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Diversity – More than meets the eye.

24 Dec 2012 – Jared Koumentis


A lot has been written about about diversity. It’s certainly an important topic. Many people focus on the gender or racial aspects of diversity, and many people have written about those parts of the conversation. I’m going to focus on something deeper than what you typically here about. Instead, I’m going to talk about the type of diversity that you can’t determine with a checkbox on an opt-in part of your job application.

Something I’ve observed in a number of companies is a lack of “thought diversity”. This is seen particularly strongly in a number of Silicon Valley startups. The culture of the “brogrammer” is a clear example of this. Now, it’s not to say all startups are like this. Perhaps, let me explain more of what I mean…

I was recently watching a video clip of “The Lost Interview” with Steve Jobs. He mentioned how a great team is like a rock tumbler. You take ordinary and seemingly plain rocks, apply friction, and you get something beautiful out of it. He states how a great team is much the same. A great team has clashes… fights even.

Companies that embrace this friction do amazing things. Companies that avoid this friction don’t necessarily die… They do, however, slowly fade into oblivion. Some of the greatest companies that we’ve ever known have been lead by leaders who embrace friction. Because of it, better people, better products, and better companies come out of it.

In many startups, there is significant weight given to “culture”. Everyone loves to talk about how you must protect the culture of your company. However, not many people talk about what you should be protecting it from. The undertone is that, if you let in people from “outside” your company’s culture, they will ruin it. But what does this really say?

For many startups, to “protect your culture” means to seek out and hire only those who share your same style of thinking. There is a problem with this. If you have people who all think the same way, you’ll probably eliminate a great deal of friction.

I’ve personally watched this happen in a number of businesses. They try to hire only those who think like their current group. They avoid friction. The problem I’ve seen, and it seems to inevitably happen, is akin to the “Bus to Abilene”. I never knew what to call the “Bus to Abilene” until I read “Quiet”. Susan Cane explains it well.

“The ‘Bus to Abilene’ anecdote reveals our tendency to follow those who initiate action—any action.”

With everyone thinking the same, you end up with a group management that moves on ideas without fully considering the counter arguments. Unfortunately, due to the homogeneous nature of such groups (again, caused by the sacred guarding of “the culture”), you have a sort of cascading effect. “Well, the other people think it’s a good idea, so I guess I should think it’s a good idea too…”

I won’t say that you shouldn’t consider your culture of your business. I agree that it’s important. I’d only caution that you not guard against the wrong thing. Embrace friction. Find people who disagree with your views and work with them. Listen to the people who disagree with you and try to understand the “why”.

Remember… while diamonds are formed from ugly blobs of carbon that are placed under heat and pressure, they only sparkle and shine after being ground and beat against another diamond. Startups naturally have plenty of “heat and pressure”. Make sure your culture doesn’t exclude the friction.

- ShepBook

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