Extracting Value from Diversity | Straight Talk

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Realizing the value of a diverse workforce – in the form of new product ideas and best practices.

By Nutan Behki, Vice President and General Manager, 2G/3G Wireless Product Division, Alcatel-Lucent

Like many companies, Alcatel-Lucent has articulated a corporate commitment to diversity. Our workforce – 62,000 strong – is a truly global mix, with employees representing more than 100 nationalities.

I know firsthand just how diverse Alcatel-Lucent can be. I’m an Indian woman who has worked at Alcatel-Lucent offices in my native Canada, as well as in China, France, and the United States. As vice president and general manager of the company’s 2G/3G wireless product division, my direct reports hail from Canada, China, India, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. They are men and women, young and old, and of various educational levels.

I know that people within Alcatel-Lucent, as elsewhere, absolutely recognize the value of diversity. However, I don’t believe many companies yet understand how to realize that value. That’s the hard part, the real challenge companies face if they’re serious about making diversity more than a warm and fuzzy social platitude served up in the annual report.

Through my career experiences, I have come to understand how important it is to tap into employees’ diverse backgrounds, be they cultural, gender based, generational, or geographical. Much of this I came to realize through my overseas assignments.

While living and working in China from 2007 to 2010, for example, I could see the big strides the Chinese were making in areas like online music and electronic marketplaces. And as I dealt with Asia-Pacific customers, it became pretty clear to me that I was not the best person to be designing some service package for Korean teenagers. I knew I needed people who could understand those needs far better than I ever could because of their shared experiences. Had I stayed within an environment largely dominated by people with a North American cultural viewpoint, we would never have come up with the kinds of products that we needed.

I’ve championed diversity in my role at Alcatel-Lucent because I want to be sure to give diversity a voice, so to speak – and that’s what I try to promote internally. Giving diversity a voice starts with letting people know that being different is OK, even desirable. I want every person to ask, “What is it about me that makes me unique?” And I want them to think about the experiences they’ve had because of their gender, cultural background, or educational experience. The more diverse a group, the greater the set of experiences from which to draw ideas for new and improved products and new ways to develop and deploy them. I want people to understand this, and feel confident and comfortable sharing new insights they’ve arrived at because of their experiences.

We have to make sure employees realize that if they see something differently, they need to say they see something differently. To have them thinking, “Oh, I don’t exactly agree with that so I will just keep quiet,” doesn’t do anybody any good – not least of all customers awaiting solutions to their problems.

Best Practices for Turning Diversity Into a Differentiator

My push to give diversity a voice starts with my own team. As I mentioned, my team members don’t have a lot in common in terms of background or experiences, and because they work in far-flung locations, they don’t see one another all that often.

How do you get this diversity to work for you? Over time, I’ve discovered several best practices for capitalizing on the makeup of a diverse group. They are:

Solicit all opinions: Don’t wait for people to put their hands up and volunteer their ideas. Too often during group discussions the louder people tend to dominate the conversation and make it difficult for the quieter sorts to vocalize their ideas. So I absolutely make a point of gathering ideas from everyone -- preferably in advance of big discussions but if that hasn’t happened then during a meeting, or afterwards.

Create comfortable environments: To make diversity benefit the larger team, you sometimes have to allow people to work in homogeneous units in their countries. Workforces in a country often share an educational background and a generation, not to mention they all speak the same language really well. Facilitating brainstorming at the local level often leads to great ideas that I can then gather, share, and put forth for evaluation by the larger group. As a result, we’re able to pick the best of the best ideas. People will speak up if they’re in a comfortable environment, which very often isn’t a corporate conference room. I often find just sitting around the table and saying, “Who’s got a good idea?” just doesn’t do it.

Think globally, customize locally: Establish a clear ownership for product development so everybody everywhere is moving in the same global direction. This means coming up with a baseline product and then allowing local customizations for different markets. With this approach, you can apply ideas where they make the most sense and speed time to market by eliminating back-and-forth discussions about overall product direction. If you have too many diverse ideas and no clear decision makers, you can spend an awful lot of time just talking.

Give local teams autonomy: Sometimes the best thing to do is tell people what result you want and let them decide how they’re going to achieve it. If you pick the right people and you give them that freedom, they will work in ways that you never expected. I definitely saw this happen in China, and I’ve seen it in India, as well, where I also do a lot of work. When given flexibility, I’ve seen people will organize themselves in ways I never would have done, using job titles that never would have crossed my mind. They will work different hours, and in different ways. They will rise to the challenge, and they will implement their own ideas.

One example that comes to mind immediately is our recent rollout of a cloud-based radio access controller in the Middle East. We primarily built the product in North America, and my expectation had been that the rollout would follow along the lines we traditionally use there – build, deliver, and put a team of experts on the ground to help with the implementation. But our Middle East team said, “No, no, no, that’s not how we’re going to work.”

The local guy in charge of the deployment chose instead to bring in the developers and assigned them to work together with customers on customizing the product to their specific needs. That was a very different model for a product introduction than what we’d established in North America, but it proved an absolute success. But that’s not to say we would achieve the same level of success if we put it into play elsewhere. If I were to try that approach in, say, Germany, customers would say, “What is this mishmash of people that you’re placing in my offices? I want to see people who are experts in field support and implementation, not a bunch of developers.”

I admit that I was hesitant at first. After all, putting developers with customers has the potential to create tension. But what I ended up saying to the project guys was, “It’s your project, so you decide for us what is the best way to achieve it” – and that’s what they came up with and we supported it.

Situations like this popped up during my time in China, too, such as when we were developing heads for the top of wireless radio towers. When you deliver a product in North America, your customers expect that product to work, plain and simple. They do not expect you to deliver patch loads and fixes and corrections and versions 2, 3, and 4. But in China, the expectation is almost the opposite.

Chinese customers demand that we give them a product even if it’s still wobbles a bit. They’ll try it out, see what they like and what they don’t like. They do this so that they can go as fast as possible, and sometimes even before we’re at the point where we think the product is ready they say, “OK, we’re going to go ahead and deploy it, and you can fix it later.” And you have to go along with this different approach to product development because if you don’t you’ll be too slow for your customers.

Overcoming Generation Gaps

While we can support a lot of customization when we introduce new products into a market, where we can’t do it – and where it can lead to conflict sometimes – is in the core development process. We’re stringent about how our developers write code, inspect the code, and run quality assurance tests. This is where we sometimes butt heads against generational diversity.

Typically I find that those who challenge our core development processes are our younger employees, especially those just coming out of college. They tend to be quite confident of their abilities, and they think all this process is unnecessary and only serves to slow them down. They’d much rather just iterate their way to success. But that’s where we say, “No.” We need to deliver certain levels of quality to our customers, and I brook no short cuts in the development and quality processes.

The way I get the younger generation to accept this is to focus on accountability. I tell these young folks that if, after following all the processes, they think their work is so excellent, so topnotch that they truly don’t need to abide by the processes, then we can talk about relaxing some of them. But what we find almost always is that these people realize that they do, in fact, need our processes to back up their efforts – we are, after all, writing software with millions of lines of code. What people realize is that, “Hey, even though I did this development and this design and I tested it and I thought it was fantastic, later on when I put it in into the big stress load lab, I found defects.”

It’s a trust thing – you have to say, “Trust me that I believe these are good ideas worth trying out, and I’ll trust your abilities and afterwards I’ll commit that we’ll have a review and if there are things that are truly unnecessary, then we will eliminate them from our process.” And people do tend to respect that, and our process is not set in stone. It’s a living thing, and we recognize that the young people coming in may have knowledge of new tools that we can use to streamline and simplify our processes. I’m absolutely open to change, as long as the change is for everybody. If you’ve got a great idea, great, we’ll all benefit.

In the wireless industry overall, we have seen a significant reduction in the time it takes to get products from development to market. While once this period would typically stretch across 18 months or so, it now runs no more than six months. Naturally globalization and follow-the-sun development accounts for much of this. But I do think that diversity—and our ability to capitalize on diverse experiences and backgrounds—has played a key role in speeding time-to-market, as well in all other facets of product development and deployment.

Originally published in CTO Straight Talk, No. 2

The Takeaways 

Many companies understand that it’s important to have employees with different expertise, backgrounds, and experiences. But generating value from diversity is a big challenge.

Best practices for realizing value from diversity include soliciting opinions from everyone, not just those who speak the loudest; facilitating brainstorming in comfortable environments, perhaps in homogeneous units, and then presenting the best ideas to the larger group; allowing employees to customize baseline products for local markets; giving people the autonomy to organize themselves to perform their work; and respecting the younger generation’s insights into process improvement.