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Working Together in Diverse Teams

Jul 20, 2020 | An Event Apart 2020 Online

An Event Apart Online Together, Human Centered Design 2020
10am Central

We Are The Tech Industry

He loves hip hop. He was born in Zimbabwe and lived there for the first 18 years of his life. He loved hip hop so much he started talking like them. You can hear it in the way he speaks.

Initially hip hop was a diversion, some might even say it was trash. In the 90’s hip hop was bad, it was more like a menace to society, but after listening to hip hop, the good and the bad, he discovered that like any art form it can be a form of wisdom.

The album Black on Both Sides – Mos Def – 1999
This is his favorite Hip Hop album of all time.

The majority of hip hop artists in the 90’s made songs that glorified misogyny, violence, drug use, etc. And then here comes Mos Def talking about the metaphysics of love, corporate greed, pollution of the oceans. He says ‘mind over matter’ and ‘soul before flesh.’ It’s like he was talking a different language than the rest of the industry.

The whole album was a critique of the Hip Hop Music Industry. He did this as well with the album cover: No title, no bling, just plain old Mos Def.

When you listen to the first track, he says ‘What’s gonna happen with hip hop? Whatever is happening with us.‘ If we’re gong to be smoked out, hip hop is going to smoked out. If we’re doing ok, hip hop is going to be doing ok.

Mos Def: People keep talking about Hp Hop like it’s some giant living in the hillside coming down to visit the people. We are hip hop. Me, you, everybody. The hip hop community is made up of individuals, and we’ve all contributed to the problems. But if we all acknowledge and take accountability for the problem, then we can make a difference.

When we talk about the tech industry having a diversity or inclusion problem, we are often talking about the tech industry like it’s the giant on the hillside. But it’s not, it is all of us.
If me, you, everybody recognize where things are going wrong and take action, then the tech industry is going to be doing ok. But if we don’t, and we expect somebody else to do it, then it will stay the same.

Too many teams do not include diversity of gender, race, ethnic makeup, etc. And so we are building tech teams with skewed views of what is important. This is bad for business, society, and our future.

If you don’t believe increasing meaningful inclusion of diverse groups in the tech community is critical, then you are not paying attention to what the world needs from the tech industry right now and you have two choices:

  1. go educate yourself and catch up
  2. get out of the way so the rest of us can continue to build the tech industry the world needs

The earth is round, we need to vaccinate our children, (I missed one! whoops), wearing masks save lives, and our world needs to be come more diverse. These issues are not up for debate.

A good start is to hire diverse people from around the world. This will improve our products. We need to KEEP them, too. We need to keep the leaky bucket effect.

You and I have a roll to play in this – not your boss, not the diversity inclusion team, not the talent development team. Me, you, everybody.

Inclusion happens at our desks, in our emails and slack messages, at the coffee machine.This decides whether our teams succeed in the long run.

As a manager, it’s his job to build an environment where people on the team can reach their full potential.

He came across Peter Skillman who developed a challenge called the spaghetti tower challenge. A team of 4 people is given 20 pieces of spaghetti, a meter of tape, 1 piece of string, one marshmallow. They are given 18 minutes to build the tallest thing to hold up that marshmallow.

The groups that are best at this are kindergarteners. Children between 5-7 have the highest average scores of any groups he tested.

The groups that do the worst at this challenge are business school students. Peter says that unlike grownups, kids don’t care about how is in charge, who is the CEO of spaghetti corp, what the strategy is, or who is going to criticize their ideas. They don’t care whether they’re going to look dumb or get a promotion. They don’t waste time talking – they just get involved. They stand next to each other and try things together. They just DO STUFF until they get the job done.
The first place he heard about this exercise was in the book, The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle.
Dan says ‘when you look at the results of these kids and you see how they work, you realize that when it comes to the best teams, it’s not about having the biggest stars or the best structure or process. For a team to be better than the sum of its parts, it needs: safety, belonging, trust, and vulnerability. This is what Dan says leads to effective teams.

Dan has even worked with a team of jewelry thieves to understand the best teams! Lol. But have the kindergarteners read Dan’s book…. nope. They don’t need to, because they haven’t yet learned the bad habits that we have learned as adults; habits that make us weary of those different than us, habits that make us hesitant to show our weaknesses.

INCLUSION is the road to building effective teams. It is not the goal, but the PATH. Inclusion is what will make your diverse team more effective.  

How can we do this?

How do you boost SAFETY and BELONGING in diverse teams?

  1. Use threshold moments
  2. Say it properly
  3. Make sure everyone is heard
  4. Overthank


Threshold moments: Key moments in the formation of the team.

Example: on day 1: Tell a new team member why they’re here and where they fit into the mission.
At Pixar, there are special theaters for the screenings of ongoing projects. The directors sit in row 5. When new people join Pixar, during the onboarding process, everyone is invited to sit in the theaters and they are told to sit in row 5. Then they are told, ‘whatever you were before, you are a filmmaker now, and we need you to help us build new worlds.’

Regardless of what you do, when you hear that and you’re put in that position, the people who have been put through this process, they reflect and say that it became clear to them where they fit and how it fit into the missions o the company.

Make it clear that regardless of a team members’ role, they matter, and their efforts are going to lead to the mission everyone is trying to achieve.

When he came back from paternity leave and had their first team meeting, they set up a team charter (everyone contributes how the team is going to work, you write it down, and you agree on it). One of the first steps was to get everybody to introduce themselves. They all logged onto a real-time board where everybody could draw at the same time (Figma, Mural, etc). The first task was to do 2 things:

  1. write down your superpowers (the thing you do better than everybody else)
  2. what is your kryptonite (the thing(s) that is your weakness)

The next thing they did was detailed the way they wanted to work (ex: How do we communicate and meet? How do we decide things?) The first step was to think of all the instances where they saw communication go wrong. One they had all those ideas out, they flipped it and came up with how they DO want to communicate. Then, they did blind voting on all those positive ideas to decide which were most important. Then they rewrote those items into the charter. It covers how they want to communicate, how they want to gather feedback, how they want to deal with successes and failures, then they all signed it.

They review the team charter every quarter or so and check in to see if they’re living up to those standards and if there’ anything that needs to change.

Writing a team charter is a great way to create a sense of shared identity and team belonging. This is a great way to create a sense of safety and belonging.

You’re still going to come across challenges. And sometimes this will come in the form of strangers being wary of people who are different from them. This sounds like questions such as:

  • where are you ‘really’ from?
  • what ARE you exactly?
  • Why don’t you sound like an African?
  • But, you don’t act like a ____ person…

These questions are not safe for work. These questions are known as micro-aggressions. Bigoted people use these types of questions to put minority people in a box.

Minority people know that after receiving these questions, they know they will be treated a bit differently, and it’s usually not a good thing.

“Practice zero-tolerance with kindness. in the moment.” – Mekka Okereke.
No one should have permission to discriminate in your workplace.

What this means is, instead of saying ‘you’re a racist!’ ask a question: “hey, what you said sounds racist, I don’t think that’s what you meant. Can you try to reclarify what you’re trying to say?”

By speaking up in front of a group you’re signaling that this behavior is not going to be tolerated, and minorities know they are valued.

Showing the team you value safety is more important than rocking the boat.

Say It Properly

A person’s name is the most magical sound in the world to them – Dale Carnegie.
Fuz is a nickname he got at school. He got the opportunity to ’start over’ when he moved to the UK, so he introduced himself as Farai but it was so frustrating because no one could get it right. He went back to his old nickname not because he really wanted to but because he was trying to fit into someone else’s box.

In your diverse teams, you’ll meet many people who will sometimes formally or informally adopt an english name or nickname to avoid hearing their names mangled over and over. Isn’t it crazy that people on your team don’t feel safe to use the names their parents gave them? They are somehow taking blame because we don’t want to put forth the effort to learn how to say their name…

Consider asking, ‘Would you be comfortable teaching me how to say your name properly?’ Or better yet, use the internet to learn how to properly pronounce your name. At linkedIn, they just launched a feature to help someone learn how to say someone’s name properly.


Make Everyone Feel Heard

Rotate facilitation of regular meetings.
Give everyone a moment to think and share.
don’t just ask ‘does anybody heave any thoughts?’
give everybody 3 or 4 minutes and ask them to come up with as many ideas as they can but in silence, then ask everyone to give their best 2 ideas, then you can write those down.

This gives everybody time to think and gives them an opportunity to share their ideas.



Even if people on your team are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do, say thank you.

Teams that overthank aren’t just really nice people. They are sending constant symbols to each other that this is a safe space, that they belong.


How can you boost trust through vulnerability in diverse teams? 

Early in his time at Shopfiy he remembers a tech lead that was worried about the issues that needed to come up in discussion that weren’t. He recommended they have a monthly meeting and he set the agenda for it. The question he added to the agenda was ‘tell us about a difficult thing you overcame as a child.’ This surprised Farai. This was not a typical conversation you’d have at work at the other places he’d worked.

He set the tone, he said what they discuss stayed there, that this was a safe space. Then, he answered that question first.

When Farai was a kid, he had a biological struggle that he dealt with every single day – he hated it. He shared that with his team, and someone else on the team ended up sharing almost the exact same struggle! When they walk out of that team meetings everyone felt closer.

There’s a bad saying that ‘sharing vulnerability is weakness.’ He disagrees.
Do you remember the first time you had a design review with your peers or your boss? what about the first time you asked for a pay raise? Were you in control of the outcome of those situations? Did you feel exposed? Did you feel exposed? Were you being weak? No, you took a risk but it was a show of strength.

This is the misconception. We constantly put ourselves in positions of vulnerability so we can take risks that ultimately lead to a better outcome.

Jeff Poser – He found that when I signal vulnerability to someone else, and that person signals their vulnerability to me in kind, and we do this a couple of times in a loop, what happens is that the interpersonal distance between us reduces. We become closer. When I learn that somebody else is vulnerable, it increases the likelihood I want to help that person. When you are encouraging the team in a safe space to share signals of vulnerability, you are bringing the team closer, but you are also increasing the likelihood for collaboration not just within the team but outside it too.

Effective diverse teams make a habit of sharing their vulnerabilities, so they can improve together. 

The idea is, if I have an area I can improve on, I’m going to put it out there so my team can help me.


Pick one thing he’s suggested today and try it with your team. Inclusion is not your manager’s job or HR’s job. Inclusion happens with you.

Mos Def became a social activist in the US and Africa. He now goes by Yasiin Bey, a muslim name. He’s fighting against the social problems he rapped about.

What about the rest of hip hop?
Jay Z who used to rap about and actually sell drugs, he’s married Beyonce, he started Tidal which competes with Spotify, he’s got Obama on speed-dial, and he’s working for reform
Dr Dre went from ‘Fuck Da Police’ to selling Beats by Dre to Steve Jobs and doing business with Apple.

Snoop cooks with Martha Stewart now but still smokes a ton of weed…
Ludacris buys groceries for strangers at Whole Foods.

It’s not all gravy, but people in the industry are changing and the industry is changing with them.

What’s going to happen with the tech industry? Well, whatever wish appending with us. 

If we behave more inclusively, the industry will become more inclusive. We are the tech industry – me, you, everybody. What the tech industry becomes is up to us and what we do.


Q&A with Farai

The idea that some people would hesitate to be vulnerable within their team is it may be used against use. Once that happens it’s hard to get back up, but the bravery to try again____. Using the context of the life story conversation – that can also give you a good way to gauge whether somebody is willing to give. So in the life story situation you give a lot and someone isn’t giving much, it should trigger curiosity at least. If someone is not giving, I would pause and try to understand more about that person before giving more. If someone uses your vulnerability against you yeah that is vindictive and that breaks trust. If that is done in a way that ends up jeopardizing your position on your team, that is an HR issue. Your organization should not tolerate that. The value we can get by being vulnerable together is high, and that person is getting in the way of that.

Quote by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: There is the peace you can have when we don’t have any tension because we’re not talking about the thing, or we can have peace when we know that justice has been served and we have fixed the thing, and we are comfortable in our solution to the thing.


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