Designing For Diversity

Originally written by on July 14, 2016.

By: George Makar

Being diverse is an active decision.

It requires both stamina and a systematic approach. Diversity programs and communities of interest are important. But they are the inputs to a diversity platform rather than its products.

I learned this when I managed a seventy-person team with a high proportion of women. I thought that I was doing my part. I tried to lead by example: working hard when the business required, and taking time off when my three young children needed me. I sought to be flexible with both direct and skip reports. It seemed to work, until nine members of my team went on maternity leave at the same time.

I was not prepared. And in failing to prepare, I left my team, my clients, and myself vulnerable to the break in continuity. (Actually, this failure to plan for leaves of absence is not a woman’s problem. It’s a work problem – one that we need to address as more men take shared parental leave in countries like the UK and the Nordics, and working sons and daughters give care to elderly parents.)

The Business Case For Diversity

I am glad that we have shifted the conversation beyond the obvious “It’s the right thing to do.” Of course it is, but ethical arguments on their own have not led to material change. What stands more of a chance: amplifying the ethics with a strong business case.

Diversity must become a core attribute of modern business, because it creates better outcomes. In the UK, every 10 percent increase in gender diversity on executive teams corresponds to a 3.5 percent increase in EBIT. In the US, racial diversity and financial performance have a similar linear correlation.  

When a company is diverse, there are: 

  • Fewer incidents of group think. The Chinese proverb “Three Men Make A Tiger” warns against our tendency to believe absurd or improbable information if it’s repeated by enough people. When Yale psychologist Irving Janis first described the phenomenon of groupthink, he called out several antecedents including homogeneity of members’ social backgrounds and ideology. 
  • Higher levels of customer empathy. Product teams that mirror the diversity of their customer base design better offerings. That’s because generating insights for innovation requires high levels of empathy and understanding.

How Do We Talk About Diversity?

We’ve advanced the conversation in areas like business justification, but we snap back to “gender, race, and religion” when we talk about diversity itself. Why is this a problem? Simple definitions can lead to over-simplified solutions, and a complacency that we have done enough. For a more effective approach, we also need to include nuanced constructs like:

  • Neuro diversity. We perform better when we mix with people who think differently. An experiment by Sydney Zentall at Purdue University showed that groups containing an ADHD student were far more likely to solve a problem than those that did not. The inclusion led to counter-intuitive thinking and healthy disruption. Danish consultancy Specialisterne specialises in software testing, with consultants who excel in tasks requiring intelligence, precision, and deep concentration. Three-quarters of these testers have Asperger’s syndrome or some form of ASD. 
  • Functional diversity. Agile teams famously combine a mix of technical roles to produce great software. Functionally-diverse teams also play out well in the broader business. I blogged earlier this year about a media company using small, interdisciplinary teams to tackle threats created by the shift from print to online. Each team has its own charter, prescriptions on how to work together, and a hypothesis to test. The best ideas from this process earn funding.  
  • Cultural diversity. Here, I mean not only the obvious race and religion, but also more subtle characteristics like psychological traits. Leaders across cultures demonstrate markedly different strengths – more Americans are action-oriented, and Chinese leaders are relatively more analytical. Far from being simple stereotypes, these attributes have been tuned by the environment in which these leaders grew up. By understanding them, we can develop more intergroup empathy and expand our leadership model beyond its Western bias. 

We Need Diversity Platforms, Not Just Programs

Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini nailed both the problem and solution of modern change management when they said “Build A Change Platform, Not A Change Program“. Advancing diversity requires a similar approach because platforms endure.

Where should you start?

Warning: This is not a recipe. Nor is it a complete list. Attempting either is a) reductive; b) exhausting; c) beyond the scope of a blog post; and d) all of the above. Rather, I’ve included structural changes we’ve used with success for Shift*Base and Post*Shift clients. 

  • Recruiting: Beyond the interview to assessments. Hiring processes that include assessments neutralise the bias of interview-only approaches, which over-emphasise rapport and communication at the expense of practical skills. Specialisterne relies upon LEGO Mindstorm assessments to find great software testers who often underperform in traditional interviews. I have personally used facilitation exercises to test for listening and thinking on your feet – skills that I needed on teams of client advisors. Erica Seidel, a former colleague who’s now a top recruiter, offers other practical hiring tips like optimising the job spec for neutral language and focusing on success in the job versus the ideal candidate. 
  • Talent management: Beyond personal development to team ways of working. Competency models and personal development roadmaps miss an increasingly important attribute of business success: positive team dynamics. We’re used frameworks like CAF – Culture, Attitude, Function – to surface how teams can improve their output by developing the appropriate culture and attitudes that support the project team in achieving its function.
  • Structure: From functional teams to mini-startups. Spotify famously organises its teams by business problem rather than similar responsibilities. Communication flows amongst team members rather than up and down functional hierarchies – increasing the speed and effectiveness of output. In this structure, informal groups (Guilds) nurture and ensure functional excellence across diverse teams. 
  • The office itself: From a one-size-fits-all to flexible space. I’m ambivalent to the latest fashion – send your workforce home! no offices! I’ve worked remotely with success. I’ve also had colleagues who have hated it, or loved it for all the wrong reasons (laundry gets done). Lego has moved beyond the tired office- vs. home-working debate by designing a London office with no assigned desks. Instead, people choose to work in different spaces, designed to support the task they’re performing. There are libraries and quiet booths for heads-down work, and social spaces for team meet-ups.

Ultimately, We Must Restretch The Concept Of Work

Our current ways of working are artifacts of an (outdated) industrial era. They breed conformity and exclusion in their very structure –  pre-set hours, linear processes, communal offices that support, paradoxically, individual output. Designing for diversity ultimately means that we include in our working environment the activities more commonly associated with play, such as team strategy, creative exercises, and cooperative learning. This mix opens our companies to a broader spectrum of human capacity.

And maybe, in doing so, we also make our jobs a little more fun. 🙂