Diversity of Opinions: Why everyone at your team should have a voice
For some of you it might sound a little bit old fashioned to see a publication about a topic such as diversity of ideas in a work environment, given the most recent revolutions in terms of corporate culture. But the way I see it, we still have a long journey ahead until we truly understand the value of this type of culture and really live up to these principles. Nowadays we talk a lot about diversity but most of the times we forget about the basic heath of our everyday work environment.
I’m taking a poetic license to classify companies in three types: i) The ones who truly have a democratic culture of sharing ideas; ii) The ones who have it in their corporate values list but didn’t live up to it; iii) The ones who didn’t give a damn about diversity of ideas at all. The former seems like the new standard but still there are much more companies like the latter and that’s why I’m writing this article. I want to share my vision and argue about why diversity of ideas and a safe environment where people feel confident to expose them, to question others and to defy, are valuable for most companies regardless of its size or market.
This article is not just addressed to people that are managers, leaders or have any other position of authority. Of course it’s easier to implement democracy if you are in these positions, but everyone can start to help others to have a voice, there’s a lot you can do starting with small things like stop interrupting your co-workers in meetings, asking for people’s opinion constantly, and so on.
Why diversity isn’t enough
Diversity is a word rising in modern management literature such as Jurgen Apelo in his already-classical Management 3.0, where more and more authors argue that you should focus on bringing different people so that you increase the quality of your decisions. The reason for that is because you achieve a better coverage of all possible paths by having a bunch of different people each with their own vision, background, education, origin.
I completely agree with this argument, and I think we totally have to promote more and more diversity (we are really far from the ideal diverse environment) but the problem is that if your environment already didn’t have space for contribution, there’s no point at all to spend time and energy looking for more diverse people. Even if you find them, they’ll not be able to contribute anyway. The bottleneck usually is still in immature culture and lack of a safe environment to talk.
As an employee the biggest loss is that you’re wasting your money. Analogous as a leader, you’re wasting your teams truly potential. If you are in an environment where just a few Caciques speak the whole time, there’s definitely a lot of great ideas being left aside, never having even the opportunity to come to the light. It doesn’t matter how diverse your team is, it doesn’t matter how well written your corporate values list are, your are most probably short-sighted in a lower hill while the big mountains of opportunities are right next to you.
Let’s bring the problem to a tech company scenario
In the masterpiece “Inspired: How to create tech products that customers love”, Marty Cagan suggests that we should access 4 main risks before the process of developing a new product or feature. The risks are:
- Value risk (whether customers will buy it or users will choose to use it)
- Usability risk (whether users can figure out how to use it)
- Feasibility risk (whether our engineers can build what we need with the time, skills and technology we have)
- Business viability risk (whether this solution also works for the various aspects of our business)
Now, have a great look at the list above and reflect for a minute: It seems better that a Product Manager, Engineer Manager or a Director takes care of this task and define the future of the product by themselves, or it seems better that the actual engineers, designers, analysts and everyone else that is in the vanguard of the delivery work on a daily basis access these risks? I think that the latter is an obvious one, and this doesn’t mean that a Director can’t participate, the point again is that EVERYONE should have a voice. It’s just like a math problem, you’ll need to consider all of these outputs to get to a global optima for your problems.
Even in the day-to-day basis delivery process you can face problems and ended up lowering your team velocity by not providing an open communication space. When everyone thinks together the chance of identifying future blockers or other problems faster (avoiding them) grows. In an environment like this you might deliver higher quality products faster and create less technical (or other kinds of) debt in the process, this means better team results witch means better company results and people usually feel more motivated: is a big win-win situation.
Have you ever heard of Psychological Safety?
Psychological Safety is usually referred to “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career” — William A. Kahn. It’s an environment where people feel respected enough and safe to express anything without being judged.
When people feel unsafe to express they’ll be reactive, taking a defensive posture every time someone questions something. They won’t feel safe to step back even when they know they’re walking in a wrong path. They won’t be able to process feedback in a healthy way and this is the most dangerous consequence, it can create a vicious cycle making the overall environment decay into an abyss that will be almost impossible to overcome.
How to avoid this abyss? There are certain things leaders can do, but for that to work, the leaders of the organization cannot be hypocrites, they must teach by example on these terms, it has to be a cultural matter. If you’re not a leader, you can also live up to the points above by Amy Edmondson’s on his TEDTalk “Building a psychologically safe workplace”:
- Don’t allow people to interrupt each other
- All ideas should be accepted equally and never judged
- Never place blame
- Encourage out of the box and off the wall suggestions, as they often lead to the most innovative projects
- Teach them how to first listen, analyze and then respond to input from others
- Help your team become comfortable receiving feedback from each other. Rather than a criticism, encourage your team to see feedback as a way to strengthen their ideas
An important warning: If you have clear aggressors to the environment you need to rapidly guide them in a path to change and if it didn’t work, no matter how technically great they are you need to let them go. And never ever ever promote someone that cannot respect the topics above to be a manager of other people.
How to give voice to people?
The main goal is to encourage people to share more by responding and asking questions on a daily basis, in every possible interaction. A great path to achieve this goal is to train yourself to be a good facilitator, changing the group dynamics given the circumstances. You have to use the right techniques for each different group:
- If certain individuals rarely speak during meetings, actively ask them for their opinion
- If there’s someone that speaks too much every time stealing space from others, try to break up your team in smaller cells for discussions and meetings to dilute his voice
- If you feel that the team tend to stick to any ideas, make them write down individually before share something to the group
- If team members interrupt each other too much, bring a hat to the meetings and just allow people with the hat to talk.
You can try to create protocols to make sure everyone a fixed period of time to collaborate, if you have retrospective meetings for instance, you might give some time to everyone write out their own notes, and then setting a fixed small amount of minutes for each team member to share.
Another great idea is individually voting: People vote individually and them discuss over the different opinions that arises. This way everyone will need to position themselves and the discussion over different results will rapidly become more natural — you not only ensure participation, but also promote discussions over different opinions. I’m a fan of using fibonacci voting for tasks at planning meetings (planning poker link) , this way you promote discussions that usually brings untouched points up, enhancing the quality of work, previsibility and motivation of your team.
There’s always a way to ensure a great environment where everyone can talk and you have diversity of ideas. You just have to stop to reflect where are the main aggressors blocking it, and address the better solution to that. You can start with a simple Psychological Test. To finish, one quote from Netflix’s Book — Powerfull: Building a culture of freedom and responsibility by Patty McCord:
“We wanted all of our people to challenge us, and one another, vigorously. We wanted them to speak up about ideas and problems; to freely push back, in front of one another and in front of us[…] The executive team modeled this: We made ourselves accessible, and we encouraged questions. We engaged in open, intense debate and made sure all of your managers knew we wanted them to do the same.”
Remember, focus in the culture first…