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InfoQ Homepage Articles Culture and Diversity - Why They Belong Together in Every Tech Organization

Culture and Diversity - Why They Belong Together in Every Tech Organization

Key Takeaways

  • Companies benefit from diversity through decreased turnover, more similar representation of customers within their staff, and a larger customer base.
  • Diversity and inclusion can’t be just one individual’s project; it must become a part of the organization’s culture, allowing for variation in experiences and voices.
  • Thoughtful discussions and open communication are useful in identifying practices to increase inclusion.
  • Corporate image is enhanced with diversity programs and initiatives
  • Inclusion and diversity start with the hiring process

Culture: A Farming Tale focused on why culture is important, and provided a framework from which to view our corporate cultures. This article will look more specifically at why culture should be nurtured in the corporate world, why diversity should be considered within that nurturing, and provide a few steps to get started in examining and guiding your company culture.

Culture is important to an organization. You know the stories of staff and managers who come and go because of the “fit” within an organization. On top of the financial hit that comes when a relatively new hire walks out the door, there are other financial reasons that an organization’s culture is important.

The National Association of Corporate Directors, in its Blue Ribbon Report on Culture as a Corporate Asset, has recommended specific Board-level activities to facilitate reviewing culture on a regular basis: “Because of its significant interdependencies with strategy and risk, active monitoring of the organization’s culture is a full-board responsibility, with specific oversight activities housed in committees as appropriate.”

In a recent study by Freeform Dynamics even an organization’s security is affected by its culture, reiterating the importance of cultivating and growing culture as thoughtfully as one’s architecture.

Henry Ford knew the importance of building a culture that retained employees. Not only did Ford raise the wages of his factories (almost doubling the standard wage at the time), he also reduced the standard work week from six 8-hour days to five, giving his employees the time to enjoy their own cars. These two changes to the Ford Motor Company became national work culture shifts, but were created out of necessity. Ford couldn’t afford to allow turnover to drain his coffers - the company was annually hiring 300 people for only 100 jobs.

While the “culture” of being well-paid for appropriate work hours is now assumed (at least in the IT industry), there are still many organizations that take advantage of their employees’ dedication to their jobs, encouraging (or expecting) attention to work on the weekends or even during “vacation” (which can’t be vacation if you’re working, it’s just the ability to work remotely).

Diversity is important. You’ve read the articles on how diversity improves creativity. Representation of a business’ customer base is also important, as this can provide a greater understanding of the customers and also builds up new customers.

Creativity, customer compassion, and employee engagement

As a new programmer at an internet start-up in the late ‘90’s, Susan took to the development team norm of signing comments and code changes with her Active Directory  username (first initial, last name). When the off-site consultants joined the staff for an in-person meeting, they were surprised to meet Susan - they had assumed “Steve” from her signature. She also learned to pay attention to the local sports teams, as conversation was centered around who won and who lost the night or weekend before. But the analogy of dance and theatre, some of Susan’s passions, were useful in understanding various patterns in the architecture, and terms like “partners” and “actors” became common terms in describing objects and instantiations as the development team got more comfortable with Susan’s input.

In addition to improving creativity and innovation, employee diversity can be useful when it mirrors customer diversity, providing greater understanding of all potential customers. Dr. Rebecca Parsons, of ThoughtWorks, notes that it’s more helpful to have a diverse population of developers, as they are less likely to base everything on one “standard” (men’s hand size for a computer mouse, for example). As a petite woman, Susan understands this issue, often wishing that car manufacturers were more sensitive to the limits of smaller drivers.

There’s evidence that employees who feel a sense of belonging (or psychological safety) among their colleagues are more likely to be engaged. This reduces attrition, increases quality of work, and increases employee loyalty - ultimately benefitting the organization’s bottom line.

Susan recalls her most enjoyable jobs were those where there was a sense of belonging. She enjoyed not only working with her colleagues, but socializing with them after hours.

Manny also sees the benefits of belonging in his coaching, especially where large groups interact. Big Room or Release planning is an activity where many development teams "come together" to organize their work, a place where different views on product direction and development are expressed, appreciated and used to forge a common set of goals.  This form of Inclusion affects planning across the whole organization and ensures ideas, opinions have a forum to be heard and developed together, further strengthening the idea of inclusion and teamwork.  

Culture and diversity go together

Diversity can’t be considered as an afterthought, or one person’s pet project. It must be deeply connected to all aspects of the organization - it must be integrated into the culture.

Culture - understanding of “how things are done around here” - needs to integrate how all people are included. Many organizations have learned to look at “culture fit” during the hiring process, and that can be very important - a qualified job candidate may find that the “expectations” of weekly happy hours, or monthly Dungeons and Dragons marathons, aren’t quite in line with their personal lives. And the question of “cultural fit” can create an out for disqualifying candidates who aren’t “like” the hiring team.

Some organizations are attuned to the concepts of culture, and seek to maintain a certain culture while not abusing the term to disqualify candidates who are too different from the hiring team.

Zappos has placed quite a bit of effort on creating a culture that is supportive, focused on customer service, team support, and little whimsy. Based on this culture, the company has also researched and fine-tuned a process to determine a candidate’s connection with the culture, ensuring that, as the organization grows, the elements of the culture that are considered most important still flourish. Other companies also spend time and effort ensuring that culture is aligned across the organization, influencing the behaviors and common activities, such as team areas, company meetings/celebrations, and how code is documented (or not).

Can your company tell a story? Do your employees fit into the story?

Susan remembers the start-up stories that were often repeated when she joined the organization after its tumultuous start. Told by the founders at new-employee orientations, these stories were a way to instill in new employees the values and motivations behind the organization. But the stories did something more. They created relationships between the new employees and the founders. The organization was still small enough that most employees’ company email addresses were just their first name. But even after the company grew to 150 employees, the start-up stories kept the culture focused on the personal  - they emphasized how the dedication of one or two people can keep an organization afloat.

Any new employee could see themselves fitting into this environment. The expectation wasn’t to drink, or to play golf, or to obsess about the local sports team. It was simply to do the best they could at work, and then go home and do the best they could at home. Susan recalls the best days at this organization, where she loved going into work, and loved going home from work, because she had worked hard, and was ready for a break.

Manny brings this understanding to the organizations he works for.  People raised in different cultures have life lessons from those experienced in the United States.  For example, Manny’s Puerto Rican heritage is rooted in inclusion, with all people and views being welcomed and appreciated.  The value of inclusion provided the perspective and insight that helped him accept people who do not share that same value. Inclusion translated directly into Manny’s coaching role as a scrum master.  Having not been included when younger reminds him of what it's like to be the outsider and drives him to reach out to new members of the team and make them feel like one of us.  Inclusion has helped Manny facilitate during tense retrospectives, where space must be made for opposing or dissenting views about team activities and outcomes.

Building inclusion into your organization

Like Manny’s use of inclusion, and Susan’s experience with the story-telling founders, building inclusion into one’s organization takes a little effort, but results in big wins.

It takes a little bit of thought and empathy, considering the others who you work (or want to work) with. What are their values? What would they appreciate? How can you demonstrate your appreciation for them?

There are many articles that describe ways to increase diversity in the workplace. One created by Lever lists 50 of the ideas the company used - some large and over-arching, some small and simple:

  • Respectfully discuss differences
  • Expand the hiring funnel
    • Job descriptions that are results-based
    • Rewrite descriptions to be gender neutral
    • Recognize what potential hires see when visiting office (in-person or virtually) and set expectations for what you want it to look like in the future
    • Recognize what “fit” truly means in your org, in order to interview for fit without limiting diversity; or encourage those who interview candidates to be very specific about why a candidate won’t work out (don’t fall back on the phrase “not a good fit”)
    • Create a more structured interview process to reduce or eliminate bias
  • Mentoring programs
  • Dish duty sign-up - so more than just a handful of staff feel stuck with cleaning up the company kitchen
  • Diversity or Inclusion discussion groups within communication channels

In addition to the ideas above, organizations have found the following tips helpful:

  • Organize gatherings that aren’t all focused on similar types of events.
    • If you tend to focus on out-of-office activities that all assume some athletic capabilities (hockey, soccer, even ping pong), adding a group painting event, or a couple sessions of Guitar Hero at lunch, may help to nurture those who are more artistic.
    • While happy hours are fun events, those who choose not to drink, or who can’t make events after work due to other commitments are excluded. Mix up your regular happy hours with a breakfast potluck or book club at lunch.
  • Celebrate the diversity within the organization - bring in food for various cultural or other identity group celebrations (if it’s appropriate within the culture of course!) -  let those who are more familiar with the traditions share that information with others.
  • Get to know the people you work with, not just the roles they play in your organization. Many agile coaches use a tool called a personal map as a way to increase connections between people.

Obviously, every organization is different - the current culture, the surrounding community and its culture adds complexity and variety - so some thought is needed before randomly introducing an activity or other method to be more inclusive.

Ultimately, inclusion and culture benefit from open communication, and a willingness to show vulnerability. But, in conjunction with this vulnerability, is a willingness to learn and experiment with new ideas, all focused on becoming a better organization, for your employees, customers, and community.

Malcolm Forbes, the publishing and finance entrepreneur, defined diversity as “the art of thinking independently together.” We nurture our business culture in order to provide a more successful ground for our business to thrive. Diversity within a business allows for increased creativity, a larger talent pool, happier customers (and employees), a positive reputation, and a better bottom line. While the process to increase diversity may be difficult, the results - both financially and culturally - are more than worth the effort.

In conclusion, the complimentary support that culture and diversity share with each other can be used as a multiplier in driving values deeper into the organization, while externally driving a better corporate image for the organization and, ultimately, a richer customer experience.  Employee satisfaction and safety invariably increase morale and productivity and implicitly, a better bottom line.  Finding time to make culture a priority will call for diversity to ensure both elements are satisfied and implemented for the greater good. “Culture” is like retirement , it's happening to you, right now, take positive action to influence a positive outcome.

About the Authors

Susan McIntosh is an agile coach and scrum master with a background in programming. A former teacher and consultant, she has been drawn to agile practices, especially the training and change management that are a part of transformations. She finds analogies to improving workplace culture in her varied experience in theater and dance, yoga, cooking, and parenting. Susan is an active participant in the agile community in Denver, Colorado.

Manny G Segarra 3 has 20 years of IT experience, 7+ years guiding Lean/Agile transitions as Agile Coach/SM, creating team efficiency and reducing cycle times across development and DevOps teams. Deep knowledge and experience in process improvement, coaching, team building, cultural assessments. International experience, working through multi-national cultural issues across global time zones. Leadership, mentoring and team building skills assertively applied to process improvement and accountability. Served as ScrumMaster to Scrum Alliance, current board member of Agile Denver, founder of ScrumMasters Guild, pro bono coaching donated to local non profits.

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