Managing Diversity: A hard day’s knight?

May 21, 2014

Groups that display a range of perspectives outperform groups of like-minded experts. This is not only the case with a group of experts, it’s also a powerful tool for working with clients. But this power of diversity is hard to create – and to keep. You have to fight for it every day like a knight.

Open source software is very often developed in a public, collaborative manner. So, in these cases, collaboration and working in diverse teams is an important issue. “ Diversity is a powerful force and it’s not only about gender, race, ethnicity and age – it’s about individuals with many different attributes working together. This can be a hard challenge.

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Research shows that diverse teams have a lot of advantages in comparison to a single person or a group of similar people. The reasons are:

  • Greater amount of knowledge
  • Different perspectives
  • Greater range of methods for problem solving
  • Extension of the collective knowledge based on common search for information
  • Decisions will be more easily accepted if developed in a group

There is a simple and intriguing test: Ask “What can you do with a brick?” to a single person and to a group of very different people. Who will produce a wider range of results? Of course you have to pay for this advantage: Decision making and communication can become difficult if the participants come from “different planets”. You have to invest a lot of energy to overcome this barrier. So the question is: Is it worth the effort? The easiest way to find some answers is to have a look at the disadvantages if your team is simply not diverse enough. Fortunately there are some scientists out there who already investigated this topic.


The first interesting message: The members of a group tend to become similar over time. The participants simply learn how to behave in the group and that makes them more and more equal as long as they work together. So diversity is a feature which disappears if you do not invest energy to keep it. This effect is especially evident in decision making as the loss of logical reasoning among the group becomes observable – but there are some methods which can help.

The difficult buildup

  • TREND: Groups searching for equality. Their wish for homogeneity ends up in groups of people who are very similar in terms of character, values and beliefs. As a result the members have overlapping knowledge and capture new knowledge very similarly.

  • ACTION: If you have an interview with potential new members, be careful if all decision makers have the same good feeling! The 100% match is an indicator that you’re hiring someone who is very similar. Look for someone who is a little bit more different and be aware that you may not have the same resonance because the new person is simply a stranger. Include group members in the screening who are already slight outsiders. In short: Be open.


The wish for integration

  • TREND: Even diverse groups want to fit together. The members want to be part of the group and to have their place in the group. This trend towards cohesiveness limits the communication. Everything which reduces the strength of the group will be blinded out – by all.

  • ACTION: Develop a culture of constructive criticism instead of harmony. Everybody should be allowed to question everything in a respectful and playful manner. The reason for this is that mistakes are allowed and are seen as a part of learning for the whole group. Start with being thankful for mistakes and saying goodbye to perfection. Becoming better is a process which never ends and where mistakes are the key. In other words: Be agile.


The influence of informal standards

  • TREND: Groups develop informal standards which they want to protect. We all tend to create stable environments but sometimes they limit discussions. An example may be asking the group for agreement or objections after a proposal is made – the decision is taken if all members agree or raise no objections. What’s missing here is the “Why?”. Not agreeing and having no objection may have several reasons and some of them may be worth investigating or discussing.

  • ACTION: Use counter-factual thinking to unhide underlying assumptions. In this example: Ask the silent members which circumstances would have ended in an agreement or disagreement? What would have raised their voice? Which change of parameters would have changed the mind of the members which raised their voice already? In other words: value all contributions.


The influence of “business”

  • TREND: Listening to different opinions costs time. But time pressure leads to superficial discussions as time boxes limit discussions to the arguments which are raised first. The result is that information which has been shared already will mainly be discussed as these are brought very early into the process as a kind of status repetition. The time box cuts out all other perspectives.

  • ACTION: You can very quickly write all arguments you heard and discussed already on a flip chart. Then try to find new ideas in a speed brainstorming in order to complete the picture. Most important is to conduct the assessment later when all ideas are captured. You can also use checklists to transform the existing ideas: turn them upside down, twist and stretch them, make them bigger or smaller, change or merge them, etc. Again: Be agile.


The battle of positions

  • TREND: If a group of people has to come to a decision it’s often about convincing the others. But the pressure of justification can lead to the selection of an alternative which is easy to justify – but which is not the best solution. This changes over time. Groups develop the feeling that a problem is well known and the problem will not be discussed properly too.

  • ACTION: Use methods which enforce all members to take new perspectives on proposals. Edward de Bono’s thinking hats are a good and easy approach. Ask detractors to find positive aspects, ask silent members for their feelings without asking for the reasons. Ask the advocates of a new idea for the negative aspects of it. Take meta positions which look only at the hard facts, etc. In other words: Stay playful.


The problem with the hierarchy

  • TREND: A special status of individual group members can lead to blocked communications. The opinions will be adapted to the opinions of the leader(s). On the other hand shared responsibilities result in superficiality: The attitude to risks and solutions becomes more relaxed as the responsibility is shared.

  • ACTION: The official assignment of responsibilities and topic leads can make expert knowledge for all group members visible and guarantees that important information will be heard. Group members with a lot of influence should refrain from voicing their own opinions in order to encourage the other group members to raise their proposals and criticisms first. The usage of process models with different phases can counteract the blockade of ideas too: In a first phase all members write their ideas down without speaking with the others. The second phase is focusing on the discussion of the ideas. In other words: be transparent.


The bottom line is: Diversity needs a lot of attentiveness to create and to keep it. Most companies simply don’t prioritize the required actions as they see them as “soft aspects” of the daily business which can be handled “somehow”. Unfortunately research shows that this will not work. You need to spend some energy in order to get the full power of diverse teams back. That’s what we try to do here at Endocode.


About the author

Andreas Wichmann is a partner at the Endocde AG and adds more than 25 years of experience in project management and team building to our track record. With his expertise in complex group interactions, he designs environments for collaboration, teamwork and cooperative thinking.