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How diverse teams create better outcomes

It’s a loud world we live in. With social media empowering just about every consumer, and brands competing for a slice of their attention, the case for creative and relatable marketing is stronger than ever.

But audiences can be fickle. Gone are the Mad Men days of buyers falling for a hard sell, especially when competitors are waiting to drive a harder bargain. Make no mistake: when you have a solid product aimed at a discerning audience, the secret of success is to cut through the noise and genuinely connect with the customer.

Here’s where diverse product teams hold a significant advantage. With a broader range of viewpoints represented throughout the creative process, your project stands a better chance of hitting the right notes with a bigger portion of your audience.

The ROI of diversity

At one point in my career I had the interesting experience of working on a service targeting two audience streams: men and women. Because the stakeholders were all male, they very easily empathised with the male portion of their clientele and could offer insightful guidance on how to present their service in a way that would resonate with men.

It was a different story, however, when it came to the female segment of their market. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to convince the stakeholders that their creative decisions were, by that point in time, “old hat”. That women (like me) would respond more positively to a more modern take on female-targeted marketing.

In 2017, the Boston Consulting Group surveyed over 1,700 companies across eight countries. They examined managerial diversity across different dimensions (gender, race, career path, education and more) and the impact this had on the bottom line. They found a statistically significant relationship between diversity and innovation outcomes, regardless of the country in which the company operated.

As digital professionals what motivates us is the UX outcome of our products, but that’s just one area where diversity delivers value. Greater diversity within an organisation, along with the policies and culture that allow diversity to exist, gives voice to a broader range of perspectives.

This in turn facilitates creative thinking and enables innovation — which is exactly what BCG’s research found:

We calculated, based on our survey data, that innovation revenues could increase by 1% by enriching the diversity of the management team, 1.5% with respect to national origin, 2% with respect to industry origin, 2.5% with respect to gender, and 3% with respect to managers with different career paths. With greater increases on more dimensions, the total uplift potential could therefore be even more significant.

Diversity means removing the barriers to your success

The problem with lacking diversity is the feedback loop — when familiar voices reinforce each other and shut out fresh insights. This is a gender-neutral, race-neutral, background-neutral and culture-agnostic phenomenon that all businesses, great and small, face on a daily basis.

Until you’re called out in a social media shitstorm, the effect of the feedback loop goes relatively unnoticed. You just carry on serving customers with little need to question “the way things are done”. You don’t necessarily lose anything in the short term but you do sabotage your ability to perform better, along with your chances of keeping up with a market that will happily carry on without you.

Homer Simpson pointing to his sketch of a car

It’s not that we want to ignore outside voices and the benefits they may lead us to. It’s more that conditions like cognitive bias (often implicit biases), corporate politics, tight budgets, looming deadlines, and other human and organisational factors prevent us from acknowledging all the information at our disposal. In short: we’re far too busy and important to admit we might be doing it wrong.

Even diverse teams can’t completely escape this trap. But because they naturally include a wider range of viewpoints, such teams are more likely to appreciate the nuances and struggles of the target audience. This then translates to more innovative solutions, more accessible products, and more resonant campaign messages.

Inclusivity: creating a culture where diversity can thrive

Diversity isn’t necessarily about hiring more women, or people of colour, or designers, or developers. It’s about looking past artificial barriers and challenging your assumptions. It’s about admitting your team might not know the answer, then having the guts to go ask someone who might.

It takes an inclusive culture for diversity to thrive. That is, an environment where everyone feels welcome to participate, safe to express themselves, and empowered to contribute — regardless of rank, tenure, gender, race or role. From my own experiences, here’s what I’d recommend as a starting point for pivoting your organisational culture.

Make sure everyone feels comfortable making suggestions

At it simplest, this means ensuring everyone gets an opportunity to share their ideas in meetings — you might need to ask the quiet ones directly (and support them if they struggle) or clear the way so your less outspoken employees don’t get shut out or talked over. At its most complex, this means proactively addressing any social hostilities, passive aggression (or outright aggression) and “blame culture” with hands-on conduct management.

Seek feedback from a wider group

“Wider group” can mean the whole team beyond the project group or even outsiders to your team who may be closer to your target audience. These outsiders carry fresh eyes more likely to spot areas where your messaging is unclear or even potentially damaging to the brand and user experience.

Rotate leadership work amongst the team

This one’s especially valuable when it comes to organising and facilitating meetings. When you allow a range of people to shape the conversation at critical decision-making points, you’ll find new perspectives emerge, which naturally leads to new and more interesting approaches to solving a problem. What’s more, giving everyone an opportunity to flex their skills and appreciate the challenges of their peers can help foster trust and more positive communication among the team.

Enlist people dedicated to the inclusive cause

It’s not easy to challenge the status quo. If you think your environment is lacking, seek out natural social leaders within the company — usually people who are friendly, outgoing and approachable — who can contribute in indirect ways. Encourage them in supporting their teammates, especially if they come back to you with new pro-social initiatives to improve the culture.

Support the inclusive efforts of your leaders

Invest in training for your leadership team and establish with no uncertainty the expectations of your organisation when it comes to inclusivity. Empower your leaders with company policies that favour respect and equal opportunity, and get serious about honouring those policies in practice. Give praise when due, equally across employees, setting the right example for your managers to do the same. Ultimately, your employees will look to them as role models in an inclusive culture.

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