What lessons can we learn about diversity by looking at the approach of the most important teams in the world?
New President Joe Biden has nominated the most varied cabinet in history; milestones include nominating the first female chiefs for the Pentagon and the Treasury, the first openly gay man, and the first Native American cabinet secretary.
Surpassing the previous diversity record of Barack Obama, Biden has talked about the importance of varied voices in the room.
Why is diversity important for decision-making?
Besides clear moral and societal logic, it’s interesting for us to reflect on why having a rich and heterogeneous decision-making team has been important for many former US leaders.
It’s instructive that Obama, whose own diverse team included a member of the opposing Republican party, himself took his own cues from another former President, Abraham Lincoln.
Sure, a glance at Lincoln’s cabinet line-up screams of anything but diversity. But in fact, Lincoln went out of his way to hire his rivals and opponents into his council.
There’s a problem when we spend too much time with people who think like us. We start believing that the agreement in the room is proof that we were right.
Also, agreeing with people proves incredibly… agreeable.
If you’ve ever found yourself connecting with someone who loves the same TV shows as you or loves the same music, then you’ll surely recognize the comfortable joy. This comfort is termed homophily. We go out of our way to find friends and partners who are ‘on our wavelength’.
And so it is with decisions. When we’ve got our mind on a course of action, we can sometimes find it less stressful when others agree with us.
Heterogeneity as the key to better decision-making
Here’s the rub – as Lincoln knew, diverse perspectives are proven to give us new vantage points. Sure, they often make the conversation more complex. But ultimately, they contribute to us reaching more robust outcomes.
A study by Stanford University backed up the sense that better decision-making isn’t always more comfortable.
Students problem-solving with friends enjoyed the task more than those in groups who didn’t know each other.
However, results-wise, the diverse gang of problem solvers substantially outperformed the group of like-minded friends.
A good example of a lack of variety in a real-life decision-making process is Apple’s launch of Healthkit, a product that the company boasted would bring all of a user’s personal wellness data into a single app. The brand promised it would enable consumers to “monitor all of the metrics that you’re most interested in”.
It was a full year later before the company recognized that for half of their users, tracking periods was vital health data that they’d expect to be included in such a comprehensive health tracker.
How had this omission happened?
Well, from Apple’s own publicly shared data the vast majority of the product development organization is male. They’d just not had women in the room at all through the development process.
How can we support the diversity of thought in our meetings?
In contrast, the challenge for many of us these days is that we’ve often got a spectrum of opinions in the Zoom – but we’re just not hearing them.
I talk about it in the video below as well:
In my time working at Twitter, we started to realize that digital tools could be very helpful for enabling better outcomes.
Experimentations with shared documents, polling questions of the group and effectively enabling digital collaboration proved a productive way to direct the output of all members of the team.
If we had team members in six or seven countries some colleagues felt less comfortable speaking up in English. Other personalities would love holding the floor for twenty minutes.
It’s fair to say there were plenty of times that we had intense disagreement around the video call. It wasn’t always obvious how to reach a resolution. We found that using digital tools (like shared documents) was a good device to run in parallel with the conversation in the group.
There’s an unexpected upside of the year of remote work. Many firms have found that if they give voice to the quieter people in the virtual room their contributions can be astonishingly valuable. We’ve also learned that quieter people are often willing to speak up collectively but not individually.
In other words, putting an item to a democratic vote – and including a plurality of options – is often a way to elicit a strong opinion from a quiet person that might otherwise have been hidden.
Of course, we are all vividly aware that optimizing work for an easy life of agreement is the completely wrong thing to do. Thanks to new electronic tools, we can harness the power of diverse thought without having to compromise on running slick, harmonious group discussions.
The above points might paint a labored image of hearing diverse voices. But while it may be easier when we all agree, it generally isn’t in service of us reaching the best conclusions.
As the chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr said, ‘When two men always agree, one of them is unnecessary’.
This article was written by Bruce Daisley, bestselling author, consultant, and ex-Twitter VP EMEA.
Bruce is also featured in our Trend Report ‘The Online Meeting Revolution’.
In the report, you’ll discover the latest research and trends in online and hybrid meetings and pick up plenty of actionable tips for your next meeting.