Allison Mankin has been in the tech space for decades. She started when very few people were working on the internet - they were pioneers working in a new arena. It was an exciting time when many people with differing perspectives, including women, could see how diverse backgrounds come together to lead to innovation.
In her recent fireside chat for INS1GHTS2022: Outsmart Complexity, Allison shared what makes for a truly diverse team and why this is critical to success in the digital infrastructure industry.
So, what impact does diversity have on innovation?
The most effective innovations occur when people are brought together from different backgrounds. They don't all come from the same track with the same computer science background. They have other origin stories, family backgrounds, and, most important, perspectives. Therefore, the most effective teams are made up of broad-based groups of people. Allison talks about her own experience and how her most diverse teams were her most successful. However, there can be adverse outcomes due to a lack of diversity.
Negative consequences of lack of diversity:
An exciting way to look at how this can be negative is to contemplate the experience of privacy. This is especially relevant in tech. If the privacy group is made exclusively of people entirely comfortable with their public personas, for example, that can hold them back in their work. It can be difficult to fully assess threats and risks when the people designing the solution themselves haven't experienced adversity or marginalization. The viewpoint is different, which alters how safety and privacy are proactively thought about. Knowing the risks and protecting against them is more manageable when people build the technology with that broader perspective. They get better results when it comes to thinking about privacy. Technology can be significantly affected by the group that is working on it. Having diversity on board can help avoid pitfalls. The same could be said that it is easier when teams have enough perspectives in the group. Getting the practice necessary for innovation can be hard if you don't.
But generally, there are enough differences where you want to coach people to contemplate the thought, “Am I going to be misunderstood by my colleague? Do I think about their perspective?”
You need to understand that someone similar will have a very different perspective. Even people with the same background will come to the table differently. Those alternative points of view are beneficial to innovation. This is even more prominent when group members have very few similarities.
How do you ensure people are comfortable while utilizing their differences?
In general, innovation will falter if no one is comfortable talking about what they see as different from others. There needs to be a culture of blame-free discussion, where ideas can be put out safely without the fear of judgment.
Leadership is essential for this, as well. It's crucial for someone who cares about diversity and recognizes differences between people on the team to seek leadership roles to help people do that. When the leadership doesn't support diversity, it's challenging, and that culture won't be fostered.
Yet, unfortunately, there is still a lack of diversity in leadership today.
How do you bring diversity to a homogenous group when it is lacking?
A company can think it is diverse even if it does not appear diverse. This can be done by looking for people who aren't just like yourself and working with them. People may not feel like they want to do this, but one can always find diversity in your group. When this is done, you may find yourself looking more favorably on the resumes/candidates leading your team to look more closely at what might have been deemed non-candidates. There are so many more qualified people out there that, unfortunately, aren't seen. This should be a goal for all organizations today.
How can tech be more welcoming?
Even today, women and people from under-recognized groups leave the tech space. Why is that? Could it be that they don't feel heard or welcome? One way to rectify this problem is to recognize their contributions. If you think about engineers as doing a role, that's a stereotype. Instead, recenter the thought process to think of everyone as a person. This can be achieved by enabling the creation of a team where people feel welcome and accepted, ultimately leading to retention.
It also helps if you aren't the only ___ fill in the box on the team. That, too, can be challenging when a person is treated as a representation of a specific group. To be treated differently is hard. A person on the team should be important to the team based on their individuality, and their separateness & diversity is important to the team's innovation. That is the best practice to set the stage for the team's diversity to work well.
How can job seekers tell if a company values diversity versus just claiming to?
When looking for a new job and seeing if a company values diversity genuinely, this can be addressed during the interview by asking each person questions such as, 'How do you feel in your meetings? Do you feel acknowledged? If you want to address an idea, how does it work in your organization?'
As the interviewing experiences go on, there should be a diversity of expert panelists to get a truly well-rounded experience.
Is it better to find an organization that walks the walk on diversity or help organizations that aren't there yet?
Try to do both, but when you are younger, it’s easier to be in places that value you. It can be an uphill battle to change things from that new position.
Thanks to Allison Mankin for leading this exciting discussion at INS1GHTS 2022: Outsmarting Complexity.