Inclusive Design, Day 14/15: Diverse Teams Make Better Decisions

This is day 14 of 15 in a short series on inclusive design. If you missed any of the earlier posts, see day 1 here or view the full list.


Inclusive and diverse teams make better, stronger teams — and these teams make better decisions. Because our work and thought patterns are influenced by our background and biases, working with a diverse group means not only fresh, new ideas, but we also counterbalance the tendency to design for people just like ourselves. A higher standard.

And that is why representation matters, not just to those who are represented, but to all of us. Because it expands our sense of what’s possible, and what we have reason to expect. —Cate Huston

Bring diversity into teams
Screenshot of the Automattic Inclusive Design Checklist, under Teams.

For maximum learning and a broader perspective, not limiting yourself to your immediate team or company; seeking out a wide variety of inputs from mentors, coaches, and other advisors.

If your team is limited and you don’t have the ability to expand, actively seek out people with other perspectives to consult or act as project advisors, and give special consideration to their feedback.


I learned from Sara VanSlyke and Trace Byrd at Atlassian that it also matters how a diverse team is represented, in their article “Illustrating Balanced and Inclusive Teams.”

As a company that wants to unleash the potential in every team, depicting people is especially important. How we represent the people who make up teams should be just as important. We’ve always known that the best teams are balanced; made of a diverse group of people with different backgrounds and perspectives, but our illustrations haven’t always reflected that.

An Atlassian team article
Screenshot from the Atlassian team’s article about illustrating their diversity.

The authors found that even though their team aspired to be more inclusive, how they represented themselves visually wasn’t keeping pace with the true diversity of the team.

Promoting diversity and inclusion within our brand is a persistent and multi-faceted effort. And it’s a challenge to depict diversity without it feeling merely perfunctory or symbolic until the reality of our industry truly represents the customers we serve and the world at large. More needs to be done outside of the brand to promote an inclusive workplace, but we’ve found that the results of constant vigilance and open conversation are worth the time and energy.

To truly represent our customers is something Automattic is improving — we still have a long way to go. If you missed the story about updating the WordPress.com brand illustrations to be more diverse, see Inclusive Design, Day 5/15: To See Yourself in Imagery — with illustrator Alice Lee and my designer colleague Joan Rho.

See also this YouTube series introducing Automattic employees from all walks of life. A diverse group! I’m proud to work with them every day.


For a thorough treatment of this topic, I highly recommend reading and bookmarking “On Improving Diversity in Hiring” from my Automattic colleague Cate Huston. In this in-depth article, she shares her hiring expertise to build diverse teams, everything from onboarding and recruiting to specific tips and tricks during interviews.

Screenshot from Cate Huston's post about improving diversity in hiring.
Screenshot from Cate Huston’s article about improving diversity in hiring.

This rule of thumb about stopping the behavior before someone is hired hit home with me as this is something I need to improve on personally. An off-color joke here, a comment there; I’m learning to speak up more when I notice these things.

A good rule for inclusion pre-work to diversity is to stop doing things you would have to change if the demographics of your team better reflected the demographics of the world. —Cate Huston

One practical tip shared by Cate that I’ve put to good use is Textio, a service to help make job descriptions more inclusive. I used it in 2016 to update the Excellence Wrangler job posting, replacing phrases like triage ruthlessly with triage efficiently.

Textio website screenshot
Screenshot of the Textio homepage.

Cate’s influence in the last year or so has helped me improve my hiring to be more inclusive, both in mindset and in practice. She’s inspired me to read more broadly, and think more openly.


In closing, a word from Scott Page via his Aeon article titled “Why hiring the ‘best’ people produces the least creative results:”

When building a forest, you do not select the best trees as they tend to make similar classifications. You want diversity.

(Scott has a new book out on this topic: The Diversity Bonus, How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy. I haven’t read it yet.)

For day 15 of 15 of inclusive design, the last day, I’ll share a recap of all the inclusive design learnings I’ve shared in this series so far.


About this Inclusive Design series Tomorrow I’ll give a talk on inclusive design at WordCamp Phoenix 2018. Leading up to the conference I’ve been publishing notes on voices, stories, products, and other resources: everything I’m learning about this emerging practice. This is day 14 of 15. Read more about the series.

Maker Versus Manager

An oldie but goodie from Paul Graham: Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule.

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Posting this as a personal bookmark because it comes up often in conversations with new leads. When I talk to people new to management I highlight the mindset change from “just you” to “the team.” The context of an outward mindset is important — you don’t own your time when you manage more than your own time. Keeping track of everything changes drastically when you start paying attention to more that just your own time and tasks.

This explains the frustration of a work day gets cut short — which can happen if something comes up unexpectedly or you’re continually interrupted. The resulting “short period” of time for making or creating is essentially lost. The big project, like the essay or talk you need to start on, don’t get attention because you don’t have the time for deep work.

Another clue for discovering the maker-vs-manager mindset is how you view your calendar. By month — and not by week or day — means you could be in maker mode. If you care more about every hour or 15-minute interval, you’re likely in manager mode.

A visual note to illustrate this concept:

meetings-are-distracting.png
Screenshot from @phil_wade on Twitter illustrating how meetings appear to makers.

Meetings can be disruptive to makers, says @phil_wade on Twitter. This ties into the concept of “flow state” made famous by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and others. If you’re curious to learn more, search that name (hard to spell!) for his talks and books — and read my thoughts on the flow fallacy.

Mary Meeker: The Best Decisions Are Often Made by Diverse Groups of People

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One of the things I have learned about effective decision making is that the best decisions are often made by diverse groups of people. Saying or hearing these words is magic: That’s really interesting. I had never thought of it that way before. Thank you.

A gem from Mary Meeker I found when reading the 2017 Internet Trends report published by Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers (KPCB). Via John.

The Unscripted Dance

unscripted-dance

A mental model that keeps coming up for me is “the unscripted dance.” This captures the idea of going into a situation knowing you can rely on your skills to adapt to the other party. Even without knowing ahead. Even without preparing for each move, each step, or each word you’ll use.

In a work setting, this could be a 1-1 chat with a direct report or a quarterly check-in with your boss.

When you’re dancing with an accomplished partner, you may allow the moment to unfold because you trust that a script is not necessary. If you’re dancing with an unaccomplished partner, you may use a script to start with because it helps guide the dance until once again, it becomes unnecessary.

Conversations at work can be like a dance when you are there “in the moment” — so attentive that you are aware of yourself and your partner at the same time — moving in and out of sync. My mind says, “When I don’t have to mold the conversation, it leads to nice possibilities.”

My leadership coach, Akshay Kapur, calls this “Listening” with a capital L. It can be quite fun, but also scary, especially if you’re used to always having things planned out ahead of time. The “Listening” also means not allowing other thoughts to take over my mind; those next questions or points that need to come up in the conversation. When that happens, I’m no longer listening — I’m just following my original plan. That’s when I miss out on insights and understanding.

The unscripted dance helps to improve my communication. To be more open and aware. Especially in established relationships with long-time colleagues where we can naturally move across topics.

I used to try to move the conversation in a certain direction, or get something out of it — my agenda for the conversation. Now I try my best to let the other person drive it. If they don’t have anything to share or ask about, I’m ready with a short list of topics or questions, just in case.

 

Leader as Gardener, Not Chess Master, to Create the Space for Great Work

A frequent topic I talk to other leaders and managers about is how to influence change. This goes for anyone working in a team, of course — not just managers. I’d like to share how my ideas have evolved in the last year or so as I’ve scaled up my own role at Automattic across bigger teams and projects.

Starting from control

Early in my career, my mental model centered around influencing others to change. Whether by having bright ideas myself and communicating a clear vision, selling and pushing others’ best ideas, or simply wearing the other parties down by being persistent.

Through experience and mistakes I can now see that pressing my mind against others’ isn’t the most effective way to work together. I could try to convince someone to see my way by force or pressure, but it won’t last long. Nor is it a healthy environment for collaboration.

Environment is more important than control

My mental model for leadership now removes influence from the equation. Instead of convincing or controlling, I start instead by creating the right environment for change. A space for sharing insights and lessons together to build momentum. A space where change comes naturally from individuals and teams themselves. “Your job as a leader is to edit more than you write,” to paraphrase Jack Dorsey.

Creating this space is a major component of a healthy company — you could even say it’s the key to a productive and effective team culture. I’ve certainly seen it in the last year on my team at Automattic.

Finding a mental model: gardener

Last year a new way of seeing this new leadership model came to light for me when I came across Stanley McChrystal’s TED talk “Listen, learn… lead”:

I’d read McChrystal’s book Team of Teams just before seeing the video, and both carry the same message. How over his military career he evolved his leadership style, going from command-and-control to empowering. A leader as more of a gardener than chess master.

The connectivity of trust and purpose imbues teams with an ability to solve problems that could never be foreseen by a single manager—their solutions often emerge as the bottom-up result of interactions, rather than from top-down orders.

The role of the senior leader was no longer that of controlling puppet master, but rather that of an empathetic crafter of culture.

Gardener is a perfect fit for me

McChrystal calls this a “gardener” role, and it fits my mindset perfectly.

The temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing.

The gardener cannot actually “grow” tomatoes, squash, or beans—she can only foster an environment in which the plants do so.

First I needed to shift my focus from moving pieces on the board to shaping the ecosystem.

Creating and maintaining the teamwork conditions we needed—tending the garden—became my primary responsibility.

This is now exactly how I view my own leadership model: Create the space for great work.

create-the-space


A note to my readers — if you’re new here, hello! Old time simpledream readers, drop me a line if you’re still with me in this journey. I’ve evolved the blog a bit to focus on my journey as a leader, though still connected to WordPress and front-end engineering and web standards.

Readers, I welcome your thoughts in the comments or via social media. Better yet, post to your blog and link it back here. I’d love to continue a conversation about what you’re learning and seeing as well.

Cheers,
– Lance Willett, The Sensible Leader

The Real Reason People Won’t Change

I first heard the concept of uncovering competing commitments in a talk by Rich Sheridan of Menlo Innovations. On the topic of embracing change he pointed to the act of uncovering as a key activity when teams are blocked. And when addressing low performance.

In the Q & A of this session I asked:

When someone isn’t performing well, how do you motivate them to change in the positive direction — without using fear-based tactics around losing their job, if they don’t turn things around?

Rich answered:

For general performance issues, always check in with them as a person first. What are their other commitments? [He then referenced the HBR article about reasons for people’s resistance to change]. If it’s truly a performance issue that needs addressing, and the fear is no longer artificial, communicate that clearly as you kick it off.

Curious to dig in more, I thought: what are other possible causes of low performance, and how am I doing in my assessment of those cases to separate the perception from the truth?

Screen Shot 2017-12-27 at 10.08.07
Screenshot of the Harvard Business Review article, “The Real Reason People Won’t Change” (2001).

Competing commitments are detailed in the article Rich shared: The Real Reason People Won’t Change. The authors describe concealed commitments that block change where people hold on to and hide their assumptions. To get to the truth, they suggest an exercise is to turn the questions or complaints around — rephrasing them — to find out what they are worried about and how it’s preventing their success. And more important, which part they play in resolving it.

At the team level this exercise often takes a deeper dive over a long period of time. Something I haven’t found on my teams that we take time to do, especially with large groups of people, many moving parts, and urgent deadlines. Partly because taking the time derails progress; the abstraction of examining complaints and gathering enough data to find the source of low performance. That takes precious time away from shipping continuous product iterations for customers, which is our primary mission.

One pattern I’ve seen with projects that go on too long, the responsible parties in the end often admit they didn’t know quite how to solve the problem. Or, they ran into a blocker that needed help outside the team. But they didn’t feel comfortable openly admitting it.

Based on this research, I can now say that disagreements passively held are often indistinguishable from poor performance.

A lack of passion or drive — which in turn blocks progress to follow up or complete something — could indicate someone isn’t connecting personally to the goal, or to our company culture, or their team.

Which helps answer the questions: 1) Why does someone “go dark?” and 2) Why does a team underperform?

A key point from my experience is that when you uncover the assumptions behind the low performance, you might find out that the underlying fear or disagreement is real. By pointing to something real — together — you can discover the missing alignment. The commitments made after that discovery shine the light on the truth and guide the next steps. Steps toward clarity and alignment.

A Conversation Shines the Light

When you need to find common ground, a conversation shines the light.

Talking with Group A:

“Oh, they’ll [the “others” in Group B] never go for that.”
“Have you asked them yet?”
“Well, no. We tried to get a meeting and they declined.”
“What about just quickly posting your questions?”
“Oh, OK.”

Later, talking to Group B:

“What do you think about the proposal?”
“Well, we had some alternate ideas but they [the “others” in Group A] would never want that.”
“Oh? What did they say when you brought it up?”
“We haven’t talked to them about it yet.”

Facepalm moment for me as the facilitator. It turned out the two groups hadn’t ever connected on this topic. Once a conversation shined a light on it, we saw the shared goal in plain sight. Assumptions dissolved.

Alignment is knowing versus thinking we know.

Continue reading A Conversation Shines the Light

Leadership Gap: Scaling Presence With Distributed Teams

In my practice as a team lead at Automattic I keep coming back to the challenge of scale. Scaling up both in scope and in size, taking on larger projects and bigger teams with more overhead and management. Going from a small team paying attention to one product all the way to a group of teams across a many channels.

One reason it’s a been a difficult challenge for me is that with the increase in scope and size, my time to give individual attention to people and projects decreases. I find myself asking, “How can I best scale up my presence to keep in touch with everyone on everything they’re doing?”

The second part of the challenge is our particular work style: Automattic is fully distributed, biased toward text communication, and most interactions are asynchronous because of time zones. Our culture is optimized for personal flexibility as we set our own work hours and schedules — and office locations change daily.

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I’ve started writing down the principles that lead to my mindset for being present — plus the techniques that have worked well so far. I’m sharing them here publicly to keep myself accountable for the practice.

To scale my presence on distributed teams, I will:

  1. Build connections to build trust.
  2. Conduct pulse checks on a regular basis, including skip-level chats¹.
  3. Share regular updates to the group to expose my thinking, highlight important messages, and provide insight into what I’m tracking both internally and externally.
  4. Ask everyone to share their observations with me.
  5. Make coaching a priority, so others can learn to help themselves.
  6. Delegate more. Can someone else do it?
  7. Be true to my word.
  8. Be visible.

Your ability to have influence at a larger scale within your organization starts with knowing how to connect and influence people in your immediate team. Alyssa Burkus in How to Be More Present With your Team (Actionable.co)

But wait… these are all practices for any leader, even when located in the same building, same city. The last one — being visible — is the key to solving the difficulty of a distributed, async workforce.

Ideas that I’ve tried for improving visibility include connecting more over video, to “share a tea” virtually as we chat. Posting short personal updates on what I’m up to outside work. Jumping into short, high-fidelity check-ins over voice and video to unblock a communication gap, which is a boost to the human bond. The view into someone’s office can lead to questions like, “What’s that book on your shelf?”

Teams and individuals at Automattic socialize together via chat or photoblogs or videos or GIFs. Whether that’s around hobbies and shared interests, building cultural awareness, and following each others’ lives via social media. As my coworker Cate says, “Make it feel like a team.” Ultimately it’s about humanizing the distance.

Making it feel more human means involving myself in the connection over the distance. It’s not just a transaction — we’ve bridged the gap to interaction.

I’d love to hear from you, too. What’s worked best for you to be more present for your team?


  1. Footnote: the vocabulary of scaling teams is fun. Learning to scale my leadership also means picking up industry lingo around scaling teams and companies. Everything from skip-levels, business units (BU), direct reports (DR), individual contributors (IC), org chart, directly responsible individual (DRI), “manage up,” and more. Not all the buzz words are new to me, but I typically avoid using corporate-sounding vocabulary. As I seek to understand everything at scale, I find myself using these phrases and acronyms more often now with certain audiences. I’m picking it up as I go! Something new each day.

 

No Job Is Beneath You

No job is beneath you. In a similar vein as killing your ego, be eager to jump in and get dirty with your team. Garrett St. John

Read the full article: Humility in leadership.

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I’ve been enjoying Garrett’s Technical Leadership email newsletter — they arrive with perfect timing for certain issues I’m dealing with at work and at home. If you lead technical teams — or work in any group setting — I highly recommend it as a resource. You can sign up for Garrett’s newsletter here.

Flow Fallacy

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Because the goal of commercial software development isn’t to create code you love—it’s to create products your customers will love.

Recent efforts with my team at Automattic to improve the WordPress.com experience — and understand our customers better through “exposure hours” — reminded me of this classic software development essay from 2013 (via Andrew).