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Ensuring long-term team development: How to make diversity work in product development

Originally published by Computerwoche magazine (German only)

Diverse and inclusive teams are seen as the key to sustainable businesses. Learn how to build such teams systematically.

Mediative team development turns integrated IT teams into a powerful engine for future-oriented companies.
Mediative team development turns integrated IT teams into a powerful engine for future-oriented companies.

Diverse and inclusive companies are ahead in terms of revenue, customer satisfaction and innovation. This is the conclusion of the study "The key to designing inclusive tech: Creating diverse and inclusive tech teams" by the Capgemini Research Institute. But as the study also shows: Diversity and inclusion are a matter of perspective.

For example, 77% of managers surveyed believe that their organisation has a mix of people from different backgrounds. However, 88 % of women and ethnic minorities in technical roles have a different view. So it seems that there is still a long way to go before diversity and inclusion becomes a reality for all employees in their day-to-day lives and is reflected in the company's figures.

Diversity and inclusion: A definition

Diversity and inclusion are two closely related terms that we will initially consider separately.

Diversity means recognising, respecting and valuing the differences between people. It is about more than diversity of gender and nationality, as the study points out:

"Diversity refers to the presence of differences in a given environment/setting. In the context of a tech team or the workplace, it would generally refer to the presence of persons from diverse backgrounds, including (but not limited to) gender identity, ethnicity (race, religion, nationality, etc.), socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability, and learning style" (Capgemini Research Institute 2021: 3).

Inclusion, by contrast, means being included. "Inclusion is about creating a sense of belonging, feeling valued and respected in the workplace, especially for underserved and under-represented groups" (Capgemini Research Institute 2021: 3).

Ratios for diversity characteristics such as gender, age and nationality, or a dedicated budget for inclusion initiatives, can make progress towards integrated IT team measurable. But it takes more than quotas and metrics to get there. It requires the subjective experience of team members that they are respected for their differences, valued for their diverse perspectives, and part of the community despite their differences.

"Diversity and inclusion are achieved when the numbers on management's PowerPoint slides and the feelings of team members speak the same language".

Diversity does not guarantee success

IT is best placed to lead the way on diversity and inclusion, and to make integrated tech teams its high-performing engine. Technology provides the optimal framework for this.

Virtual workplaces already allow experts from all over the world to work in teams, and different nationalities automatically bring diversity to teams. But it is becoming even more diverse. In IT, there are more and more colleagues from disciplines other than conventional computer science. For example, we are seeing more mathematicians in data science, psychologists in roles such as scrum masters, and economists in the field of SAP business process software. The image of technical nerds that often prevails outside of IT is outdated. IT is diverse and becoming more so. But this is not a guarantee of success.

Technology enables collaboration across borders, but diversity often creates new walls. A mix of experienced colleagues and young high-flyers seems to be the optimal combination to get projects to the finish line more quickly. The team can draw on the wealth of experience of more senior colleagues, anticipate risks, avoid multiple failed approaches and deliver projects with high performance. However, this can only be achieved if the team embraces its diversity and uses it to develop the best possible solution for the client. If not, diversity becomes a test of endurance.

A wide age range, for example, raises the question of how to deal with seniority. Does the word of an experienced colleague count more than that of a younger expert? How can younger colleagues vigorously defend an opposing viewpoint while still showing respect for more senior experts? If teams do not find answers to these and many other questions, discussions will quickly drift away from the facts and end up in less solution-oriented discussions such as "We've always done it this way" and "You can do it wrong for years", which are neither conducive to the working atmosphere nor to finding a solution.

How teams deal with their differences will therefore determine whether inclusive teams reach their full potential and thus drive companies to the top of the competition in terms of revenue, customer satisfaction and innovation, or whether they remain stuck in mediocrity. The biggest challenge for integrated teams - dealing with diversity - should not be left to chance. And it doesn't have to be - with mediative team development.

Build integrated teams systematically

Mediative team development is a synthesis of proven methods of team development and mediation - that is, strategic conflict resolution. The focus is on the development of the team's conflict competence and other competences that are important for teamwork, such as solution-oriented communication. Stumbling blocks that keep getting in the way of the team are addressed in a targeted manner. Collaboration and productivity reach new levels.

Unlike team building, a euphoric short-term event aimed at generating a "Yes, we can", team development is a systematic accompaniment of the team over a longer period, aimed at taking the team to the next level of development.

The main difference to conventional team development is that the team is in the driving seat. It defines the topics to be worked on, which are collected through a standardised interview. The topics are worked on iteratively, so that small successes are celebrated during team development and the big goals are achieved at the end. This counteracts the frequent effect of people going home from motivational workshops full of euphoria and with a lot of to-dos. These then fizzle out in everyday life, which sets its own priorities.

The end result of the mediative team development process is a high performing, integrated team.

Three common challenges that integrated teams can overcome with the help of mediative team development are:

1. Arguing with pleasure

Customer focus means focusing on what the customer wants. Internal disputes distract from this goal and shift the focus. When teams are more concerned with themselves than with customers, projects and deadlines, it's time to re-focus. Mediative team development can be of great benefit.

It helps to clarify issues such as the already mentioned handling of seniority in the team, so that the discussions can remain fact-based. In addition, teams can learn to deal with disagreements in a more solution-oriented way in the future.

With the goal of achieving the best possible outcome for the customer, the aim is to better understand the other person's point of view, to identify the main points of criticism and to incorporate them into the new solution. In this way, team members learn to accept different points of view, to communicate their divergent views more respectfully, and to have methods at hand to tackle tricky issues in a solution-oriented and time-saving way in the future.

2. Embedding diversity and inclusion

Diversity is often harder to achieve than it seems. Companies can create the environment and make the investments, but it is also the responsibility of the team to embed respectful and appreciative interactions in the team culture. Mediative team development can help the team on this journey.

The aim is to encourage reflection in the group and to make uncomfortable issues open for discussion. This includes, for example, misunderstandings that are inevitable when - as is often the case in IT - many nationalities work together in English without English being their mother tongue. The team learns that all topics can be discussed in a trusting and factual manner. In this way, mediative team development helps companies and teams to take Diversity and Inclusion from the PowerPoint presentation given by the management to the everyday life of the team.

3. Retaining talent

The best integrated teams are of no use to organisations if team members leave the company too quickly. Retaining talent is therefore a top priority if organisations are to realise the full potential of integrated teams. There are many reasons why colleagues leave teams. However, many employees do not leave because their jobs are too stressful. They leave because their contributions, initiative and ideas are not valued.

Or they leave because they feel isolated by the increasingly virtual nature of IT collaboration, or because they miss the team spirit that they are familiar with from working closely together in the office. Mediative team development can also help here. It is not only an effective way to get integrated tech teams up and running. It can also be an effective tool to revive the lost feeling of togetherness and appreciation - also in virtual cooperation.

In summary, mediative team development creates a win-win situation. It develops integrated teams into high-performing engines for forward-looking organisations. It puts diversity and inclusion into practice and helps companies to retain skilled employees. Who wouldn't want to be part of a company where appreciation, respect and belonging are visible not only on PowerPoint slides but also in the workplace?


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