Building Diverse, Resilient Teams that Master Collaboration

Here’s another excerpt from my upcoming book on collaboration, focusing on a critical, but confounding principle. Who do we include? Why? And how do we think about those we don’t include? This is the first principle of collaboration:

Principle 1: Everyone Helps

Now I know what you’re thinking: Everyone helps? That sounds…messy. In meaningful collaborations “everyone” cannot literally mean everyone, but as a principle it’s worth realizing that the more you include people who are affected by, and invested in, the topic at hand the better your results will be.

It’s counterintuitive, but casting a wide net and including more people, actually helps you move faster. Because, consider for a moment that everyone is already “helping” you. They just aren’t doing it in a way that is actually helpful. Group dynamics, especially in competitive corporate culture, lead to people to see efforts that exclude them as potential threats or a drain on resources that feel tight. At first, the people that you have not engaged (for whatever reason) might stand off to the side, neither helping or hurting your efforts. But it doesn’t take much for those who’ve been made to feel excluded to stake out a position on the opposite bank, and work against what you are trying to create. Often we assume anyone not working with us are neutral parties, but if those parties think they should be involved, they won’t stay neutral. Often in a rush to just “get to it” we leapfrog over interested parties, only to find that we must spend large amounts of time and energy trying to get their buy-in later. Their participation often takes place after the fact, as combative reviews of “finished” work, or worse, competitive efforts spring up and muddy the waters.

This isn’t necessarily because these people don’t believe in what you are doing. Rather, their reaction is a normal response to having a perspective that isn’t being heard. When we have a real interest in an effort, we can’t help but want to contribute, and if we aren’t given a chance, it can bring up an emotional response that is hard to corral productively. By engaging “everyone” in approaching a problem, you increase their commitment to the end-product and you reduce the drag on momentum.

Including “everyone” means widening the funnel of inputs to the process, enlisting varied perspectives to generate solutions, and getting a larger set of people to vett ideas to find their faults and make our case stronger. Everyone can help if you’d only let them. But, it’s important to remember that diversity and inclusion aren’t about “doing good” for non-majority people. There are tangible, measurable benefits you don’t want to miss out on.

Enlist Everyone to Avoid Embarrassment

A recent “innovation” from Doritos stands as a great reminder of how limiting the variety of orientations to a problem can have ridiculous results. The maker of tasty chips completed some customer research, and found a surprising problem. Women reported not feeling comfortable eating Doritos in public, saying that crunching loudly and licking the delicious chemical flavor powder from dainty fingertips just didn’t seem ladylike to many.

So the brand announced a plan to address this problem by creating Lady Doritos — less crunchy, less finger-lickin’ good. Sorry Doritos, but…keep it.

Now, mind you, this problem didn’t show up as women not buying the chips, which would have been obvious from product sales. It showed up as an aversion to eating them publicly. Both the analysis of the findings, and the proposed solution stink of a team that lacks diversity. And I don’t mean women. I suspect that those involved were all “product” people whose only hammer is a new product type, and every nail a gap in the product line.

Thankfully, the Internet shame that surrounded this moment kept this idea from moving forward, but Doritos could have avoided the PR gaffe if they’d included people not responsible for product development. Because the issue is a messaging opportunity, not a product-market fit problem. A simple ad campaign showing women gustily enjoying chips in meetings, at the park, on the bus, all while smiling and laughing would have gone a long way, and probably requires a lot less investment.

Everyone Boosts Morale

Including those who are affected by the outcomes of the work is also a boon to morale. Marc Benioff of Salesforce found his organization faced with a challenge of employee engagement at senior levels of his leadership, something that corporations pay a great deal of attention to. Higher engagement can multiply productivity and quality so much that substantial amounts of time and money is spent monitoring and supporting people’s experience at work. Benioff wanted to nip his engagement problem in the bud, so he took pains to create a virtual space to understand what fueled the issue and define the problem and address it. “In the end the dialogue lasted for weeks beyond the actual meeting. More important, by fostering a discussion across the entire organization, [he] has been able to better align the whole workforce around its mission. The event served as a catalyst for the creation of a more open and empowered culture at the company.” Clearly senior leaders at Salesforce are busy people whose typical focus is on the products and services they create, but without spending time to come together widely as a group and establish shared understanding and priorities their day-to-day efforts would have been affected.

The Power-Distance Index

So, maybe enlisting “everyone” has some advantages, but employing this principle can also bring up issues around diversity and inclusion for the group, and as a master of collaboration, it is important that you stay aware of dynamics that can reduce the benefits.

In studying cultural differences, there’s a force known as the Power-Distance Index, first identified by Geert Hofstede which measures the degree to which a group values hierarchy and ascribes power to leaders. A country like the US has relatively low Power Distance because we value flatter organization and independence over bowing to authority. Japan, on the other hand, rates very high, as the culture demands a great deal of respect for elders and authority.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers, tells the story of Korean Air’s “cockpit culture” during the late 90s when the airline was experiencing more plane crashes than any other airline. Analysis showed that the cultural norm of giving into superiors and avoiding challenging them meant that junior pilots who spotted problems failed to raise them, In Forbes, Gladwell said, “What they were struggling with was a cultural legacy, that Korean culture is hierarchical. You are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S.

But Boeing and Airbus design modern, complex airplanes to be flown by two equals. That works beautifully in low-power-distance cultures [like the U.S., where hierarchies aren’t as relevant]. But in cultures that have high power distance, it’s very difficult.”

When the airline made some adjustments, their problem went away. They flattened out the power-distance index by reinforcing the value of junior aviators, and, “a small miracle happened,” Gladwell writes. “Korean Air turned itself around. Today, the airline is a member in good standing of the prestigious SkyTeam alliance. Its safety record since 1999 is spotless. In 2006, Korean Air was given the Phoenix Award by Air Transport World in recognition of its transformation. Aviation experts will tell you that Korean Air is now as safe as any airline in the world.”

Who’s “Everyone” Anyway?

If you’re beginning to see how widening the circle of collaborators and making sure they are active, respected participants makes sense, you might be wondering how to define the right level of “everyone” for your teams. Getting diversity means including those with a variety of:

  • Experiences in industry and skills
  • Cultural backgrounds and tenure
  • Introversion and extroversion
  • Primary languages
  • Ownership, from end-users to senior leaders and everyone in-between

Cross-Cultures, Don’t Try to Change Them

At some point in your journey to master collaboration, you will have a realization — people are a problem. Working with power structures can be challenging, especially if you don’t happen to have a lot of authority in the system. And people are irrational and messy, which is why organizations create structures in the first place, to help guide our decisions and establish ways to control and command. Cyd Harrell knows all about these kinds of structures as someone who has made a big push in the last few years to bring innovation and inclusivity to the US Government. As a leader at 18F, the digital services arm of the government, Harrell has worked with huge governmental agencies, elected officials, and political appointees, and she’s seen first-hand the challenges of bringing a collaborative approach to command and control cultures.

“Some kinds of hierarchy are not conducive to good collaboration,” she says, “but you have to find a way through anyway. That culture exists for a reason, and many of your stakeholders have a great deal invested in it.” Civil servants and government agencies typically have a much longer tenure than you find in Silicon Valley, and many people work hard for years to attain a level of authority and power that they aren’t eager to shove aside in the interests of being “transparent” and non-hierarchical. These organizations have succeeded in large-scale often high-risk situations because they employ what Harrell calls a “submit and review” approach where ideas are taken to a final state where a gate-keeper has the power to approve or reject the work in a single blow. In that model, more senior people are seen as experts whose point of view is critical to be aligned with. Conversely, those who are elected or appointed, might serve short tenures, with a great deal of authority, and priorities and perspectives change once that person has been replaced or voted out of office. Both of these forces tend to make collaboration hard, or nearly impossible.

But, Harrell says, at the same time, you can’t get around these cultural forces. Approaching collaboration in this setting without respecting the system and structures is likely to have bad effects. When I naively offered some ideas I’ve seen used to break through power imbalances and help create a different vibe in a team, Harrell was quick to correct me. “You can’t make changing the culture central to your success” in an environment where so many are so invested in its structure. And trying to go around it might end you up in hot water, having violated the chain of command by going to a senior influencer. Asking people lower on the totem pole to speak up in front of more senior people can also backfire, since the system doesn’t reward new ideas as much as it rewards supporting the hierarchy.

The US Government is one specific culture, and Harrell has learned how to navigate it, rather than fight it during her tenure. Her approach is a simple one, bring great deal of empathy for your stakeholders, however reluctant, and don’t force it. Rather, create a space where the rules and systems are paused or changed temporarily and invite them in. Or, run your collaborations cloaked within a command and control mode where you slow down to the pace required to continually seek reviews and approvals from those who matter more than others. The trick is to acknowledge to yourself and the team, that the situation simply requires another iteration or two to bring the sticky stakeholder along. Since you are always showing “finished” work, you must be willing to be “wrong” so that a meaningful conversation can be had about what’s not working and how it might be fixed.

Erin Meyer is an author and researcher who’s done a lot to map out the ways in which cultures differ which in turn helps you navigate them. The spectra below list the kinds of things you should think of when creating diversity on your team, or understanding what you have, and where conflict might be coming from.

Erin Meyer’s culture map

So, be intentional about involving “everyone” to get the diversity you need, while maintaining the sanity you deserve. By understanding power differences, and openly discussing cultural differences, whether they are based on nationality, or background, or skill set, you will help create a more harmonious collaboration.