October 27, 2023

Diversity is key: what product teams can learn from microbes

Olga Shavrina
Have you ever been to a forest? I bet you have. So, maybe you've noticed that there are lots of different species around: plants, animals, insects, even mushrooms. And if, by chance, you had a microscope in your pocket and looked even more closely, you would find tens of thousands of species of microbes right under your foot. They collaborate with each other and with other forest inhabitants to channel nutrients, quickly adapt to changes in the environment, and support life.

Nature knows that diversity is the key to building something healthy and resilient, so she puts many different organisms in one place and empowers them to work together. She's been doing this quite successfully for hundreds of millions of years, so we can trust her wisdom.

Diversity and humans

We humans also believe in diversity and apply this approach to some of our endeavors. We know that a healthy diet is a diverse diet, that when building our investment portfolio we shouldn't put all our eggs in one basket, and that an abundance of small businesses fuels industry development and innovation when a dominance by a tiny number of big corporations can quickly lead to corruption and degradation. We even believe in democracy to some extent. So, why then, when building teams, do we often overlook diversity? Why treat it merely as a necessary evil - something to tick off a checklist for a report, rather than truly encouraging it?
More to read on the topic:

To be honest, I came to this realization quite recently myself. My thinking used to go like this: if I have two candidates for a job, I need to objectively select the best one without considering their gender, skin color, or origin. It's a perfectly legitimate logic, except for one thing - the word "best". The way we define "best" doesn't account for the benefits that diversity brings to the table.

Why it happens?

We naturally gravitate towards people who look like us, speak like us, have similar experiences, and come from the same culture. This makes sense when you consider our history: in the days of tribes, fitting into a group was crucial for survival. But today, the world is way more complex than it was in the hunter-gatherer times, and things change at an unprecedented rate. To strive teams need to consider orders of magnitude more variables and adapt quicker than ever. When you put it this way, it's clear that a diverse group that works well together will be better equipped than a group of people who are very much alike.

Same values, diverse everything else

It's so tempting to hire someone who loves Star Trek, listens to Queen, and owns an iPhone. You just feel they're the perfect fit for your team. They even prefer the same type of beer and cook eggs just like you. Surely, you're meant to work together!

That couldn't be further from the key to success.

What's truly important are shared values and a common "WHY." Put simply, team members should believe in the same thing, want the same outcome, and dream the same dreams. That's the core similarity they should possess. The more diverse everything else is, the better.
Simon Sinek's "Start with Why" is one of my favourite books on this topic.

It delves into the power of understanding and communicating your "WHY", as well as finding people who share it. Its principles apply to endeavors far beyond just digital products.

Examples from my experience

Here are a few examples from my own experience in various projects where diversity on the team (even very limited) allowed us to learn something, find issues, and improve the product:
One Hand
In our team, there was a young mother. She worked remotely and often had a child in one arm, so she used her devices with just one hand. Thanks to her, we identified areas that were tough to navigate single-handedly.
Different habits
We had members from over 20 countries from the EU, Americas, and even the Middle East on the team. This translated into a vast variety in phone settings and usage habits, ranging from light vs. dark schemes to preferred messengers and learned UX patterns. Simply by showcasing new features in Demos or asking the broader team to take a look at the new app prototype, we received tons of unexpected feedback.
Memory Constraints
The tech team used flagship smartphones with Cloud storage, and we were surprised when a member outside the tech team mentioned their phone was low on memory, preventing them from downloading the app. As a result, we ended up implementing a lightweight webpage for frequent operations and even considered a messenger bot instead of a full app.
Offensive messages
A Catalan team member noticed that an error message about insufficient funds might sound like we were insinuating our clients were financially constrained. This stems from their cultural context, where it's common to link cards to main bank accounts (which is a rare case in my culture).
Fraud Anticipation
Our Head of Customer Support and Moderation had a knack for spotting potential fraud risks. Whenever we brainstormed new features, her insights on possible vulnerabilities were invaluable and saved us lots of money.
Covid survival
I believe that our survival through Covid was largely due to our agility (and the pandemic significantly shaped this agility). A huge factor behind it was having a diverse team. We had individuals who were intimately familiar with various EU markets and clients, those with the guts to take risks, communicators who could convey tough changes to both clients and the team, and people who could get shit done in no time.
Tech savviness
A significant chunk of our clients were older and not necessarily tech-savvy. Lacking anyone of this age group on the team made it challenging to predict what can be hard to use. Fortunately, I had a teammate who, while fluent in math and finance, struggled with tech interfaces, so I used them shamelessly :) If they grasped a feature, our main client base likely would too.

Empowering diverse teams

It's not enough to hire a diverse team, you need to empower it, allowing every person to be comfortable expressing their thoughts and making an impact. It's common for leaders to overlook this and continue running the business as usual without acknowledging the problem. It's hard to notice when someone isn't being heard if it isn't you, so we need to take active steps in this direction.
"The Culture Map" by Erin Meyer is a fantastic book about cultural differences that I believe I've mentioned before.

It opened my eyes to how different people truly are and the significant role their culture plays in their behavior and cognitive perception. It's a must-read in the modern world.
If team members feel that they are not empowered, they will either leave or, worse, learn to behave like everyone else and keep their opinions to themselves. This approach will benefit neither them nor the company.
The deeper I delve into understanding how ecosystems function and thrive, from microbes to human communities, the more I realize the profound impact of diversity. And I am continually surprised at how little we think about and encourage it. Even worse, we artificially simplify everything around us, creating monocultures and destroying natural complexity. We believe this makes things more efficient and easier to control, but in reality, we're creating vulnerable systems that increasingly lack resilience in a rapidly changing world.

Key takeaways:

  • Diversity is the key to a healthy diet, healthy finances, a healthy market, healthy politics, and healthy teams.
  • Nature is smart (just look at microbes). Learn from it and embrace diversity.
  • Seek shared values, not shared tastes.
  • Simply hiring a diverse team isn't enough, empowerment is the key.
  • Diverse teams are resilient because they adapt quickly, a key trait in our ever-changing world.

*Image credit Midjourney. Please excuse her for teeth and hands, she's doing her best ;)
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Olga Shavrina
Product manager. Human being