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Diversity is a Superpower

September 2014 - Grand Rapids

Find the fail

Pop quiz: Where is the fail in this sentence?

My dev team is all-white and all-male.

If you’ve been paying attention the last few years, you realize there’s a problem there, but it might not be exactly where you think.

The fail is in the word all.

An article in Scientific American called “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter” by Professor Katherine W. Phillips eloquently-demonstrates a perspective on diversity that had completely gone under my radar. If this has been obvious to you for years, my apologies: I’m doing my best.

My #1 reason for being pro-diversity is that problem-solving ability and intelligence don’t vary across race, gender, ethnicity, sexual-orientation or nationality, and someone being shoved out of an opportunity (actively or passively) on those criteria is just plain wrong.

Reason #2 is that anyone in a minority position in a competitive field has had to work harder, tolerate more and sacrifice more than their majority colleagues, which means they are stronger, more resilient and have more grit given a similar level of experience and education.

I still stand by both of these.

But if neither of those are sentiments you’re willing to risk your company on, Professor Phillips points out competitive advantages that have nothing to do with either.

An embarrassing history lesson

The current mostly-white, mostly-male tech world we live in is a direct consequence of the mostly-white, mostly-male business world that existed when computers were invented. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: we tend to gather around us people who look like us. People who don’t look like the person in the hiring chair are automatically at a disadvantage, even when the hirer consciously-attempts to be “unbiased”.

This is laziness. This is fear. This is killing our teams.

What about the alternative? Professor Phillips says it’s not all rainbows and unicorns:

Research has shown that social diversity in a group can cause discomfort, rougher interactions, a lack of trust, greater perceived interpersonal conflict, lower communication, less cohesion, more concern about disrespect, and other problems.

Some accolade for diversity, huh? But what if we phrased it this way?

Diversity makes us less-comfortable, more self-conscious and more careful how we treat others.

That’s not quite so scary. Maybe more work than we’d like, but not completely unacceptable.

And we’re close now… Very close. This is the paragraph that blew my tiny little mind:

The groups with racial diversity significantly outperformed the groups with no racial diversity. Being with similar others leads us to think we all hold the same information and share the same perspective. This perspective, which stopped the all-white groups from effectively processing the information, is what hinders creativity and innovation.

There’s the secret sauce, right there in the middle:

Being with similar others leads us to think we all hold the same information and share the same perspective.

This is the competitive failure of non-diverse teams: we presume that a person who looks like us also thinks like us, has similar experiences and a similar level of expertise.

Why in the world would we ask a person like that for help? Or a second opinion? Or to check our sanity?

We simply assume they will agree. (I’ll let you fill in the rest of that joke)

In short, being surrounded by people we perceive as exactly like us turns us into idiots. (Which frankly explains a lot about why the internet is the way it is, but that’s for another day)

Leveraging our own idiocy

Diversity is not only about bringing different perspectives to the table. Simply adding social diversity to a group makes people believe that differences of perspective might exist among them and that belief makes people change their behavior.

The power of diversity is that this prejudice cuts both ways. Apparently we also presume that a person that doesn’t look like us has different thoughts, experiences and levels of expertise. Which is always the truth, no matter which two people you compare.

BTW, If you’re a member of that dying breed that assumes those thoughts, experiences and expertise are inferior to yours until proven differently, might I suggest you consider the old saying “better to keep silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt”?

Professor Phillips has more good news:

When disagreement comes from a socially different person, we are prompted to work harder. Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not.

Sadly, when we are surrounded by clones (our own personal echo chamber!), we don’t bother making sure our arguments are air-tight and that we’ve done our homework properly, because we assume everyone will hear our idea, recognize its genius and high-five us enthusiastically. Which means when our half-baked solution starts throwing harsh reality at us, we’ll be completely blindsided, while the diverse team noticed and fixed it 2 months ago.

Change your perspective, change your world

Ok, let’s sum up. Diversity:

Yes, prejudice exists. But it doesn’t have to be a failing. We merely have to translate the outdated assumption that “different” equals “inferior” into a realization that “different” equals “competitive advantage”.

Alan Kay famously said “a change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points”. By that reckoning, a five-person team with average skills and 100% diversity is the equivalent of two “genius” coders who look exactly alike (and is probably easier to deal with).

Let’s start viewing diversity as not just a balancing of the cosmic scales of justice, but also a source of tremendous power in every challenge we face.