Agreeing to disagree

The Project Include team offsite selfie: Ellen Pao, Erica Joy Baker, Tracy Chou, Laura Gómez, Y-Vonne Hutchinson, Freada Kapor Klein, and bethanye McKinney Blount (Not pictured: Susan Wu)

Making group decisions can be a painful, slow process. It’s a reason why people often stick to homogeneous groups — to come to consensus quickly and with full agreement. If everyone has the same perspective, experiences, and thought process, it’s easier to move forward, so the argument goes.

At Project Include, we intentionally picked a diverse team with different perspectives, experiences, and thought processes. We have law degrees, a Ph.D, engineering degrees, and an MBA, and a few of us chose not to get college degrees. We are immigrants, children of immigrants, non-native English speakers. We are underrepresented people of color, founders, CEOs, engineering leaders, former lawyers, board members. We’ve worked on hardware, software, systems, infrastructure, platforms, services, communities, partnerships, and financings on six different continents.

Above all, we are advocates who think “outside the box” and look at problems and solutions in new ways — and are willing to speak up about them. In fact, one of the most common traits we shared was being accused of being “difficult” at one point in our careers for advocating change or not being team players who conform and accept the status quo.

Without sounding too self-congratulatory, all eight of us are really proud of our teamwork. We put together a set of 87 recommendations in three months, collected feedback, named our effort, created a website, and announced it publicly all in our spare time. Our recommendations are resonating; 1,500 people have signed up to help us in our efforts, including more than 100 tech CEOs. We’ve done baseline surveys with 9 tech CEOs. Sixteen VC firms (welcome Y Combinator!) have joined our effort to help us collect data and show what is possible in diversity and inclusion for tech companies.

This summer, Project Include held an offsite to review our past and plan our future. We are sharing some learnings here, because we were pleasantly surprised at how much our own diversity added to the outcome and how much we enjoyed the process.

When we decided to create a handbook on diversity and inclusion in February, we agreed that we wanted to share the most progressive and useful recommendations we could. We agreed to disagree: We would not have to agree 100% on all recommendations. We had intentionally designed a team of individuals who were willing to directly call out problems in tech, and now we wanted to collectively provide bold solutions.

We also knew that requiring 100% consensus in practice often results in mediocre, least path of resistance decisions and outcomes, or can be slow and political.

As people with full-time roles, we didn’t have a lot of time for long debates, and having intentionally brought on a group of strong voices, we didn’t want watered-down results.

We agreed on an 80–20 rule: We each had to agree on 80% of decisions, including the content, but could disagree on 20% and still move forward.

We trusted that the overall whole corpus of decisions (and content) would move conversations and actions in the right direction enough to overshadow points of disagreement.

And we knew we would have a much better handbook if we pushed for more aggressive outcomes and faster decision-making.

By the time we published our 87 recommendations in May, we had only voted on one recommendation, and that vote passed. The dissenting voice was in agreement about the recommendation to eliminate salary negotiations, but concerned about the ability of companies to hold to the rule and implement it fairly. We shared our experiences and concerns to refine and solidify recommendations. By being willing to say we did not have to back every single decision, we opened up a lot of discussions and were able to come to agreement on almost every single one.

We found it strengthening to disagree, discuss, and realign. For us, diversity of thought and experience was appreciated and valued. And sometimes, the process of being listened to and respected was most important. Despite our combined 150 years of tech experience, as women in tech — and mostly women of color in tech — having a series of open, productive conversations was new and refreshing to us.

In tech today, we’ve seen and experienced the results of five decades of homogeneous leaders making decisions together, building a monolithic process, rewarding the status quo, and creating an echo chamber. The result has been massive wealth and power concentrated into the hands of a few, nominal funding for those outside the homogeneous circle, and processes and systems at tech companies that mimic this dysfunction. We see founders protected despite reported heinous personal behavior (Radium4), founders unscathed despite fraud charges (Zenefits, Hampton Creek, Lending Club), companies unchanged despite repudiation by a judge (Uber), and companies accepting the lack of diversity on their teams as outside their control (Facebook, Google).

The last 10 years of founder and startup advice have promoted culture fit and hiring to a specific type. Diversity is a big change in how we all grew up and how we were trained — and succeeded for those at the top. Inclusion is even less frequently practiced or experienced. At Project Include, it was new and energizing to be on a team with so many people with different experiences and views.

For many, diversity can be daunting — especially when you haven’t seen or experienced it before. I remember the second startup I joined was growing so quickly that we had to share space with two to a desk. When we started adding people for three to a desk, I got nervous. We worked long hours, and the thought of spending most of my day crammed next to a new hire straight out of college — a cousin of a co-founder no less! — was worrisome. She turned out to be incredibly smart, hard-working, and eager to teach. I learned so much from her about usability and our product (and about her cousin) — and formed better partnerships in my business development role as a result. She’s also, more than 15 years later, still one of my best friends.

Shared desks at Tellme (Photo by Andrew Ho)

Diversity and inclusion can start out hard and scary. But defending processes that are broken, employees who are not inclusive, behavior that is harassing or discriminatory is actually much much harder. Each defense sends a message about what is acceptable that often leads to even more undesirable behavior, more defending, and less innovation, less collaboration, and less productivity.

Leading with core values, making decisions based on shared values, agreeing to disagree from time to time, making bold decisions, having better information — these are much easier to do, to feel good about, and to defend. We had some hard discussions, and over time these conversations became easier and more comfortable even as the problems got harder.

We learned from each other, increasing our trust and respect over time, and the team is now stronger. During our offsite, we even moved our rule to require a lower threshold for agreement. And that decision was unanimous.

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