Using Agile Leadership to Promote Diversity and Inclusion


  • Agile leadership is commonly used to promote creative and quick innovations.
  • The principles of Agile can also apply to the process of promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  • A DEI team should be diverse, given sufficient resources, and the flexibility to experiment.

This post was coauthored by Jennifer Bernardez. It is based on insights that she discovered in helping her organization to improve in the areas of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).

What happens when you apply proven principles that have led to impressive innovations in software development to improving an organization’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion? You get a positive organizational culture change that happens fast.

Agile principles have been applied to stimulate creativity in development teams for some time now. Based on theories of adaptive leadership, Agile principles focus on creating self-organizing teams that manage themselves from within. The teams take on projects with the team supplying the leadership rather than relying on outside, appointed leaders and managers.

Let’s look at the basic principles of Agile and then apply them to improving organizations in the areas of DEI:

  1. Agile leadership starts with the assumption that projects are complex and perpetually evolving. This prepares the team for ongoing change and helps break down commitment to outdated procedures and norms. Team members are challenged to be adaptive.
  2. The structure of self-organizing teams means that there is more participation and commitment from team members. Everyone has a voice and gets heard.
  3. It is important that there be sufficient resources and support for all members in order to be effective.
  4. Similarly, Agile emphasizes recognizing the contributions of each team member.
  5. When approaching a project or seeking a solution, there is a focus on overcoming barriers to project completion.
  6. Finally, there is assessment of the team’s progress, and rapid transitions if things are not working.

So, how does Agile leadership apply to DEI initiatives and creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive organizational culture?

  • First, have a team dedicated to DEI issues. Clearly, DEI is a complex and perpetually evolving challenge. A dedicated team ensures that the organization is taking DEI issues seriously.
  • The DEI Agile team itself needs to be diverse to allow representation and input from members from different backgrounds and perspectives.
  • The DEI team needs to be supplied with sufficient resources and the power to implement needed initiatives and address ongoing DEI challenges.
  • The focus needs to be on overcoming barriers to creating a more positive DEI culture.
  • The DEI team, like any product/project development team, needs to have the flexibility to try new things, discard or alter those initiatives that are not working, and develop and improve those that are.

Agile DEI: A Case Study

A prime example of where Agile should have been used to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion is in the egregious problems with facial recognition systems. Facial recognition systems misidentified people of color more often than white people at alarming rates. Asian and African American people were up to 100 times more likely to be misidentified than white men, and Native American people had the highest false-positive rate because the algorithms used were trained on data that features primarily white faces (Harwell, 2019).

Facial recognition software exists in cell phone sign-ins where errors would put somebody’s personal information and security at risk. Facial recognition is also used in police investigations, meaning that errors, which are more likely to occur for people of color, could lead to false identification and accusation of a suspect.

These completely unacceptable mistakes in facial recognition systems stemmed from the lack of diversity in the creation of the software. This is an example of DEI being a complex and evolving challenge. As technology advances, our diversity, equity, and inclusion practices need to evolve too. Had Agile been applied and utilized to implement DEI practices into every aspect of the company, this situation could have been avoided.

Originally published at



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Ron Riggio

Ron Riggio

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College; Author; Consultant