Diversity is Not the Magic Pill

by Jessica Kerr, a software developer at Atomist, Greater Than Code panelist, speaker, and mother. Check out her blog at blog.jessitron.com.


I want my team to be diverse. Both for higher performance, and because it makes the world a better, fairer place.

But diversity doesn’t magically lead to higher performance.

I’ve been reading Journal of Organizational Psychology (it was a birthday present) and it has some great stuff on diversity. I had heard that diverse teams can outperform others, but that’s only under certain circumstances. Those circumstances turn out to be interesting in themselves.

Diversity (in various dimensions) can help or hinder a team’s performance. This particular article studied education-level diversity, relative to team communication quality, innovation team climate, and subjective performance.

Team communication quality. What is “quality”? Here, it is _not_ frequency or amount of communication. It is “defined as the extent to which communication among team members is fluid, effective, clear, on time, and complete.” This relates directly to team performance.

Innovation team climate. What on earth is that? It is about “a shared perception by team members about the extent to which new ideas about work are implemented in the team.” This affects whether diversity has a negative, positive, or unmeasurable impact on a team.

When we’re looking for better ways to work, and we value the input of all team members (especially input different from our own), then we get the benefits of diversity. Hmm, this sounds familiar…

agile

I used to think that the retrospective was the core process of agile development, because it is all about soliciting ideas and implementing new ways to work. But it isn’t about the meeting — the meeting is a structured way of introducing this climate of reflection and experimentation.

Retrospectives move us toward high innovation team climate. Once we get there, we can dispense with our formal meeting. And once we have that innovation climate, we can adjust everything else — that’s why this is the most critical part of agile.

When we have appreciation of new ideas, and the whole team knows it, then we can benefit from diversity. Because we know we’re different and we like it that way, we make a conscious effort to extract information from each other. This leads to “group information elaboration — the exchange, discussion, and integration of task-relevant information and perspectives.” Higher quality communication.

scrum

On the other hand, if we have a low innovation team climate, if “members are likely to follow the standard, set procedures,” then novel approaches are seen as threats that “could disrupt normal team functioning.” Now, diversity becomes a negative.

By default, diversity leads to less communication in a team. Our human tendencies lead to categorization, the establishment of an in-group and out-group. The in-group trusts each other but not the rest of the team. Everything sucks.

conclusion

If you don’t want new ideas, diversity won’t help you. In fact it’ll hurt, and make everyone miserable. In this study, it took very high innovation team climate to get a measurable benefit from diversity, but only slightly low innovation climate to get a negative effect.

This study looked at bank branches. We might experience a stronger effect in software development because diversity, especially functional diversity (areas of expertise) is “more positively related to performance in groups with members higher in need for cognition.” The more motivated we are to process information from all team members, the more benefit we get. More complex tasks benefit more, and software is as complex as it gets.

So until you’re ready for it, diversity isn’t gonna raise your team performance. “Groups typically are poor users of their distributed information and rather focus on the information group members have in common from the start.”

If you’re looking for diversity in order to improve your team’s performance, then don’t wait for hiring to do this for you. Work on your innovation climate and your communication quality.

If you’re looking for diversity to make the world a better, fairer place, then work on your innovation climate and communication quality — because otherwise, you’re not doing any favors to the people you hire and then sideline.

References

Linking educational diversity and team performance: Team communication quality and innovation team climate matter

Richard J. Crisp. The Psychology of Social and Cultural Diversity (Social Issues and Interventions) (p. 257–264). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

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