What Can Tolerance Teach Our Teams?

There are a lot of things we are striving to be tolerant of in our society today. Terrorism, race, religion, immigration, marriage, and a bevy of other topics manage to flood our news stream and ask for consideration. Passionate advocates for either side of the subject manage to artfully articulate points. Each one presents the same request to us as a people:

Are you willing to be tolerant of my ideas?

It’s an important concept to grasp for me as I begin a new journey this week. I’ve joined the team at ThoughtWorks to change the world by crafting amazing software. Doing this work, at this place, is exactly what I need at this stage of my career. It’s a passionate place filled with creative minds, though, so how I handle the ideas of others will impact my success.

The agile community is also in need of tolerant minds right now. There are enough of us practicing the art of agile leadership across the world, and various sects of thought have started putting up tents. Much of the time, LinkedIn group discussions turn into “religious” arguments over what is and isn’t “agile”. The scrum groups are even worse, to be honest.

Being tolerant is a mindset that many of us have some experience with, and yet still struggle taking steps towards improvement. We think we are, until a topic we aren’t comfortable with comes our way.

A recent TED Radio Hour confronted me with this recently and passed along some great points that we could all take to heart as we negotiate the ideas of others.

Start with honesty about yourself.

Diversity consultant Verna Myers works with all types of companies, and they ask her to do the same thing: make them more diverse, especially on the topic of race. There are tons of vanity metrics that companies can engage in to broadcast healthy employee mix numbers, but Myers would rather start simple.

Stop trying to be something you aren’t.

“Stop trying to be good people,” she says. “We need real people.”

As a black woman, she admitted in her TED talk that she has a ton of biases that she takes with her every day. That refreshing honesty helps establish a baseline of expectations that she can then work with to improve her interactions with others.

“I do this work every day, and I see my biases.”

Myers recommends taking inventory of your thoughts on the world around you. Questions like:

  • Who is your default?
  • Who do you trust?
  • Who are you afraid of?
  • Who do you feel connected to?
  • Who do you run away from?

This should be familiar to agile leaders who engage in team norm discussions frequently with their teams. Communicating preconceptions around topics like roles, meeting times, mission statements, goals, success, and for sure failure can ensure everyone can set the stage for successful interactions later.

If you know where each other stand, you improve together instead of in silos.

Recognize diverse ideas fill in the gaps.

Arthur Brooks works for the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank concerned with advocating for conservative business approaches. As controversial as his company’s ideals can be at times, he recognizes how important a variety of ideas are in society.

“We need to need people who are not like us,” Brooks said. “Only when we do that can we have a unity that can be craved.”

Just like the best laws, the best requirements and software is created by fundamentally diverse people. Similarly-minded people may get along on a day-to-day basis, but the products they create might have holes in it. These gaps could be in code architecture, usability, design, or even with the product itself.

This is where the magic of Lean Startup, Design Thinking, and other user-centered frameworks come in. If we can create the smallest amount of an idea, then test it with real people, the next iteration will be better by default.

Brooks calls a lack of diverse ideas motive asymmetry. It’s a problem in US politics, and it’s a problem on our teams every day. Seek out fresh ideas and perspectives, and you will more symmetrical approach to your product.

The best tool is contact with others.

Myers touched upon this in her talk. The more time she spends with people different from her, the more she can appreciate and understand them.

“I feel so close to them,” she said. “Why? The person moves from being a monocultural individual to someone who is multifaceted, and you are reminded of your humanity.”

Desiring diverse ideas on your team is certainly a step in the right direction. That research is going to be the best data you can gather. We can’t just stop there, though, when it comes to diverse ideas.

We need diverse teams.

My favorite teams have included even mixes of gender, race, and economic background. ThoughtWorks does an amazing job of not only recruiting a diverse employee base but actually staffing projects with this in mind. My favorite example was on an app that sold meat food products included a UX strategist who was vegan.

What a fresh perspective she brought our work!

When you expose yourself to people different from you, it makes learning about them more real. You can put a name and face with the diversity and makes it stick.

“We cease to be bystanders and become actors,” Myers said.

It takes real work to understand those around you, but these intentional acts can get us all just a little closer. We all appreciate how similar we are to each other, and celebrate individual flavor at the same time.


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