contact which is played primarily by women.  There are male roller derby teams (and even a few mixed ones) and this is becoming more popular, but it is still predominantly a female sport.

In your job have you ever worked in a single gender team?  On average only 14% of people in technology teams are women.  Chances are that if you work in the software industry and are male you will have worked in a single gender team and if you are female you won’t have.  Think about that for a minute.  This is a real difference in experience for people within the industry depending on their gender, irrespective of whether they are treated differently.

I have actually worked in a single gender team.  In 2005 I was the technical project manager and application architect for a new project for a client in London.  At the time I was living in Philadelphia in the US and I was allocated 2 developers at my company’s new offshore office in Hangzhou, China.  There were all sorts of interesting things about this particular project but one of them was the fact that the technical team members (both developers and myself) were all women, and the client team members were all men.  This is very memorable to me for being so unusual.  It only lasted around 4 months until we added another developer to the team, who happened to be male.

Does the gender mix in a team actually matter?  I think that diversity is really important, but gender is only one dimension.

action 21Roller derby is the most accepting community I have ever been part of.  I love the fact that people are accepted irrespective of what they look like, the clothes they like to wear, whether they have tattoos, their age, what their sexual orientation is, their religion, whether they have mental health issues, whether or not they fit into a binary gender definition, etc.  As an example consider the fact that anyone can skate in a WFTDA sanctioned game “if women’s flat track roller derby is the version and composition of roller derby with which they most closely identify“.

This diversity adds immensely to my experience of the roller derby community.  Being exposed to different ways of thinking can lead to greater innovation, team performance and personal growth.  This is just as true in the software world.

One organisation I worked with had a large proportion of people who liked cycling.  That’s good right?  It binds the team together and gives people a common bond.  However, it probably means that when people are interviewing for new members of the team they are looking for people who ‘fit in’ to the culture.  People who fit in to the existing culture may well be people who think like those already in it.  That’s a really powerful way to encourage group-think and reduce diversity of thought.

unhappy manHave you ever worked in a team with a really unpopular team member?  One team I worked with had a problem developer.  He wasn’t as quick on the uptake as the other team members, he would ask really basic questions in meetings and he wouldn’t stick to the decisions which the team made.  The team members didn’t respect him, they didn’t want to work with him and he knew it.

The change we made was to allow him to ask his questions in meetings.  Ordinarily one of the team members would shut him down but they were all asked to allow him to finish his questions.  It was interesting to see that at least 30% of the time his questions found a fundamental flaw in the way in which the team were thinking of approaching a problem.  Finding the flaw early obviously saved time and money.  In addition to this we started to send out a quick email following meetings if any decisions were made, with a short description of each decision.  Once we started doing that he stuck to each and every team decision.  For him, seeing the decision in writing was very different from hearing it verbally.  Over time the other team members started to value the contribution which he uniquely brought to the team and to understand that the team as a whole was better because he was in it.

Next time you’re interviewing ask yourself whether you’re looking for someone who’ll fit in, or whether you want someone who’ll challenge the way people think.  Next time you’re having difficulty working with someone ask yourself whether they think differently and if so whether that could be useful.  Be prepared to stand back and question yourself, your assumptions and whether your ways of doing things always lead to the best outcomes.

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About IvanaTheTerrorBull

Techie skater and agile craftswoman with a passion for learning @IvanaTerrorBull