Speaking of diversity today, I was writing some anecdotes for this newsletter, and I realized I was always using the 'he' or 'she' gender words. I thought I was being properly inclusive by randomizing the gender of my examples. I remembered while brainstorming anecdotes today that I had a number of 'they' co-workers over the years. As I try to remove gender bias out of my stories, I recognize that 'they' is another way to refer to an employee, and it was neglected. I wanted to be transparent when I identified my oversight.

Most large companies have diversity and inclusion organizations now. There are social organizations for women in engineering, various minorities in engineering, and gender diversity groups.

Ask most employees at a tech company what diversity we're concerned about, and they will quote statistics around women in engineering, or perhaps indigenous employees. It's critical to support diversity of these protected classes, but that's not the full extent of diversity.

If you want the true benefits of diversity, I think we need to think about cognitive diversity. We need to look beyond the PR focused corporate diversity efforts, and try to imagine what it looks like to have a team filled with people who don't think the same.

I've worked on teams where we all got along fantastically. We had similar interests, and came to the same conclusions. We hung out after work, and I made some great friends.

However, I now realize that the team would have been stronger and made better decisions if we weren't getting along so well. Why did we get along so fabulously? Because we didn't have cognitive diversity. It's easy to get along with people who think the same way.

Why am I specifying cognitive diversity?

I've met people with extremely similar personalities. They agreed with my decisions. They had a similar bias towards moving quickly, and towards people management. They were also Hispanic or women or gay, but that didn't influence how they worked and made decisions.

When we talk about diversity in tech companies in particular, we're often talking about specific protected classes (e.g., race, gender, religion). The assumption is that increasing protected class diversity will lead to the benefits of cognitive diversity. While in general that may be true, it overly simplifies the diversity topic. The risk is that people blindly chase metrics, rather than consciously looking for the right outcome.

What is true cognitive diversity? People who think differently than I do. What are some ways to think about finding cognitive diversity?

  • Different educational backgrounds – Some people on a team with a PhD, some people with a high school degree. This sometimes happens on software engineering teams, but rarely elsewhere, and not frequently enough.
  • Different financial backgrounds – In tech, we regularly build teams out of upper-middle class employees. This impacts their viewpoints on pricing, product availability, shipping costs, and more.
  • Different risk tolerance – While it's a generalization, some people tend to be slow and careful, while others love to move quickly and break things. I don't know of anyone explicitly reviewing their teams to ensure a healthy mix of risk preference and aversion.
  • Different communication styles – Some people communicate better in person, others in group settings. Some are more direct, while others more subtle. Each communication style works for different people, and in different situations.

There are many valid reasons to put focus on diverse hiring, watching diversity metrics on promotions, and other aspects of monitoring protected class diversity. I simply suggest that diversity on teams is more than these protected classes. We can't stop at hiring a few diverse candidates and assume we're now diverse.

Why diversity means less social cohesion.

What do I mean by social cohesion? I had some great friends at Amazon. They usually went along with any crazy idea I had. Which was great fun, and not always a great idea.

"What if we just pushed this code out tonight? It probably won't break."

"Sure! Sounds fun. Let me grab a beer first."

I think some benefits of diversity are hidden when we focus on race or gender to ensure diversity on our teams. If you focus on building teams with cognitive diversity, you'll see that employees will disagree more often.

I was lucky early on (and later, was purposeful) in finding people to work for me who think differently.

"What if we just pushed this code out tonight? It probably won't break."

"No Dave.. just no. Yes, I know it's low risk, but if nothing else, you can't keep suggesting to your team that they should circumvent our change management processes."

I relied on these relationships to build a strong team culture. What was strong about the team culture? We didn't all think the same way.

The very strange thing about a dream diversity team is that I don't think it feels as fun. Why?

Because (by design) – a diverse team should regularly and violently disagree.

When I say violent, I don't literally mean physically violent. I point this out because every time I say a quote like that, someone replies to my email and says, "You know, violence at work is never acceptable." I mean, seriously, can't I take some small amount of poetic license with my phrasing?

What I mean is that people should passionately disagree. I sincerely want to move more quickly. I hate red tape, and I always enjoyed cutting corners. I hired some cautious people to work for me. They were the voices of reason in the room, stopping me from doing what I wanted to do.

I relied upon them to speak up and provide the counter voice to my inclinations. Did I always listen? Certainly not. My intuitive way of working was generally successful. I just needed voices in the room to say what I didn't want to hear. They ensured that I thought twice about my natural reactions to situations.

This post is for paying subscribers only

Sign up now and upgrade your account to read the post and get access to the full library of posts for paying subscribers only.

Sign up now Already have an account? Sign in