Rapid Prototyping Diversity

Photo by #WOCinTech Chat

I spent years fighting for the political and economic rights of people in states of crisis around the world. Before I started my company, ReadySet, I was an international labor rights lawyer. This time last year, I was in Nicaragua working with sugarcane workers dying of occupational illness.

Some people treat my return to the US and my transition into tech as a mystery, a deviation amounting to a total departure from what I did before. However, to me it makes perfect sense. Tech is at the forefront of the biggest change to the way we live and work since the last industrial revolution. The digital revolution is poised to radically alter our standard of living, working conditions, employment relationships, and the economy.

It is from this perspective that I approach the problem of diversity in tech. I started my firm because I saw what certain segments of the innovation economy were doing with people who looked like me. They were leaving us behind, placing us on the fringes of economic growth and prosperity. For many of us, it feels like we’re re-treading old ground, the same fight that our great grandparents, grandparents, and parents fought--to be allowed to live and prosper on the basis of their own merit, to have access to the American dream

Why the time to act is now

By nature, industrial revolutions cause swift societal change. They also, at least in the short term, result in the displacement of workers whose jobs are no longer relevant to the new economy. This time around, changing skills demands have occurred against the back drop of stagnating wages, a declining middle class, and alarming wealth inequality. Discrimination exacerbates all of these challenges.

Now is the time to translate talk about diversity into the concrete action of actually hiring more diverse workers. A rare window has emerged. The political and media spotlight is on the diversity problem in Silicon Valley. Public pressure is mounting. Harrowing stories about the reality of working for tech companies as a member of an underrepresented group have begun to trickle out, showing not much has changed since tech companies first started making efforts to increase diversity in 2014. As the presidential election heats up, we can anticipate that discussions around sustaining jobs recovery, improving education, increasing access to high-quality employment, and supporting the middle class will continue to grow in prominence. More and more the innovation economy sits at the center of these issues

If there’s any industry poised to quickly come up with radical innovative solutions to a pressing social issue, it’s tech. Maybe that’s why continuing to talk about understanding the problem feels a bit like stalling. We know the problem. The problem is that there are not enough Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and women/women of color in tech. To break it down even further; on a societal level, the problem is lack of access to a dominating industry, impeding advancement and economic growth. On the industry-side, it’s that homogeneity of backgrounds (culture, gender, age, socioeconomic status, AND race) is leading to a homogeneity of thought, resulting in a lot of missed opportunities and “blind spots”.

The Business Case

In my experience, appeals to morality in business are rarely immediately effective. That’s not because all business people are evil. It’s because that for the most part, particularly in fast moving sectors, they are concerned with immediate targets and concrete concerns like generating profit, accelerating growth, and beating their competitors.

Moreover, appeals to morality in business also increase the likelihood that decision-makers will view the requested action as one of charity, rather than one of necessity. In terms of diversity, this assumption leads to the conflation of a diverse hire as a charity, and thereby less-qualified hire. Through the lens of such perspective, a business leader could assume, wrongly, that a focus on diversity pits commercial considerations against ethical ones.

A focus on diversity matters because it builds better companies. It enables them to identify the best, instead of the most convenient candidates. It can reduce turnover, thereby lowering recruiting costs. It can expand product and company reach. It can make the difference between relevance and the slow decent into obscurity

Imagine if we were talking about anything other than diversity. Imagine if you came across a founder that said — “Our company is forward thinking, innovative, and creative. Basically we’re comprised entirely of visionaries, revolutionaries, and problem solvers. We’ve identified a huge problem in our market that needs to be fixed. We‘re really passionate about solving this issue. By solving it, we recognize that we could revolutionize the way things are done, make our company stronger, and likely tap into sources of revenue that we couldn’t before. We also know that implementing a solution won’t cost us that much in the short-term, in fact it might end up saving us quite a bit of money. There’s a ton of data out there, since so many people have studied the problem, so we’re pretty clear on what’s causing it. It’s just that no one wants to change the established way of doing things.… So what I plan to do is study the issue some more, like maybe for a year or two. Then I want to invest in a solution that’s going to take at least 5 to 10 years to come to fruition, but might not solve the problem it’s been designed to address. Who knows? We’ll see. With any luck, we’ll get there”. You’d probably conclude that the person is not as into finding a solution as he or she said or that maybe they’re not the visionary revolutionary that they think they are.

I wrote this to start a solution-based conversation which goes beyond commitments and promises of change. Because those are luxuries that we cannot afford. This crisis compels us to act now, and the good news is that we already have some of the tools to do so.

Rapid Prototyping Diversity

What do I mean by rapid prototyping?

In this piece, I use the term “rapid prototyping” , drawn from design-thinking methodologies, to refer to a quick, iterative process through which ideas are planned, prototyped, and validated by a broader team of users, stakeholders , and designers. For the purposes of this framework, I found Google’s Design Sprint approach to be particularly useful.

Google’s 2 to 5 day sprints are built around 6 key steps.

  • Understanding user needs, business needs, and capacity
  • Defining primary areas of strategy and focus
  • Diverging to explore as many ideas as possible
  • Deciding the best ideas so far
  • Prototyping a solution
  • Testing the idea with users, stakeholders, and experts

According to the company , the exercise

is a five-day process for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers. Developed at Google Ventures, it’s a “greatest hits” of business strategy, innovation, behavior science, design thinking, and more — packaged into a battle-tested process that any team can use. …. Instead of waiting to launch a minimal product to understand if an idea is any good, teams get great data from a prototype. The sprint gives these companies a superpower: The ability to build and test nearly any idea in just 40 hours.

How do we apply the rapid prototyping process to diversity?

In the world of social enterprise, rapid prototyping is already being used to solve pressing societal issues. Innovation labs and funds around the world use rapid prototyping methodologies to enable social entrepreneurs to move quickly in challenging contexts, while avoiding the bureaucracy and waste that often impede the work of traditional non-profits.

Companies already apply this process to product development. It stands to reason, that a similar process could be used to build or change their internal systems, rapidly adopting them to remain competitive in the current climate. Coming up with alternative systems for recruiting, hiring, and promotion, using a process that includes a company’s management, employees, and stakeholders, increases the likelihood that such solutions will be implemented with organizational buy-in and sustained or refined over time.

Tips for rapid prototyping

Here are a few things that I would recommend keeping in mind before and during the rapid prototyping process.

Don’t play it safe — Radical change requires radical solutions. Think big and don’t be afraid to fail. Look, the truth is most tech companies are already failing at diversity, and have been doing so for quite a while. It would be incredibly difficult for any solution to diversity to fail any harder than some of the approaches companies are already taking. So fail away. Fail hard. Fail fast. Then try something else. You have very little to lose, and a lot to gain.

Go ahead and solve the problem. Just solve it — Getting a Latino guy from CMU and a black guy from Howard is not going to do that. Also, gender parity, though incredibly important is also not the end-goal here. The end goal is better access for amazing talent and high potential. Meaning, hiring a few more diverse people here and there alone isn’t going to solve the problem. You not only need to attract, but also retain and grow the people who join your organization.

Try something that’s actually different — The dirty little secret about tech’s diversity hiring efforts is that they don’t seem to differ that much from its regular hiring efforts. Instead of disrupting a broken system, some tech companies hope that they can meet their diversity goals with a few tweaks. For example, an emerging approach, champions the expansion of hiring efforts to prestigious historically black colleges instead of just regular prestigious colleges. This is only going to bring limited returns. Sure, you can find great people at these schools and tech companies should certainly recruit from them, but doing so does not ensure a diversity of perspective, experience, or background, only race. It also substitutes one type of elitism for another. Ultimately, such approaches look a lot like box –checking.

Expand your focus beyond STEM — Assuming the STEM pipeline is broken, there are still plenty of other better functioning pipelines that can be utilized to increase the diversity of your company — like the law pipeline, the business pipeline, the sales and marketing pipeline, the communications pipeline, and the accounting pipeline. Tech’s diversity problem is across the board, meaning it isn’t just diverse technical talent that isn’t getting hired, its diverse talent period. Therefore, solutions must be equally wide ranging. Focusing on STEM alone allows tech companies to shift attention away from their hiring practices while also lowering expectations that they hire diverse talent in the short term.

Stop thinking about culture fit. Start thinking about values alignment — Even where it’s a genuine concern and not a euphemism for biased hiring practices, culture fit is a recipe for homogenization and dilution. Culture fit is boring. Culture fit is mind-numbing. I can’t imagine anything more tedious than sitting in a room full of the same kind of people, who communicate in the same manner, brainstorming the same kind of solutions, because they all think the same kind of way. That’s not dynamism; that’s death. Instead of viewing culture as something a person fits in to, see it as something that is fluid and dynamic and can evolve. This industry was built by outsiders. To remain strong, it must welcome people who challenge the status quo. Better to rally them around something like shared values. Culture is amorphous and subjective, the precise composition of which can be difficult to articulate. Values are more fixed. They can be stated, codified, and tied to broader company objectives. Values, not culture, makeup the foundation of an organization. Culture should be thought of as an expression of those essential values, one which is open to change and evolution.

Hire someone to oversee and implement the process — You might want to bring this person on prior to your prototyping session to serve as a facilitator. This should be that person’s full-time job. Ideally, their role would extend beyond the rapid prototyping process to involvement in operational task of implementing solutions. To do so, that person would need to be empowered to think strategically, make decisions, resolve issues that arise in implementation, and continually solicit internal and external feedback. Think head of HR, focused on inclusion. Think of a Head of Diversity but with a budget, staff, and decision making power. In the case of diversity and for the purposes of this exercise, I’m a big fan of third-party intervention, at least initially. It is easier for an outsider to ask the hard questions, to see beyond myopic corporate culture, and to identify trouble spots on a wider organizational level. You want someone who values the success of the process over office politics or advancement within the company

(On a related note) Don’t rely on the few diverse employees that you have to solve this problem for you. — Real change comes from the top. Tech companies generally have huge recruiting budgets, and not enough of that money goes to finding ways to actively diversify their workforce. Minority candidates already face a higher level of scrutiny of their job performance. Expecting those same employees to devote valuable time to doing the hard work of diversity, work which they have not been trained or hired to do, sets them up for failure in terms of both the diversification effort and their actual jobs. Moreover, where they advocate for unpopular but necessary change, it risks placing them in an antagonistic relationship with their employer. Finally it can make them feel that they are viewed through the lens of their identity first, exacerbating their marginalization rather than providing them with resources to overcome it.

Conclusion

Of course, rapid prototyping won’t work for everyone. But it’s a solution native to Silicon Valley that harnesses the ethos of speedy innovation and leverages the talent already in the industry to develop immediately implementable solutions to a pressing challenge.

I often say that at ReadySet we’re about putting butts in the seats, action over talk, and rapid social innovation. We understand that when it comes to diversity we have no time to lose, that the time to act is now. We also understand that we might not always get things right, but we’re committed to getting it done. We’re not afraid to fail, because the current approach to diversity already has. We’re rapidly prototyping the future. Will you join us?