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Creating Diverse Product Teams: What Works (and What Doesn't)

Yesterday I had the honor of speaking with a group of local leaders about how to create more inclusive work environments (thank you, GCHRA!). We spent the morning discussing how diverse teams offer the ‘trifecta’ of great product management: more innovation, better problem solving, and greater customer empathy.
I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a firsthand view of the exceptional performance that diverse teams can achieve.  My product teams who developed the most innovative products and far exceeded our profit targets were also the most diverse.  And, yes, we were diverse in gender, ethnicity, age and sexual orientation but we were also diverse in our cognitive thinking styles, our socioeconomic backgrounds and our skills.  My career experience has shown this much to be true: diversity, of all kinds, leads to better products.

Because of my positive experiences building and leading incredibly diverse teams, I love to engage organizations in conversations about how to improve their own diversity and inclusion.  Most often, they simply want advice on where to start.

Not surprisingly, unconscious bias training has become one of the most popular first steps that companies take to improve diversity and inclusion. For example, interest in “unconscious bias training” hit a historic high earlier this year when Starbucks announced they would close more than 8,000 stores for one day to conduct unconscious bias training.

But, the research on the effectiveness of this training is lukewarm, at best.  Some studies conclude that these trainings can have an adverse or no impact on diversity, while other studies show a slightly positive impact.  

So, if unconscious bias trainings don’t increase diversity, where should product leaders start?  Here’s what I’ve learned from helping clients tackle this complex topic, leading to real results:

1)     Set goals and hold people accountable – The primary finding in last month's 2018 McKinsey Women in the Workplace Report is:
“Articulating a business case, setting goals and reporting on progress, and rewarding success are key to driving organizational change.” Yes, this report focuses on how to improve  gender diversity, but setting specific targets and holding leaders accountable for hitting these targets is critical for improving  all forms of diversity.

I know this is controversial.  But, many of the leading employers of product management talent (LinkedIn, WalMart, Intel, etc.) are setting goals, sharing them publicly and seeing real improvements in the diversity of their workforces.  They are also teaching the rest of us how to effectively set targets without sacrificing quality or putting themselves at risk of reverse discrimination.

2)     Change your management processes to mitigate unconscious bias- Put the necessary mechanisms (and people) in place to catch bias before it impacts outcomes. This means redesigning processes to limit the impact of bias, especially the processes surrounding recruiting, performance management, and selecting employees for development opportunities.  

3)     Invest in developing, promoting and rewarding inclusive behaviors– Our leaders should be trained on how to practice inclusive behaviors including creating ‘psychological safety’ on teams, ensuring that all team members are invited to speak up and be heard, coaching all team members with candor, and sharing credit for success.  We need to develop a new model of what a good leader looks like and train our leaders to be, first and foremost, inclusive.

4)     Don’t be afraid to ask questions and admit what you don’t know.  We’re in challenging times. There’s lots of confusion and uncertainty around how to have conversations about race and gender and gender-identity. But the good news is people are  talking about it. Have courageous conversations at your company. If you’re not comfortable leading the discussion, find someone who is. They’ll be glad you asked.

Let me know - how have you successfully created more diversity in your product teams?