The Importance of Diverse Teams in IEEE and Elsewhere

Awards program strives to recognize innovators from all backgrounds and fields of engineering

14 November 2017

In my career, I have seen many times over that diverse teams are better at solving problems than homogeneous teams are. They come at problems with different perspectives, different approaches, and different life experiences. And they come up with better solutions.

Years ago, when I managed a software product development group at a Fortune 500 company, one of my responsibilities was to hire people to work together on various products. One of my employees, Shen, was from China. Another, Boris, was a young man from Croatia. They were both shy and reserved, and they had gone to the same graduate school; other than that, they were different in many ways including age, ethnicity, and approach to problem-solving. As a young manager, I learned one of the most important lessons of my career from observing the way they worked together.

Shen approached her work methodically. At the beginning of any project, she read the background material, the requirements, and any existing code, prior to beginning her own development. Boris took a different approach. With every project, he gave it a quick overview and then jumped in to try things out. He was what we called a cowboy coder. They were very different, but they had respect for one another.

Most of the time, their office was quiet except for the sound of keystrokes. And then every once in a while, they would become engaged in an animated discussion about how to solve a problem.

When Shen hit a roadblock, Boris would jump in and try several things until he found a breakthrough. When Boris hit a roadblock, Shen would listen to his description and tell him exactly where he needed to look.

Their completely different approaches proved valuable. Together they were able to solve problems relatively quickly that they would have struggled to solve alone. The lesson I learned was that diversity in problem-solving approaches is critical to new product development.

Years later, I was teaching innovation management at NASA, and part of my class focused on diversity. I decided to use generational diversity as the topic, and to illustrate my point, I divided the group up into teams of four. Most of the participants were senior executives, but one was a relatively junior employee, probably not yet 30 years old. The teams were assigned to come up with a plan to deal with the impending landfall of an imaginary storm, “Leslie,” which I described as at least a Category 4 hurricane. Many of the teams fell back on disaster-management plans that were already in place. But the team with the young man came up with a completely different approach—one that utilized social media to communicate with employees.

With that, the entire class was convinced: Diversity does matter. They saw in just 20 minutes how having a diverse team produced better results.

HONORING INNOVATORS

Diversity is especially important to me as chair of the IEEE Awards Board Presentation and Publicity committee. We have people of different genders, backgrounds, fields of interest, and generations planning next year’s IEEE Vision, Innovation, and Challenges Summit (VICS) and Honors Ceremony. And as we do so, we’ve recognized that we need people from diverse groups to present their visions for the future if we want to attract and educate a diverse audience.

As a result of the planning that went into lining up the speakers and topics for the 2017 VICS, 21 countries were represented. IEEE members and nonmembers from both academia and industry were in attendance. They included young professionals, CEOs, founders, directors, managers, executive assistants, practicing engineers, professors, and students. The same thought and care is going into the planning for next year’s event. A diverse group of speakers and panelists will address different topics so as to attract a new audience as well as returning attendees.

I do not argue for diversity for diversity’s sake. I urge teams to be inclusive and to encourage diversity because it leads to more creative problem-solving and better results. This is how IEEE will continue to grow and thrive. Those of us working on innovative products need creative problem-solving every day.

Senior Member Leslie Martinich is chair of the IEEE Awards Board Presentation and Publicity committee.

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