Embracing team diversity, a Harry Potter analogy

In (what I consider to be) the greatest book of all time, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Albus Dumbledore says to students:

“Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”

Now, while J.K. Rowling is undoubtedly a master of inspirational characters, this one line highlights the value of clear goals and growth mindsets in overcoming diversity challenges.  

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Experience creates diversity

My career hasn’t exactly been straight forward. I’ve taken more career changes than most people my age. My highlights include job titles such as: pharmacist’s assistant, street performer, professional clown, nanny, teacher, program manager, content designer and Agile practitioner.

It’s easy to assume that many of these roles have nothing to do with each other. I mean, how do clowning skills have anything to do with Agile?

Well, turns out quite a bit. Over the years I have constantly been surprised at how valuable my past jobs have been, and the skills I’ve learnt through them.

For example: as a teacher, I would often completely redesign lessons on the fly, based on how students were responding. Years later I discovered I was already using one of the core Agile values “responding to change over following a plan”. These days I find myself regularly changing designs or altering plans based on user research.

Every day I use skills and knowledge that I picked up in another context at another time. Recognising the value of my experiences has been a conscious effort.

When we put on our work hats and walk into a meeting, it’s easy to forget that the most valuable thing we bring into the room is our diversity. Our past experiences and skills, not our job titles, laptops or phones.

This diversity can be both challenging and vital to a team’s ability to solve problems.

I’ve worked in teams where diversity has lead to greater outcomes for the product and end user. I’ve also worked in teams where this diversity has been a barrier to success. The defining factors in these 2 scenarios were empathy, growth mindsets and clear goals.

Empathy builds shared experiences

When Albus Dumbledore spoke those words, he was speaking to students from 3 very different schools. He was preparing them to fight. Not with each other but against a shared enemy. He was uniting them behind a common goal and encouraging them to support each other by practicing empathy.

Empathy is extremely powerful. It can make or break a new product or policy. It’s how we really understand our users and build things that meet a real need (rather than what we think they need).

In user research we focus on building empathy. When working with Agile teams we talk about being open and adopting a growth mindset. In my experience you can’t have one without the other. You can’t have empathy without a willingness to be open to new ideas, and you can’t be open to new ideas without an honest appreciation for the people sharing them.  

Through empathy, teams create new shared experiences. And as a result, great teams are both diverse and similar at the same time.

Add to this a strong common purpose, and any challenge then becomes achievable.

The next chapter

So as I enter the next chapter in my series, I am reminded of all the great diversity I have encountered. Between people and between teams. I am inspired by Albus Dumbledore and his great (although fictional) guidance to practice more empathy and be open to ideas from all contexts and backgrounds.

And, I very much look forward to building new shared experiences that will help us tackle any problem that comes our way.

"What's comin' will come, an' we'll meet it when it does."

– Hagrid, Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire

Reference

Rowling, J. K. (2002). Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic