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Diversity = Innovation: 6 More Things Tech Needs to Know to Create Breakthroughs

diversity-in-dnaDiversity in the tech field is all the rage these days. Its popping up in the form of the recent announcement about Intel’s $300 million commitment to increase workforce diversity, the February 4 article in Tech Republic “Diversity in Tech: 10 data points you should know,” and promotion of the panels showcasing diversity at the March SxSW conference in Austin. Given the buzz, I am compelled to rally for solutions that are designed with the complexities of the subject in mind.  Diversity and the tech industry are seemingly obvious bedfellows — but the path to “happily ever after” is going to require new, and more culturally-nuanced, interventions. As with Intel, investments to increase workforce diversity made by most major corporations, regardless of the industry, are powered by the desire to drive performance results. The increased representation of diversity means that new ideas and approaches can be leveraged to create higher quality and more innovative products and services. “Diversity equals innovation” is a great start, but it’s not enough. Nor are the more-of-the-same type approaches to building employee diversity that have taken place over the past 30 years. Such approaches include:

  • Creating a more diverse pipeline by forming internships;
  • Having formal relationships with minority-serving colleges and universities;
  • Enhancing employee engagement through Business Resource Groups; and
  • Building accountability for diversity into senior leaders’ performance goals and associated pay incentives.

As a consultant who has worked with many organizations to create or enhance the types of programs listed above, I absolutely believe that these approaches are essential to continue supporting, measuring and strengthening. However, I just do not think they are enough to make truly substantive strides related to diversity in the tech field, or in any other industry for that matter. If they were enough, given that we have been hammering away at this for at least three decades, the representation of black, Hispanic and Asian American CEOs of Fortune 500 companies would be well past the current figure of four percent.

Here’s the tough part: diversity takes a lot of effort. The requisite effort is why so little diversity is present in the tech field, and frankly in many organic, new endeavors. The people who started the tech industry were busy spending their energy programming. The effort associated with seeking out people who are different from oneself, getting to know and build a trusting relationship, which requires effective communication, then navigating the (often messy, confusing and frustrating) intercultural nuances just didn’t seem like the most efficient use of time. There likely was not any deliberate exclusion at play; it just happened the way many cultures naturally form. Even though tech is a young industry, it has already built quite a culture and image of its leaders. Compare the old guard “trinity” of tech entrepreneurs Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Michael Dell with the sixteen tech leaders compiled in Forbes’ recently published book You Only Have to Be Right Once: The Unprecedented Rise of the Instant Tech Billionaires — the representation hasn’t changed much.

Why, given all of our efforts, haven’t we made more progress? Consider the following:

  • People like to be around others like themselves. This isn’t racist, it’s human nature. It doesn’t require sophisticated assessments and analyses. Just reflect on popular phrases in our lexicon such as “Birds of a Feather Flock Together” or think about the last time you met someone and immediately peppered him or her with questions to find out what you two have in common.
  • Developing relationships with people who are different than you takes effort. The people who live in your neighborhood, shop at the same grocery store as you, attend the same church, or hang out in the same neighborhood bar are often people with whom you have some baseline of commonality. This predisposition to surround ourselves with people like us has led, over the past thirty years, to significant shifts in U.S. demographics — down to the neighborhood level — which was coined in 2004 by journalist Bill Bishop as “the big sort.” before the sortafter the sortThe result, according to Bishop, is a country that has become so polarized and so ideologically inbred that people don’t know and can’t understand those who live a few miles away. The workplace is, for many people, our one self-selected environment that is pushing for more diversity.
  • People have less experience and therefore comfort interacting across cultures and worldviews. Last year, as part of a D&I consulting engagement, I conducted focus groups with employees across eight branches of a major U.S.-based financial industry company. During one of the focus group sessions, after being asked about the climate for race relations in the branch, an employee said, “It has been drilled into us for the past twenty years not to talk about difference, to keep our questions and interactions safely away from anything that could be considered offensive by another person. We’ve attended anti-discrimination classes, completed mandatory online harassment courses and sat through diversity workshops ad nauseam, all of which have underscored the importance of minimizing difference. Of course we don’t all of a sudden talk about race.”
  • The many efforts over the past thirty years to neutralize tensions across cultures (race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age and so forth) have actually had a minimizing effect. We are less able, and willing, to deal head-on with difference. The popularity of social media adds greatly to this phenomenon. In the age of social media as king, people choose to belong to and participate in virtual communities with like-minded people, further cutting off exposure to, and potential appreciation for, an ability to effectively navigate different perspectives.

If we concede that diversity takes more intentionality and effort, then diversity leadership teamsit naturally follows that just increasing representation will not be enough to substantially impact the level of diversity in the tech industry. Yes, diversity does fuel innovation — but the qualification is where the rubber meets the road: diverse teams with interculturally competent leaders produce higher quality and more creative outputs than monocultural teams.In the absence of an interculturally competent leader, multicultural teams often struggle to agree on a common approach and communicate in ways that elicit the fullest value from each member, leading to an inability to take advantage of the synergies that come from robust exchanges within the group.

Even with a tech-rich education, people of color choose consulting or finance rather than traditional tech jobs. In talking over this point with Hamet Watt, entrepreneur and venture capitalist at Upfront Ventures, he shared “We should consider cultural predispositions to risk. [My interest] was sparked largely after having conversations with some of the senior leadership at a Japanese conglomerate who described the lack of entrepreneurial activity in Japan and attributed it to the fact that the cost of failure is 100 times the cost of failure is in other parts of the world. Apparently, entire families can pay the reputation price for an entrepreneurial failure. While this is not exactly the case in the African-American communities, one could certainly argue that families and communities are a lot less likely to support multiple entrepreneurial attempts as compared to the safe job at a law firm.”

There’s no simple way to “sum up” the differences between cultures. More important is the understanding that cultural differences across groups are critical to take into consideration when designing new approaches to closing the tech industry’s diversity gap, and this will require interculturally-equipped leaders at the table. Intercultural competence is a real competence, not an attitude. Those who possess it in higher quantities are skilled at acquiring the benefits of diversity and recognize how differences affect every aspect of interpersonal interactions, as well as interactions between people and products, services, processes, structures, and events. They, according to Diversity Best Practices, “are able to see and articulate what cultural differences imply for design, development, and delivery of HR, business, and operational strategies, structures, and programs, and then implement business practices that minimize conflict and maximize the value of those differences.” They enable innovation.

What Else Should Be Kept in Mind?

I assume that deep analysis is a commitment of leaders in the tech world, and that the efforts outlined to date have been reached through careful consideration by experts in the tech industry in coordination with D&I leaders. These suggestions, then, are meant to support and encourage the fullest exploration of opportunities for transformation, which is necessary if the representation goals targeted for 2020 are to be met:

  1. Make intercultural skill development a core and ongoing commitment for all current and future employees, beginning with senior leadership. Programmatic and metrics-based efforts are not doomed to become just another HR-regulated check box item unless senior leaders internalize D&I as “about me.” Intercultural competencies, like social and emotional intelligence, can be identified, nurtured and measured over time using assessments and expert guidance. The process of building intercultural competence is a long-term commitment but short-term benefits will be seen when these leaders have breakthroughs because they help unleash the innovative potential in multicultural teams.
  2. Link programs to increase the representation of diverse backgrounds, experiences and skill sets to organizational structures, enabling people to practice interacting across difference and create more opportunities for innovation to occur.
  3. Conduct root cause analysis to better understand the barriers and systems needed for successful recruitment, retention and acculturation for each of the targeted groups. Commonly used classifications (e.g. “Hispanic”) may need to be isolated into dozens of categories. This is where nuance is critical—interculturalists describe this as “culture-specific understanding—because cultural factors that motivate Mexicans may be altogether different than for Peruvians, Columbians, and Dominicans.
  4. Invest in organizational culture changing efforts to make sure that new perspective, approaches and voices are able to be fully appreciated and drawn upon once they are present in higher numbers. Organizational cultures are changing all the time, slowly growing and evolving in response to external pressures and the need for internal adaptation to those pressures. Tech, as a relatively young industry, has the opportunity to build intentional culture changing processes into its DNA, so that the internal norms are introduced faster and less as responses to external pressures and more the unique levers that distinguish “us” from “them”—their secret weapon, if you will.
  5. Develop formal cross-company and cross-industry collaborations that enhance peoples’ comfort level—“normalize”—living and interacting in more diverse settings.
  6. Find role models who resonate with the current and future generation of tech industry employees, leaders and their consumer base. Think of the most memorable and revolutionary changes to society and industry. All of them had an iconic leader, someone who truly reflected the aspirations “of the people.” We should, of course, acknowledge the important work of civil rights activists and community leaders who have paved the road for us, while realizing that now is the time for new voices with new appeal, perspective and approaches.

Business Resource Groups, internships, mentoring programs, and performance metrics are all good — but they are more of the same and have afforded us limited gains, often at a pace that is slower than the perceived palate of the tech industry. Now is the time to call forth a cross-section of interculturalists and tech leaders to surface assumptions, agree on meaningful short- and long-term goals and implement a plan for creating a truly innovative strategy for unleashing the tech industry’s full potential related to its diversity goals, and innovation potential.

Join Us!

On Monday, February 16, entrepreneur and venture capitalist, Hamet Watt, will be joining DJ and Da Bear: Keeping You at the Top of Your Game to discuss Diversity, Innovation and Tech from the perspective of a senior executive with years of experience in the tech field.

DeEtta Jones

DeEtta Jones is an invited speaker, equity, diversity and inclusion strategy consultant and author with more than twenty years of experience working with people from around the world to on personal effectiveness and building workforce capacity.

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