A 21st century organisation uses systems thinking to enable agility. Shipping working code is an example of a highly valuable system that most startups develop early. Even in the early days these systems are multi-layered across infrastructure (e.g. GitHub), rhythms (e.g. weekly all-hands on meeting), and ways of working (e.g. Working Out Loud). When startups scale, everything moves so fast that the sole focus is on shipping the product to specified deadlines. Those systems created to ship the product become business as usual and are only given attention when embedding new joiners. When Google hit its scale-up phase, for example, attention was only given to shipping the product or embedding ‘Nooglers’ with their system as quickly as possible. However, the unintended consequence of this focus, was that the creation of a diverse team was seen as an outcome that lay beyond the core jobs-to-be-done. But, if diversity isn’t engrained into the system of shipping the product, it will be forgotten during scaling. At Google, despite how well-intentioned founders Brin and Page were at the start of their journey, in the end, they were left with a whole lot of white males.

The benefits of diversity help to understand how critical it is to integrate into the whole system. Diversity fosters innovation, so for new and creative code to be produced a range of perspectives and viewpoints is required. Diversity also enhances product design. If you are creating products for a diverse group of customers, it is essential that this is reflective of the group creating that product. At Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg originally wanted to make it impossible to ‘untag’ yourself in a photo. It wasn’t until Sheryl Sandberg raised concerns around harassment that he reconsidered. Diversity is therefore not the responsibility of one team, but a critical element of the system for effective output. As with many tech startups, Google did try to hire a diverse team but didn’t consider retention strategies as a part of the overall system. They needed to make it clear that to ship quality code, a diverse team was necessary, so their systems needed to reflect inclusive hiring and retention.

As I reflect on the idea of diversity-as-a-system, I see some key diversity values that should be encoded into your organisation’s system: 

  • Hiring
    • Use known hiring practices for diversity. Including diverse panels, unconscious bias training, language in job ads etc.
    • Communicate your diversity priority early. During an interview, you could also ask ‘How have you helped support someone from a minority group at work?’ 
    • Make critical partnerships. Select recruiters that use a range of techniques to bring you a wider candidate pool. 
  • Retaining
    • Include diversity in your mission. Highlight why diversity is important to your business, why people should care and why it is critical for the end product.
    • Make everyone accountable. This isn’t just an HR problem, it is an everyone problem. Encourage all employees to challenge adverse behaviours and practices – don’t rely on your minority employees.
    • Be self-aware and self-critical about what behaviours are being encouraged. At Slack, they have a ‘work hard but go home’ policy to encourage those with families to feel they can do both. They also continuously review all practices such as pay and performance to ensure they are fair. 
    • Ensure Psychological Safety. If you want employees to raise concerns, or challenge practices, they have to feel supported. And if it is the minority employees that have had the courage to speak up, make sure they are heard. 

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