Data - Technology - Leadership

The Leadership Series - Building Diverse Teams

Andrew McGee - 23 May 2024
Team Building

Lost In Space Splash

I know the advantages of diversity in our tech teams. As a manager, it can be tempting, when you have high performers, to want to clone our rock stars. Wouldn't it be amazing if we just hired three more people exactly like this for our team? But then again, would it?

The problem with a team of clones is you narrow the team's skills and behaviours down to a common denominator and risk operating in a closed echo chamber type environment. Ideation and innovation can become constrained by 'group think'.

If you have 2 knights on the board and no rooks, your chess game suddenly becomes harder, even if the knight is a stronger piece.

Diversity brings with it different modes of thinking - sometimes radically different. It enables outside of the box thinking, unique takes and challenges the status quo.

It also helps leaders to build teams with ranges of strengths and weaknesses. It's rare we hire a person who ticks every box straight away, but diverse teams can counterbalance each other in many attributes such as culture, capability and experience.

Attributes such as lifestyle, gender, religious and political persuasions are of course, off the table when it comes to hiring decisions. Even so, having diverse life experience among your team mates is a bonus too. Everyone's life experiences help to mould their view of the world and in turn can contribute different and unexpected lenses onto problems and ideas.

So what are some characteristics we can look for when building diversity into our teams? If you are trying to build counterbalance into your team you can weigh these traits into your hiring decision accordingly.

A word of caution though - try to steer clear of behavioural extremes unless you are confident you can manage these individuals and avoid inevitable clashes with people who are on the opposite end of each scale.

Here are some behaviours I like to keep in mind.

Action Oriented vs Deep Thinker

Any manager can tell you the pros and cons of these common traits.

Action Oriented people will be your do'ers; the folks you need on your team to get things over the line, sometimes up against the clock.

Meanwhile the Deep Thinkers can help you come up with strategies and plans. These people are the ones most likely to have a 'Eureka moment' and come up with something truly unique and creative.

Test for these traits in an interview by asking questions along the lines of: 'What do you first do when someone gives you a difficult task to complete'?

Problem Solver vs Opportunity Finder

Problem Solvers prefer to be behind the scenes figuring things out. They will help you out of a jam and find a MacGyver way forward against all the odds.

Opportunity Finders will be in their element up front in the thick of it. By putting themselves out there, these team scouts will come back with a wealth of new information and opportunities they uncover in the field.

Ask questions about how someone builds relationships and what is their approach to finding information. Do they seek out others to learn from or prefer a solo research approach?

Detailer vs Big Picture

'Shipping beats perfection' was famously enshrined by Khan Academy. It is the sage advice not to endlessly delay launching in order to polish and polish and polish.

But aiming for perfection is not such a bad goal - shoot high and get your detailed oriented people to fix those fonts in your keynote presentation or executive proposal.

Meanwhile your Big Picture folks will be pitching the dream. Whether it's getting buy-in from your internal team, your senior leaders or your customers.

Find out what candidates think is more important in a product. The quality of life features that are pixel perfect or where the product is going to take the user. This can give you a sense of how that person thinks.

Cautious vs Risk Taker

Again, avoiding extremes is pretty important with both of these traits, unless you are in a speculative business or you are skilled at managing renegades.

It's tempting to jump to the conclusion that cautious is the safe bet here but overly cautious can be paralysing. Going around in circles and overthinking without making the jump, you can miss the window of opportunity completely.

At the other extreme of course you want to avoid reckless risk taking that jeopardises the business.

Good leaders know how to set clear boundaries and allow risk taking within these confines. This freedom is liberating for team members and learning to take measured, calculated risks can really move the needle.

It can also help assigning the right tasks to the right people. Your business will have a range of tasks with different risk tolerances.

You can give people scenario based questions to see how they would act if a manager was not available to ask permission for something. Do they wait until Monday or pull the trigger on Friday and beg for forgiveness? Depending on the task and your business profile the outcome will vary between great and disastrous.

In Summary

Finding common ground in a diverse team can be tricky but it's worth working at it to turn diversity into your team's super power.

Diverse teams can tackle many different situations and create unique and innovative solutions. Weakness can be counterbalanced with strengths.

Many of the behaviours I outlined above can overlap. For example Deep Thinkers may also be Problem Solvers and the Cautious ones. But not always!

To maximise your diversity super power make sure you celebrate the differences in your team and bring everyone together to explore and understand the different things they all bring to the table.

You can screen for diverse thinking in your hiring process with carefully crafted interview questions.

Good luck building your diverse team of talented individuals.