Diversity in product management needs to go beyond a gender agenda

There has been a lot of focus on gender equity (both in terms of representation in senior leadership as well as gender pay gap) and rightfully so. Women product managers are still significantly under paid and under represented.

Here in Australia, while women product managers are slowly making gains in leadership roles in product teams, a key reason Adrienne Tan, Laura Cardinal and I founded Women in Product Australia was to actively encourage and mentor women in, or looking to enter, a career in product.

While we need to continue to advocate and actively promote gender equity in product management (particularly within the tech and finance sectors in which women are still significantly under-represented) we should not confuse the achievement of gender equity with meeting the diversity test. Diversity and inclusion is so much more.

The diversity agenda goes well beyond issues of gender, race, religion and age and should not be viewed like stamp collecting. Having ‘one of everything’ is not enough – we must have a culture which is not only inclusive, but which also actively mobilises and leverages the different perspectives that diversity invariably brings.

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At a recent Women in Product Meetup, Senior Product Manager Katherine Barrett made the observation that:

If you look down at your feet and everyone in your team is wearing the same kind of shoes, then you are in the wrong team.

The statement really resonated on many levels. We often see similarity attraction bias within teams, particularly within the startup and tech sectors. In some instances, you could be forgiven for thinking that if you don’t have a beard, wear a black t-shirt, jeans and sneakers you don’t qualify for a career in product management.

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Good product managers know what many in social sciences are now evidencing – that effective teams not only have diverse backgrounds and experiences but importantly, are cognitively diverse and inclusive. Actively including and seeking diverse perspectives and thinking (cognitive diversity) leads to better outcomes.

According to the Diversity Council of Australia Inclusion@Work Index, if you work in an inclusive team you are:‘

  • 10 times more likely to be highly effective than workers in non-inclusive teams
  • 9 times more likely to innovate
  • 5 times more likely to provide excellent customer/client service

As product managers, we need to work both broadly and deep within our organisations to find innovative and compelling solutions to customer problems. Innovating and developing breakthrough propositions does not and cannot happen when we have a singular perspective and when we fail to constructively challenge and probe different ideas.

As well known entrepreneur and author Margaret Heffernen so eloquently puts it:

“The history of innovation may play out in headlines as the triumph of the individual against armies of bureaucratic naysayers but you have only to read Walter Isaacson’s book The Innovators to see just how untrue it is. Breakthroughs require challenge, doubt, question and support to achieve the reality we can all appreciate. That has always been true and still is.”

By actively seeking diverse perspectives we can insure ourselves against insular ‘group think’ that invariably leaves us developing at best, propositions which bring us market parity and, at worst, products that quickly become obsolete.

One of the challenges of cognitive diversity is that it is less visible than other diversity markers such as ethnicity, gender or age.

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So how can we make sure that we are actively seeking and bringing cognitive diversity to our product ideation and development?

  • When generating ideas, don’t jump too quickly into judgement and evaluation.
  • Actively create a psychologically safe place for people to put forward their ideas – don’t just give lip service to the edict “no idea is a bad idea”. How safe do people feel in speaking their mind and challenging the status quo? Having a nominated ‘devil’s advocate’ can be a good way to consciously address this
  • Acknowledge and create ways for different personality types and styles to participate. Introverts may need more time to reflect and may prefer the option to put their ideas on a post it note as opposed to speaking in front of a large group
  • Be observant. Check in with all your team and actively explore and understand the different ideas and perspectives
  • Don’t confine your thinking to the ‘expertise’ in your team or business. Actively seek out your customers for their perspectives. One of the reasons customer-led design is so powerful is that it actively disrupts convergent thinking. Your customers will have different and valuable perspectives.
  • Hire differently and with cognitive diversity in mind. I recently hired members of my product team using blind recruitment to manage for my own inherent bias with some interesting  (if not personally challenging) results.  Scott E Page author of The Difference, gives some invaluable advice on how to hire to maximise diversity and you can also test your own unconscious bias by taking the Harvard Implicit Association Test via the Diversity Australia website.

While diverse perspectives most often lead to better outcomes, they invariably create more adjacencies and therefore more solutions. As mitigation, any ideation process must have a way of filtering, assessing and ranking them or risk having an oversupply of solutions which, while ‘more’ are not necessarily better. Anyone who has experienced product feature proliferation knows that.

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Once you have collected and explored possible solutions and ideas then you need to decide what to do and how to proceed. In essence, move from the divergent thinking you have to this point actively sought, to the convergent thinking needed to make a conscious decision.

  • Apply clear criteria to assess your ideas. There are many frameworks you can apply. I personally like to use value driver trees in defining the criteria as it removes any emotion and forces you to link and assess any solution back to the value it will deliver. Jim Semick from Prodplan also outlines a range of great tools and frameworks to assess and prioritise ideas.
  • The IDEO Design Thinking model using Desirability/Viability/Feasibility can also be a very effective framework for assessing ideas:

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  • Maximise psychological safety – as with the ideation phase, it is important that people feel safe in  putting forward their assessment of the ideas under consideration
  • If you have a well defined product roadmap use it in the assessment and prioritisation of any new ideas. Saying no to an idea and staying the course, can be just as important as taking on new initiatives and solutions
  • Don’t confuse collaboration with consensus.  While stakeholder perspectives are critical input, you must have an ‘ultimate D’ – the person who has authority (and ultimate accountability) to make the decisions about the product strategy and prioritisation when there are divergent views such that full consensus cannot be reached.
  • Beware the HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion). While Executive opinion and input is important, it should be contextualised and supported with data and rational criteria. The HiPPO effect is authority bias in action and can very quickly undo all the good work that has gone into bringing the power of cognitive diversity to bear.

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Cognitive diversity is a critical component of good product development and management. While we should not lose sight of the need to achieve better gender equality, the diversity agenda in product management needs to move beyond this to ensure that we bring the full capability of our teams, customers and business in solving complex customer problems and needs.