A couple of weeks ago I did a bit of an experiment at the 2019 Tech Leaders Summit. Here’s the transcript…
When I was asked by the organisers to convene a panel on the subjects of innovation, there were a couple of things that were going through my mind first, This was an opportunity to be able to experiment to be innovative in a live environment in front of people. And that’s now feeling like an increasingly crazy idea.
But it will be fine. And then the other thing that I was very aware of was that I’ve been banging on for quite some time about how at tech industry events, there is still a tendency towards what is known as the “manel”, the panel that consists solely of male people. And so I wanted to better do something to be able to fuse those things together and make yourself not like like a total hypocrite.
And so there’s a premise behind what we’re about to do. And the premise is this: if you want to get great innovation happening within your organizations, one of the things that you need to be able to do is to be able to get people from different backgrounds, different cultures to be able to work together effectively. Because if you don’t, you won’t end up with great product services, innovations, because they will come just from too few perspectives. And that might be diversity in the context of things like ethnicity or gender.
But it’s also as much about diversity in terms of which departments people come from, or which organisations people come from, or whether they’re customers or suppliers or partners.
The contention is that it’s harder sometimes to manage teams that are diverse, because you don’t have as much common language, you have to work harder, because you’ve got a lack of innate understanding between people because- you know, if you’ve ever had an HR person, a finance person, an IT person in the same room, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
We have different languages to describe things. And so what I thought was, what if I bring together as diverse a group of people as I could possibly imagine and then get us to be able to talk about what it needs for people of diverse backgrounds to be able to work together to innovate? And if this works, I’ve proven that thesis, and if not I’ll be leaving very quickly under a bag.
So I brought together a very diverse group of people. I’m fairly certain they won’t stop talking. Because there’s one thing that they all have in common is that they are talkers.
Dr Nancy Doyle, Mohan Yogendran, Leila Willingham, KC Goundiam and Timo Peach.
I’m going to introduce them with a question so you can start to understand a bit about their perspectives, and then we’ll get into a more general discussion, keeping in mind what we’re looking for is how do you get people from different sorts of backgrounds, different sorts of experience working together effectively to come up with new ideas. So that’s the plan.
I’m going to start by introducing Dr Nancy Doyle who runs a business called Genius Within
She is an occupational psychologist, She was also the expert in the BBC programme Employable Me. Her organisations’ work is about helping organisations and people to be able to get inclusion in matters of Neurodiversity. One of the things she observed was that the tech industry, actually when it comes to matters of neurodiversity, people with conditions like autism or ADHD or dyslexia, The tech industry has actually got quite a strong history of being deliberately inclusive. What does that mean?
By deliberate inclusion, I mean organisations are seeking employees with those conditions, because the of value they add, which is a paradigm shift from the disability inclusion world of 20 years ago when we included people because we felt sorry for them and it was a nice thing to do.
So rather than kind of doing it as “Oh well, there’s a problem with this person, they have got an issue, we’ll put some adjustments around them, It’ll be okay”, we now in the Tech industry have “Ah, people with autism are particularly good at X, Y and Z, perhaps we should deliberately bring them in to do X, Y, and Z”.
And I have to say that the tech industry does still seem a little bit centred around the stereotypical autistic coder. The tech industry, the banking, industry, and defence are all really leading this idea of deliberate inclusion. There are some cynics in disability circles who still think he’s got an element of marketing machine about it. But I don’t think so. I think that that shift in, “let’s bring people in, because of what they can do, rather than what they can’t do”, with scaffold around them- I think that’s tremendous.
And what I hope that that will lead to, is an increase in the employment rates and a reduction in the disability employment gap that then seeds throughout the organisation, because if we just keep people boxed in sales or coding, then we’re still “Otherising”. It’s not being systemically inclusive. So we’re not getting the benefit of those unique thinking styles throughout the organisation. So that’s the next step – to go to a more systemic approach.
And what are the sorts of things that teams need to do to be able to work effectively when you’ve got people who have different cognitive abilities?
The majority is around being flexible and not making assumptions that when people behave in a certain way, they have the same intentions as you would if you behaved in that way.
So particularly around autism, because this is a tech conference, a lot of these initial programmes involve bringing people into large, busy, open-plan offices with strip lighting, and they were then very surprised that none of the autistic people could do their jobs properly or perform well.
Because actually, Autism is almost entirely sensory sensitivity and overload. So people with autism have enhanced senses – it might be all five senses, it might be one or two particularly. In those environments, the performance that is possible doesn’t materialise. So there needs to be some flexibility in working arrangements and flexibility in hours, and flexibility in the way that offices are designed.
And so understanding the kind of biological causes of unexpected behaviours is an important premise. But then further to that – it’s kind of interesting what you said about, it is harder when people don’t “get” each other. In many ways, it’s actually easier because we’re not seduced into the idea that we do understand each other.
So when we’re working with people just like us, we all think that we know what each other is talking about, and we really don’t. But when we work with people who are different from us, we have to slow things down. And we have to check. And we have to ask questions, and we have to devote a little bit more time to generating, shared meaning or shared outcomes. And that is what we have to do. You have to have flexibility in our communication, and just take that bit of time for this check what’s happening.
Just take a little bit more time over those things at the outset, which then sets the relationships up right.
Timo. I think this is possibly the first time I’ve ever introduced somebody as a musician at a technology conference.
The world that surrounds us at the moment seems to be one where although we see difference, there seems to be a lot of conflict. Obviously, at the macro level, there’s an awful lot of conflict going on in this country at the moment for one reason or another. But that actually translates sometimes down into a micro-scale within organisations.
You’re from an artistic background. Do you think there’s a role that thinking like artists has to be able to enable people from different backgrounds to work together?
As somebody who works on the spectrum between art and business, where those two things mix, very interesting, disruptive human things happen.
That’s the point where worlds collide, in a way that does change perspectives. And I think what I’ve learned lately is the idea of living in a system, a lot of things are happening about challenging the system, the rules, and we are all slowing starting to wake up to it.
And some of us have been wide awake to it for years because we experienced the same thing differently. That’s something I’m starting to wake up to. We all walk down the same street and have very different experiences of that street for lots of reasons, Sensory, social, physical.
I think we’re living in a world, to oversimplify it, that is very, very imbalanced. In engineering versus art. I think that we’ve built a world that effectively is one big robot. We’ve been living in a sort of mindless calculating machine, but for two centuries almost. And you are supposed to put data and products and materials in, and then you get an automated factor out that has no intuition. It’s not designed to. But we’re not like that We’ve had to behave like robots in lots of ways to function with this machine in order to get value out of it.
Problem is that we can’t live like that always. And I think that’s a big part of why we’re manifesting so many symptoms of unrest and unhappiness. The pandemic of mental health around the world is phenomenal. I’ve got this pet theory that actually emerging in our collective consciousness of people’s different abilities, is signalling to the rest of us to be real. I’ve often thought that the gay community fight has been actually a fight for humanity. I now think about the trans community – they’re fighting for all of us
They’re like Old Testament prophets, who didn’t ask to be given this message. And they’ve got to live it out like artists and suffer for it. But actually, we’re as a collective, the people, in the end, benefit the most, and I think that’s definitely the case with neuro-diversity, racial diversity. All diversity is just nature trying to talk back to us. Reflecting that the world we built isn’t sustainable.
Art’s place in that I think is simply that we can redress that balance. And in two ways what art does is- It can walk into the middle of no man’s land in very polarised times, and change the whole dynamic with an experience. Art can walk into the middle of no man’s land and sing.
That changes everything. Art isn’t “preach”. Art is testament, That’s a lot more powerful.
But the other thing is the art’s job in my belief is that it’s not just cathartic, it exists to give us new ways of seeing. And that’s where the storytelling bit comes in. We need new stories of us fundamentally, right now and we’re trying to work out what they are. And art exists to make you look at everything you thought you knew from a different perspective. So, oh my goodness, do we need art, Matt.
I thought you might say that!
But that idea about being able to be appreciative of different perspectives and forcing ways to get people to look at different perspectives I think is really interesting within this context.
Yeah, you the word you would use is “play”. The whole point is to just demonstrate you live and all the artists I know are practical people, they’re not “arty-farty”. This a part of a myth placing art is far away from everyday life. Art is everyones.
It’s about kinetically trying things, and rolling up the sleeves and testing. Art is very akin to “hack”.
It’s like hacking things. A mindset. Why is that the way it is? What if we did it like this, but as self-expression?
Now, Leila. you work in the world of PR and communications, and you’ve also done quite a lot of work looking at the next generation emerging into the workplace Generation Z. I think there’s a lot of cliches about getting people who are from different age groups working together. But there are obviously differences.
What have you found in the work that you’ve been doing around attitudes with the emerging generation?
When it comes to age I argue that there are two points that are most strong for me.
The first one is that my generation, particularly we’ve grown up in an ever-increasing inclusive society – gay rights, trans rights, gender, race, all of that. I remember in reception learning about why it’s not right, and what is right. And I think, actually, now, we are more likely – my generation, my friends – will call each other out on when we step out of line. And I think we’ve had that, for such a young age. It’s just part of our generation, it’s part of who we are.
So firstly, to be in a team that isn’t diverse, and inclusive, would be quite jarring. So I think, first of all, to allow any innovation to happen from here on forward, teams are going to have to be diverse, to ensure that you’re getting the right people through the door, and making them stay.
And the second point is from now to infinity what comes with youth is being naive, And as much as that means that young people can be quite impressionable, their horizons are huge. Children have the best imagination. So what’s the best next thing to having a team of toddlers when you’re trying to think of a new product, get the youngest people who actually have some kind of common sense about them. I know when I get the right stimulus, my brain will just go and go and go, and someone at some point will have to go, “Leila – there is a budget for this!”
But, I think to go as big as you can, and you can always scale back, I think it’s so much more difficult to try and scale-up. So what you’ll always get with young minds is that naivety, which I think from a starting point, it can never be that negative. So those are the two real points, I’d argue about age.
There’s something really interesting in that about our obsession with experience, and how the most experienced person in the room is the most knowledgeable person in the room is the one who will come up with the best ideas. But of course, the most experienced person in the room is often the person who’s most constrained in their thinking, because they’ve had years and years of “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”
And also, I think going up through school, you may get knocked down a few times, but it’s not really until you are out in the world of work, and you really get your big “no”s. “No, you can’t do this. No, you can’t do that.”
So actually, when you’re straight and fresh in, what are your constraints, because as far as you’re concerned, you’re just trying to impress the people around you, you’re trying to keep your foot in that door. And then you know, you’ll come up with the biggest and best ideas, you can. The only thing that is going to stop you is if it’s illegal, or it’s not yet invented. But who’s to say you can’t invent it?
I think that’s sort of the mentality people enter the workplace with. And sadly, not one that they will probably leave with.
KC, so you’re probably the most stereotypical person on the panel today, you run a digital agency, which is probably closest to the sort of normal person that you find at this sort of event?
Actually, I’m a mix-up of management consulting and digital agency, and the word doesn’t exist yet. So you can help me with that.
You’re helping organisations across North America and Europe to transform, to be able to innovate. What do you see in terms of their ability to manage this sort of diversity within the teams that they’re using for innovation?
So I’m going to come at it with two perspectives: the perspective of corporate where I walk into the room, and everybody looks at me; and the perspective of my team, which is highly, highly diverse, whether it is neurodiversity, or ethnic or LGBTQ.
So I think by nature, all companies, specifically global, although I’ve seen it in smaller organisations, will want to take the safest path to success. And usually, it’s hiring people who look like us. I always tell my client, they’re very courageous because they are hiring very different from the usual type.
So I think the word here is “empathy” and reconnecting with the human side. The other words here is “blind spot”,
You have to know what you actually don’t know. And you have to be okay to be called out about it.
I’m launching the platform, and we’ve done the design. My creative director is one of the most creative I’ve known. However, when he suggested visuals for the new website, it was only “dudes”. White dudes.
I said to him, very subtly because I didn’t want to be offensive to his creative direction, that I can’t walk into a room and present that platform. It doesn’t represent. You have put all the people, women, ethnic minorities… So he sent me back a second iteration, and was still the same dudes, with one, who, I think he was about 35.
And when I confronted him, he said, “Well, this has a millennial vibe.”
But my clients are everyone, not millennials alone.
So although he’s one of the most, I would say, intelligent and talented people, he does have a blind spot that he doesn’t know. So If you don’t have somebody who is aware of a lack of diversity, who’s going to call them out? And then that’s how you have global companies, we see them all the time, having blunders and being having backlash because they have nobody in the room who can actually call this out.
So Mohan. You work as a headhunter, and you’re very international in your work, especially working in emerging economies, as well as developed economies. Do you see a difference in terms of how organisations are managing innovation, but also managing diverse groups for innovation?
Yes, and no.
The issues around diversity that we face in the UK exist in lots of places. I’ve been working in emerging markets for nine or 10 years now. In West Africa, and in the Caribbean and the Middle East as well.
And what you find are things… we all have to be temperate with the words “tends to” because the danger is that we take out, get rid of the ones that are stereotypes and replace it with another stereotype. We’re all much more layered. We all have multiple-identities right?
And so an example like when I say these things, I preface them with “tends to”.
For example, respect for age and authority is much greater. So I know sometimes I call the client “sir”, or “Madam”, or “Mrs”. That’s a challenge. Sometimes first names terminology doesn’t work.
Even though they can be cool, chilled people, you can relax and relate to them on the same wavelength, there’s a sense of deference.
The importance of faith is actually much stronger. If any of you are here from emerging markets in developing countries, you’ll know this. The sense of faith in people’s lives, as well as their work, is much greater. I have clients where they will pray at the end of a meeting. So can you imagine that?
So there are lots of things which in many developed emerging economies they are leapfrogging technologies. You’re finding folks not necessarily making the same mistakes that we made in our time.
The one that people were talking about is mobile payments within M-Pesa in Kenya, but there are so many other examples where people are using the advantage of other people’s mistakes. And often the middle classes in those countries – middle class in these countries usually means you’re reasonably well off, usually internationally educated, either in their own country or elsewhere, have a global perspective on life. And I would say the joke with my Nigerian friends is “look, I know London is a well-known suburb of Lagos”
And so there are lots of challenges around this. There’s also in developing and emerging countries, the large indigenous corporates tend to often still have strong family ownership, which has pluses and minuses.
It means that they sometimes take a longer-term view around business, but also, whether they admit it or not, will have a “my way or the highway” approach. So the challenge of senior executives coming in, from whatever background from the Diaspora or from what we used to call expats or from local backgrounds – The challenge is will they really get to do what they want to do if the boss changes their mind?
You also see, particularly in some developing countries where there’s no protection around the diversity protective characteristics that we are used to here, you often see a surprising number of senior women. And I’m rationalising that… it was totally new to me and I’ve seen it in India, in a number of African countries.
So a growing middle class, hugely talented, usually schooled in the top schools in their own country, or in Britain and America or other countries, who’ve either stayed home or will come home. Some of the challenges faced by dual-income households – affordable childcare, being away from your immediate family for childcare, because some of those things are fixed. So these things challenge a lot of preconceived notions that often people have. And I find myself constantly learning from the people I’m around.
I often put my foot in it as well, but I’m quick to learn.
So there are some threads that I think came up throughout all of those thoughts, One of them it feels, is about empathy. Having an ability to be able to understand the people with whom you’re working. How do you go about, if you’re leading a group of people, how do you go about fostering that empathy within others?
Well, from a psychologist’s point of view, the way you do that is you have shared commonality in terms of goals and outcomes of what you are trying to achieve.
You have got to come back to a stage of going “Right. We all in this for the same reasons. We all want this to happen.”
And actually taking that extra time, making sure that people’s individual goals are matched to the goals of the team or project or organisation is actually really, really important. And then the other thing is about facilitating that process of “let’s just check”
When I used to do a lot of training in communication, and Teamwork, the thing we used to talk about was premature evaluation. So are you suffering from premature evaluation? And have you made up what somebody needs before you actually finished letting them talk?
I think a facilitating leader at that point, is about slowing things down a bit.
“Let’s just check, What’s happening for you? What’s happening for you? Is it the same? Where are we going and just doing that process to keep everybody on track, rather than having people race ahead in 17 different directions?
And actually, that slowing down is what builds the empathy
And that feels like it ties into concepts like servant leadership?
Servant leadership is really important because it actually doesn’t work if you’re from a minority. So for women and people of different backgrounds Servant leadership is actually a counter to white male patriarchy. And the evidence suggests that if you approach leadership as a servant, and you’re not a white male patriarch, then what happens is that you will end up being a servant, as opposed to servant leader. You end up doing admin tasks for your direct reports or if they haven’t performed you’ll “Oh, I’ll do it for you”, and you end up actually serving as opposed to leading. So there are some big issues in the biases around leadership, and the leadership models that we have got in the West developed economies are very much aimed at countering the kind of narcissistic Machiavellian psychopathic personality, stereotypes that dominate corporate leadership, but those aren’t in themselves Leadership – they’re just the leadership that we have right now.
I will go as far as saying that the team resembles their leader. So if you have an empathic leader, that person will be able to excite, mentor, coach, and infuse that culture within the team. But if at the top there’s no empathy, chances are the team will not be.
So it’s almost the responsibility of the organisation as a whole to create the recruitment of empathic leaders
The other thing is about getting things done. You know, sometimes it isn’t about empathy, sometimes diverse teams isn’t about understanding how each other feels, it’s just about going “You’re really good at that thing, you can do that.”
I agree, but I’m leading completely diverse teams. And sometimes I’m leading the client’s team as well. The empathy part meaning that if somebody, for example, is having an issue at home.
It doesn’t mean that I’m going to get it done. It does mean that I’m able to move some of the tasks around to help them deal at a better time to, you know, with the tasks they have to fulfil.
It’s a matter of being able to juggle with equal emotions. Earlier, when we were chatting outside, we talked about mental illness. I have a couple of people in my team that very often can’t work at all. In a regular 9-5 environment, those people would have been fired, because they cannot work.
What we do is when we see that coming we reduce their hours, and we ask them, whatever they want to take on, and we can dispatch to other people until they come back. That’s what I call empathy.
The worst scenario for me is when I’m debriefing with a client and they say “I like number three” and I’ll ask why and they’ll say “because they reminded me of me when I was younger”. And I’m like, “And that’s a good thing?”
Well, for a start, we’ve got you. So why do we need another one? And secondly, does the world not change? That was the whole point, that we’d bring people in who were not you.
Leadership should be that you’re bringing people who are better than you to do things that you want. This is why I often use musical conductor, curator, those kinds of terms to refer to the leadership as well. But I get the point that actually you’re in a context of some sort. But making sense is more about bringing people in who aren’t like you, even from professional skills, technical point of view, because that’s the whole the point. The world moved on, right? We moved away from the military model, and traditional leadership styles where we’re “Jumping over that hill”.
Obviously, I’ve never led a team. But through this investigation into young people, I really understood what the next generation wants as team members. There’s actually a strong sense of wanting to go back to having a real human relationship with your employer.
And I think that for the next generation, what you’re saying about stopping and saying, “Is this okay for you?” and having to work around other people’s personal issues… everyone that I’ve spoken to wants to say, actually, if in the very beginning, they could build a relationship with their employer where they can go to them and say, “Look, this is going on”, or “look, this isn’t working for me”, then that will build a culture in organisations to mean that when you’re sat in a team meeting or whatever.
Hopefully, everyone in the room should feel that they have received empathy from their boss, and therefore should give it to other people. So I think the more that that is expected from employers, the more that that should manifest in different organisations,
The importance that role modelling has in groups is often underrated, especially by people who fundamentally don’t demonstrate the behaviours that they are asking from others.
Part of that modelling is the recognition that you need a diverse team, and that tends to be illustrated nicely in TV shows, in your Kirk, Spock and McCoy.
And as a leader, your ability to see your own weaknesses is often one of the greatest strengths. We have all been in offices where it’s always the character in the box in a hierarchical setting, that sets the tone of the office. Whether it’s really friendly, but a nightmare at admin, so no-one ever knows where they are, or somebody who is really organised and just sort of dead emotionally, in that context, very formal. And what you need, what we all need is a certain balance of things. And so a leader’s job is to recognise what’s missing and go through the list and ask what’s important.
Aren’t we asking too much of leaders, though? I mean, come on, we are painting them as superhuman. Most leaders I know are, sadly, basic humans.!I guess what needs to happen is self-awareness, and this you cannot learn in the classroom. So it has to be embedded in society.
So this is about culture, isn’t it? it’s about cultural habits to help us all go “Wait, I hadn’t thought about that but now I can?”
And that goes back to what Leila said that is being able to accept to be called out. And not everyone can do that.
We are coming to close now. But that feels to me to not about not only be about empathy, but also about how to build trust. And if you’re going to have teams that are doing new things. And you’re going to have teams that are working with people that don’t necessarily come from the same background, as a leadership characteristic, being able to build up trust in those teams very quickly also seems important.
With that, we have reached the end of our time.
So I’d like to thank all of the panellists for allowing me to do this experiment. If you could show your appreciation to Nancy, Leila, Mohan, KC and Timo.