Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Articles Inclusion Has to Be Continuous

Inclusion Has to Be Continuous

Key Takeaways

  • Inclusion starts before and continues after onboarding an employee
  • Inclusion has to be deliberate; you cannot hope it will  naturally happen
  • Diversity has an expiry date. Shake things up on a regular cadence to defend against “groupthink”
  • Cognitive diversity cannot exist without a foundation of psychological safety
  • Cognitive diversity is the essential ingredient for innovation

To create a truly diverse culture, we need to have inclusion throughout the whole lifecycle of an employee’s career journey. Leaders need to foster a psychologically safe inclusive environment to allow diversity and diversity of thought to exist. They need to grow people to move them out and continuously get new people in to shake things up, to maintain diversity and inclusion.

Dave Dame, global head & vice president of enterprise agile at Scotiabank, spoke about how inclusion can become a continuous activity at Aginext 2021.

Inclusion has to be purposeful because it's not enough just to hire unique, diverse individuals. We need to create an environment where they can maintain that diversity, where the diversity can be accommodated and leveraged, Dame argued. 

Dame stated that inclusion and diversity should not happen by circumstance. We need to be purposeful to ensure them throughout the whole life cycle, from when we start posting a role, getting that person hired, getting them on the team, to deciding when it's time for them to move on, he said.

Diversity has an expiry date, Dame argued. Over time, diverse candidates working together and gaining more and more shared experiences will lose that diverse perspective. You have to grow your people to move them out of an organization, so you can continually get new people to shake up the team, Dame mentioned. If you build a reputation of growing people, you're always going to have a pipeline of people who want to join your team.

We can't be afraid to challenge each other, but as leaders, we need to establish that space of safety. “I want everybody to feel safe to challenge and feel safe to be challenged,” Dame said. It’s the difference between creating a good idea and creating an amazing idea, he argued.

“I truly believe cognitive diversity builds better products and services,” Dave mentioned. “How better to represent the people who want to use your product or service, and have a representation of the people building your product and service?” he asked.

InfoQ interviewed Dave Dame about continuous inclusion.

InfoQ: At Aginext you spoke about what happened on your first job due to not feeling safe and included. Can you elaborate on what happened?

Dave Dame: Being born with cerebral palsy and in a power wheelchair, it was really a challenge to go through all the schooling and stuff. But when I got my first job in the early 90s, it was at a place where there were still rights for accessibility, but it hadn't cascaded all the way to every organization. When I applied for a job, there were numerous times that I couldn't even get into the building when I went for the interview. Or when I went into the building, they had to rearrange everything for me to go to the interview room because the hallways weren’t wide enough. 

Even though I was qualified and had amazing grades, it took me about eight months to land my first job. I was super excited when I got my first job. And then early one morning, I had to go to the bathroom. As I went to go into the bathroom, I suddenly realized I couldn't actually get into the bathroom. 

Given that it took me seven months to find this job, I did not feel safe enough to ask them to make accommodations to adjust the bathroom, because I was afraid they would change their mind and let me go. Instead, I held it in every day, for three years. Imagine this: I was really careful about the amount of water I drank because I had to be very mindful that I had to go eight or 10 hours without having to go to the washroom. 

That went on for three years until I had a major breakthrough. I did a lot of manual paperwork, for which my hands with cerebral palsy didn't lend themselves well. Where my peers were taking eight hours a day to do their job, it was taking me 12 hours a day. But when I used the computer and the internet to redefine the way that role worked in signing people up for training, my job went from taking 12 hours a day to three hours a day, allow me to get my data in half the time. 

It wasn't that my peers weren't smart enough- they would eventually figure it out. It was more that it was a problem for me first. The sensitivity of my disability motivated me to innovate, and it was only then that I felt safe because everybody marveled at all these improvements I was making for technology and processes. 

My boss called me in his office and said, “Dave, leadership is super excited at what you've been able to do. Do you need more computers? Do you need more people? Do you need a bigger office?” I stopped him and said, “You know, what I could really benefit from is if you could make the bathroom wheelchair-accessible.” 

The shock on his face at realizing that in the three years, he had never seen me in the bathroom. To this day, he asks his employees, “What can I do so you can perform your best work”?

InfoQ: Reflecting back on what happened, what did your manager learn from this?

Dame: My manager learned that there were invisible struggles that everybody was facing, for example having to have child caring accommodations, where kids need to be dropped off in the morning or picked up early, or people with diabetes who need to eat during restrictions. You realize you don't truly know what obstacles people are facing in order to bring their best selves to work. 

That kind of awareness influenced my manager to really ask these questions early on to an employee, versus only asking “What can we do for you?” when problems finally bubble up to the surface three years later. 

InfoQ: What did you get out of this meeting with your manager?

Dame: What I got out of it was that the bathroom was accessible. But then I started understanding that my value add was "changing", because remember, in the 90s, there was no such thing as a change agent. Living with my disability gave me an advantage to being the agile professional that I am; really effective at integrating change into organizations that may not see that they need to change. I represent the struggle it takes for them to change. 

Once I understood my added value, I felt safe to ask for things. But you know what, I still fall into that trap. Even recently, as an executive, my other peers would rearrange meetings at the last minute, resulting in me having to rearrange my support worker, and I couldn't always rearrange it all the time. I would end up missing meetings, and my initial thought was, “Well, it's not my fault. None of my other peers are in a wheelchair. Why should I trouble them?” That was a similar experience to the day I was in front of the bathroom three decades ago. 

I brought it up to my boss and my peers to say, “Unfortunately, I can't accommodate last-minute changes outside of business hours in order for me to be included in these meetings. Can you keep that in mind?” What was surprising was a lady reached out to me afterward and said, "Thank you. I was having trouble getting my childcare needs met when this happened. The problem you solved for yourself really helped me as well." That was really touching.

InfoQ: Why should inclusion be purposeful?

Dame: Too often we start with, "Oh, we hired somebody with a unique background, but then we turn them into different versions of ourselves." We’ve got to think about it in terms of onboarding and in terms of team building events; I've been hired on teams many times but I've only felt part of a team a few times. And that was when my leader would make sure even the team building activities in corporate off-sites were built inclusively, so that I could participate. 

In North America, it’s trendy to see high tables in restaurants, where everybody stands around them, but unfortunately, when I roll, I can only roll underneath them; I can't be at the same level as all my peers. They would then put me to a table off to the side, where I wouldn’t be with my peers and wouldn’t feel part of my team. 

Inclusiveness has to be purposeful throughout people’s journey to ensure they're included in all the things that really create team chemistry; we need to extend the value of that diversity and maintain it throughout people’s tenure at the company.

InfoQ: What can be done to increase diversity in recruiting?

Dame: This is hard, right? We keep fishing in the pond we've always fished in. We look at the normal job sites and the normal LinkedIn sites that might attract a certain amount of candidates. We have to start looking at more diverse recruiting pools, and meetups and even universities or even outside of universities. 

It's my belief that sometimes universities filter out diverse candidates, because university is a privilege that's not available to many. And even so, why would we force all these diverse candidates to take the same learning journey? That might reduce diversity. As an old guy now, I've learned more outside of university than I ever did in university. 

We have to start really asking ourselves: have people shown they have the ability to learn and grow? Have they demonstrated they can do the work we need them to do? Is university or college a requirement? A post-secondary institution might not have been accessible, it might not have been nearby to where they lived, and might not have been affordable. 

Now that we’ve got e-learning and many different ways we can learn, we need to start appreciating them if we want to create diversity and inclusion.

InfoQ: How can leaders create an environment of psychological safety that fosters inclusion and diversity, and that continues on after the recruiting phase?

Dame: A leader’s job is to create an environment where people can be challenged, and also show that they can be wrong. What my manager did afterwards on my first job was he went to his peers and to our whole team and said, "You know, you basically showed that I'm an idiot, I should have asked." He showed vulnerability; humans can make mistakes. 

By revealing this, he created safety. What I try to do now too, is now that I have the title and the authority, I really encourage my team to question me, because that's the only way a good idea becomes a great idea. I get them maybe too comfortable in challenging me. But that way I can create the safety we need. 

We need to have these open dialogues and conversations, showing that when someone asks a question, it's respected. It's not thought of as something “stupid”, it's about asking questions and showing immediate action to help. Literally, I had a new bathroom within a week; that demonstrated this was no longer lip service. 

It's about creating safety for people to speak up and take immediate action, whether you can or can't do it, giving them an immediate response to why. And then it becomes safe to ask for help. When leaders ask for help, it shows we all need help.

InfoQ: How can we make sure to frequently nourish and refresh the environment of psychological safety, keeping it up-to-date?

Dame: It's my true belief, based on my experience, that diversity has an expiry date. When you bring these diverse candidates together, make them feel safe, over time they lose that diverse perspective. They start gaining more and more shared experiences as they can reflect back. After two or three years, we've lost that diverse edge. 

You have to grow your people to move them out of an organization, and continually get new people to shake up the team, so that they no longer have shared experiences. Now they get to build new ones, leveraging the new diverse experience each new person brings. 

Just remember, this isn't a scorecard. If you believe in a team, you don't need to fill it up with people with cerebral palsy; you need people with different experiences to really shake things up. That's why you really need a good program to grow your people to move them through the organization, or just accept they might be leaving your organization as a next step. 

InfoQ: What’s your advice to companies that are looking to revitalize their inclusion and diversity approach?

Dame: I think they have to move their approach away from the centralized walls of HR, and make it at the working team level of every team and every manager and every individual, in order to really understand that cognitive diversity is not only about equality, it's about building the best candidates in the world, and allowing other employees to grow. 

If I'm always around people who have had the same experience as me, how can I grow from my team members? On the other hand, if I'm sitting with someone who has had a completely different experience, or is a different age, or is different in any other way, the learning and growth I would get from working with them is paramount. 

It's about moving your approach outside of the HR aspiration to really mandate at the team level and at the individual level, pushing back resumes that are the status quo and challenging your recruiting team to find new pockets of diverse people to bring in, and actually start measuring it. 

Sometimes I think that HR measures candidates by ticking boxes. However, we need some kind of signal to show that we're not taking the easy way out and only hiring the resumes in front of us. Really go out and seach to get those diverse candidates; even look outside your industry if people there have similar capabilities that might inject a new way of thinking in your current business contacts.

About the Interviewee

Dave Dame is a leadership coach, enterprise agile leader and trainer with over 20 years of experience, which he leverages to drive large-scale transformation in complex organizations. Focusing on building high-performing teams, he has trained over 600 professionals in product management, leadership and agile delivery practices. Dame has worked with technology companies such as OpenText, PTC, and MCAP, in many cases improving delivery times by over 150%. In his role as the global enterprise agile leader at Scotiabank, Dame has built up an agile organization across five countries with the goal of engaging Scotiabankers across the organization to embrace agility and change.

Rate this Article