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Inclusive Collaboration and the Silence Experiment

Key takeaways

  • There are well-documented benefits in having a diverse team.
  • Inclusivity is not just about having a diverse team, it’s understanding how our environments and practices can actively support that diversity.
  • In an industry of thinkers, we should be considering neurodiversity.
  • Modern approaches to software development run the risk of producing loud, extroverted monocultures but effective collaboration is as much about quiet as it is about noise.
  • It is possible and desirable to learn the skill of quiet collaboration.

With highly collaborative approaches quickly becoming the norm in the software industry, perhaps it is time to re-consider our definition of collaboration and provide workplaces and practices that embraces all kinds of thinkers. This article introduces Inclusive Collaboration and describes the Silence Experiment - the first in a set of experiments to help teams consider some of the different aspects of collaboration and how to begin to work more effectively with all types of minds.


That diversity is good for our teams and products is not a new concept. Scott Page’s book The Difference1, has for some time suggested that diverse teams outperform teams composed entirely of the highest performers across many different domains, and there are numerous studies showing the positive effects of diversity on our teams, organisations and communities2. However, often when we think of diversity we focus on gender diversity, ethnic diversity, LGBTQ rights etc. All of which of course absolutely deserve our full attention but are not our focus here. We believe that in addition, in an industry of mind-work, perhaps we should also be looking for diversity of thinkers.

In the same breath that we talk about diversity we also hear companies talk about the importance of “cultural fit”. Departments voice the desire to hire and retain people in our organisations who fit the existing culture, or perhaps the culture that we aspire to – recruiting for sameness rather than diversity. In many cases our recruitment processes (even if somewhat inadvertently) reflect this.

Couple with this the fact that as an industry our practices and environments have drastically changed over the last twenty years or so. I.T. has moved from a set of working practices focused on written communication and of solitary work to a culture which values verbalization and intensive collaboration. From one which shuts people off in individualized private spaces to one which values noisy, exclusively open plan spaces. We have swung the pendulum from one type of extreme monoculture to another where the norms have become extreme extroversion and the ability to think on one’s feet in a noisy, busy environment. As consultants, we sometimes see organisations where loud extroverts over-ride and over-rule pensive introverts, by-passing the very benefits that diversity of thinkers can offer. Perhaps we have misunderstood. Perhaps collaboration does not mean what we think it means. Perhaps it is time to reconsider our environments and practices, to kick against the monocultures we have created, to embrace diversity of thinkers. Through doing this we will not only create kinder and more prosperous environments, but may also produce truly creative products and better solve our trickiest problems.

Inclusive Collaboration

The term ‘neurodiversity’ was first coined by the autism world to express the fact that, rather than be considered an ‘illness that should be fixed’, we might do better to consider things like autism as a normal variation in the human genome. In doing so we could begin to focus our efforts on creating an environment that nurtures, supports and celebrates different neurologies, rather than seeks to normalize them, dampen them or in extreme cases get rid of them altogether.

The Inclusive Collaboration movement, co-founded by Sal Freudenberg and Katherine Kirk in memory of the late and very wonderful Jean Tabaka, (a world expert on collaboration and author of the best-selling Collaboration Explained) aims to promote, embrace and celebrate neurodiversity in tech to help teams, divisions and companies escape the mediocrity of monoculture and truly benefit from the incredible talents its individuals hold. We already know that there is a link between STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers and autism 3 and that some of the traits of the autistic mind lend themselves well to a career in tech. Given the statistics, it’s highly likely you have someone autistic on your team or in your department. However, Inclusive Collaboration is not just about autism, it’s about understanding how to work together in teams that have extroverts, introverts, people who like to think things through in advance, people who like to think on their feet, people who thrive in loud, bustling environments, people who need quiet space to think. In short, Inclusive Collaboration is about learning how to harness the benefits of broad neurodiversity rather than attempting to wedge everyone into a constrictive monoculture.

Why silence?

I sometimes refer to myself as a ‘recovering talk-a-holic’. As a long-time supporter of agile ways of working and with a PhD that focused on the Psychology of Collaborative Software Development, for many years I was under the preconception that collaboration was all about talking. I shied away from the fact that, even in my own research (under my maiden name of Bryant) in an analysis of 14,866 sentences of pair programmer dialogue, experts talked significantly less than novices4. More recently I have come to realize that being quiet is not only an integral part of the creative process, but is in fact a key part of collaboration. Knowing when to be quiet, it seems, is an expert collaborative behaviour. For example, there may be a need for some quiet time on our own to incubate a creative solution or idea. Or perhaps a group with a few loud, dominant individuals make it different for everyone’s ideas to be heard. For sure, in many organisations these days it has become hard to find a quiet place to go to think.

Yet, when we consider collaboration – for example, pair or mob programming, collaborative meetings, or even workshops at conferences, the focus tends to be on thinking on one’s feet and on contributing verbally. Occasionally we may be given two or three minutes to “silently brain-write onto postIt notes” but that is about all. So I began to wonder what would happen if we turned this idea of the silent part of collaboration up to eleven.

I experimented a little with silent Lego builds, and then, in collaboration with Katherine Kirk and tapping into her deep understanding of noble silence through the study of Vipassana meditation, together we designed The Silence Experiment. This article describes its debut run at Lean Agile Scotland 2016.

The Experiment

It seemed important to have the teams engage in some non-trivial activity that would be a very approximate simulation of the kind of pressure to perform that they might experience at work. In order to provide such an activity, one that people would both find compelling and have some sense of urgency and investment in completing I purchased a Build-A-Hand kit from Odyssey Teams.

These kits include all the parts to build prosthetic hands that will be distributed to and actually used by landmine victims free of charge. The experiment began with an overview of what were going to do and an informational video that comes with the kits. Attendees were not given the opportunity to introduce themselves to one another to avoid establishing any sort of pecking order or hierarchy as far as possible.

The Mission

Ten groups, each with three participants.

  • One hour
  • Finish with a zip-locked bag containing
    • Decorated carrying case
    • Built and tested hand
    • Polaroid photo of the group

The Twist

  • Complete silence, right from the start.
  • A pad of PostIt notes to capture when participants had the urge to talk.

If help was needed, teams were asked to raise their hand until they were acknowledged and a timer was set for one minute before someone came to help (also in complete silence). Examples of this were when one team were unable to open a tub, one had a faulty part and one needed help undoing a piece that had been put together incorrectly.

Teams who finished early were advised to sit in reflective silence for a further five minutes and then spend any additional time writing any additional notes on when they wanted to speak and why.

The Outcome

Firstly, all groups successfully completed their built hands, decorated their bags and ten prosthetic hands were subsequently posted off to be actually used by landmine victims.

After the build, we asked participants to group their PostIt notes according to whether they were things that they:

  • Wanted to say but didn’t need to
  • Wanted to say and still needed to

One thing that was noticeable immediately was the vast amount of things in the first category, that is, things that participants felt the urge to share but did not actually need to say.

Here are just a few of the insights from the group. When working in silence they:

  • Felt more deeply connected with the task
  • Were less distracted
  • Watched more closely
  • Were more responsive to the group’s needs
  • Felt more equal (without noise it was harder for one person to get ‘control’)
  • Shared a lot more
  • Were less frustrated
  • Had to just move on from mistakes, rather than make excuses or apologise.

This last item felt particularly pertinent, given that many organisations aim to create more of a ‘safe to fail’ environment. Practice in moving on from mistakes was discussed by the group as being highly valuable and useful.

Additionally, as we saw the silence felt more equal, perhaps practice in being quiet may be a key ingredient in the flatter, more self-managing structures to which many software teams and organisations aspire.

However some felt they missed out on:

  • Celebrating successes
  • Offering appreciations to one another

Interestingly, when probed a little deeper, the teams described the novel, yet silent, ways in which they managed to fulfil these two needs – high-fives, little smiles, bows of thanks and other non-verbal communication were all shown to be effective.

Some attendees mentioned that it felt strange to be so connected as a group without even knowing each other’s names.

One person mentioned that they usually used words so much in the way they connected to people that they felt stripped of their special gifts. It was highlighted that this might be the exact same way that quieter people feel when they are part of a noisier group.

Not everyone may have the luxury of access to a group of like-minded people, a meaningful activity and an hour to be silent together. However there are other ways that one person can practice being silent. One such method is by giving themselves a minimal number of ‘talking tokens’ for a particular session at work (for example, three coins in their pocket for a one hour meeting) and ‘spending’ one token each time they speak (for example, moving a coin from one pocket to another). Once they are out of tokens they must remain silent; Another, taught to me by Jean herself, is when asking a person or a group a question, to then silently count to ten behind your back. This is an excellent way of learning to be more comfortable in silence and allow others thinking time, rather than automatically filling an uncomfortable silence.

Of course, we are not suggesting that organizations work completely in silence all the time. Rather this experiment provides an opportunity to experience and experiment with the power of the quiet aspects of collaboration. We can consider it as if growing some muscle memory around not always needing to make a noise to make ourselves heard.

In particular, by creating a space for people to practice being quiet and suppressing the urge for continuous chatter we hope to offer a way of gaining some insight into how being quiet together can be a useful, meaningful and necessary part of the collaborative process.

The Bigger Picture

A good first step for any team would be to simply start the conversation about neuro-diversity. Perhaps have a session discussing the different thinking styles they have themselves and the styles they notice in others that they work with in the wider organisation. The team themselves can then go on to consider how they could better support each other, perhaps beginning by creating a (or adding to an existing) team charter and discussing how their current workspace and practices helps or hinders the various types of thinkers they have.

The Silence Experiment is the first in a series of experiments that can be readily used as stand-alone workshops to help teams think about Inclusive Collaboration. Further experiments are described in our short book “The Inclusive Collaboration Experiments”, currently available for free (or pay what you think) on LeanPub or in hard copy (£10.00) via Lulu.

Now is the time to begin to benefit from making the most of all the different kinds of minds on your team and in your organisation. Let’s stop assuming everyone wants to work in the same way, in the same environment. Let’s stop stifling the quieter, deep thinkers in our teams. Let’s stop excluding or ‘tolerating’ neurodiversity. Rather, let’s begin to create teams and organistions that celebrate difference, that harness the benefits of their diversity and that through doing so become not only creative places with the very best problem-solves, but joyful and inclusive places to work.

You can follow the Inclusive Collaboration on twitter at @inclusiveCollab or find out a little more in our workshop on Inclusive Collaboration at Lean Agile Scotland.

About the Author

Dr Sallyann Freudenberg is an agile coach and trainer with more than 25 years experience in the I.T. industry. She holds a PhD from the University of Sussex, focusing on the psychology of collaborative software development. Sal has an autistic son and self-identifies as on the autistic spectrum. For the last two years, she has been speaking at events around the world, advocating for a better understanding of neurodiversity in the tech world and highlighting the special gifts that neurodiversity can bring. You can find Sal on twitter on @SalFreudenberg.


1 Page, S.E., “The Difference: How the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools and societies”, Princeton University Press, 2008.

2 Maximizing the Gains and Minimizing the Pains of Diversity: A Policy Perspective”, Galinsky A. D. et al, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2016, Vol 10(6), p742-748.

3 E.g. “Autism occurs more often in families of physicists, engineers, and mathematicians”, Baron-Cohen S. et al, Autism, 1998, p.296-301

“Autism spectrum disorders in relation to parental occupation in technical fields”, Windham et al, Official Journal for the International Society for Autism Research, 2009 Aug;2(4), p.183-91.

“Are autism spectrum conditions more prevalent in an information-technology region? A school-based study of three regions in the Netherlands”, Roelfsema et al, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42(5) pp. 734–739.

4 “Double Trouble: Mixing Qualitative and Quantitative Methods in the Study of eXtreme Programmers”, Proceedings of the IEEE Symposium on Visual Languages and Human-Centric Computing (2004) pp: 55-61.


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