HOW TO HARNESS THE POWER OF DIVERSITY THROUGH WORKING GROUPS

 
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One of the great things about the military is the diversity seen across it’s leadership ranks. This is one of the reasons I believe the military has great success when it comes to solving hard problems, especially when resources and time are scarce. The ability to harness the expertise, knowledge, and unique viewpoints of leaders from varying backgrounds have proven to yield high success rates in both the government and private sectors.  According to McKinsey, companies ranking in the top quartile of executive-board diversity were 35% more likely to financially outperform the industry medians. Similarly, Cloverpop research found that inclusive teams make better business decisions 87% of the time.

For this reason, I seldom make decisions or tackle complex problems in a bubble. I understand that the power of a good leader resides not in his or her own abilities, but the ability to integrate and maximize diverse ideas and solutions. When I need innovative solutions to hard problems, I enlist the services of fellow leaders by forming working groups.  

Working groups can provide an opportunity to bring subject matter experts together to discover solutions to complex problems. As the program manager for the Army’s Cyber Warrant Officers, I often face challenges that require multiple viewpoints as well as different areas of expertise. For example, as the military’s cyber mission grows the need for the technical experts in the field also increases. However, recruiting and retaining highly skilled cyber technicians continue to be a challenge. Recruiting and retaining quality cyber warrant officers are just a couple of my many responsibilities. Therefore, I was tasked to provide solutions on how to acquire and then retain the best cyber talent for the Army Cyber Warrant Officer Cohort. I knew that this was not a task to be accomplished in a bubble, and despite my expertise, I knew of several leaders who would help develop viable solutions. So, I set up a working group to review the challenges and help devise solutions.

How to run a successful working group.

Decide whether a working group is a right approach.

Working groups are similar to projects; they should have a definite life cycle and should be temporary. If the working group is looking to tackle an enduring initiative, you may be conducting operations. Also, the working group should be formed to attack a problem that requires multiple perspectives or a group of SMEs.

Choose the right leaders to participate

This is not a popularity contest, so make sure you choose individuals that will be value added and offer their unique perspectives and expertise. Also ensure you have a diverse group of leaders, not only with gender and nationality but in mindset.

Keep the group manageable

There have been numerous studies on how many people should form a working committee or team. According to Paul Axtell from the Harvard Business Review, the ideal number for a meeting is between 5 - 8. On the other hand, Evan Wittenberg, director of the Wharton Graduate Leadership Program, places the ideal number between 5 to 12. So, what is the right amount? It depends on the goals and what you want to accomplish. My working group included 12 of the various technical leaders from across the Army, and it was highly successful. Though I have held other meetings with five or fewer individuals, and they have been just as effective.

“A diverse mix of voices leads to better discussions, decisions, and outcomes for everyone.” — Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google

Prepare

Contact the leaders you want to attend by phone, in person or e-mail and give them your elevator speech as to what you want to accomplish and why you are requesting their assistance. The personal touch helps with buy-in and adds a emphasis the value you place on their input; remember you have chosen these individuals due to their invaluable input.

Send out the formal invitation.

Once you have received an informal head nod from your attendees, send out the official invite. My organization uses Outlook, so it is pretty easy to set up a meeting, complete with calendar invites, and tracking for attendees. However, any program will work just make sure you use what works for the majority of your attendees. In the invitation, you should include the following:

The 5 W's:

You would be surprised at how many invites I receive that lack critical information such as where the meeting will be, times or duration. Ensure that your invite contains the what, when, why, who and where. Be clear on the expected outcomes. If you are going to pull together a group of leaders or SMEs, ensure you are clear on what you are trying to accomplish. 

Background information and resources -

Make sure that everyone has a baseline knowledge needed to provide informed input. So, ensure you provide in pre-reads and the latest information concerning the challenge or problem you will address. Also, make sure you include an agenda, it is a good idea to provide attendees with a look into what you plan to discuss as well as the flow for the meeting.

Contact information

Be sure to include your contact information or better yet, link to a collaboration forum in case leaders want to begin some pre collaboration or need to get in touch before the meeting.

Be Gracious

People appreciate when they are acknowledged for their efforts. The leaders that will be attending your working group are no different. As leaders, there are often competing priorities, so let your team know you appreciate their involvement.  

Self-Prep

There is nothing worse than attending a working group, and the leader of the group is unprepared. Here are a few steps to ensure you make a great impression and adequately prepare to lead this diverse group of leaders.

Know your stuff:

You should be well versed in the background information surrounding the problem you plan to address. This includes the proposed solutions and pros and cons of each. A review of the various attendees and their expertise so you can maximize what each brings to the table.

Check the resources before the meeting:

If you are using multimedia resources, such as PowerPoint slides, teleconference equipment, or digital collaboration platforms, ensure you test everything prior. This will help mitigate any technical difficulties that may arise.   

Practice:

I am always amazed at how many experienced leaders will not be unprepared for their own meeting, committee meeting, or working group. No matter your level of experience, practice will yield tremendous benefits. You should go over your discussion points, your schedule and do a dry run utilizing the same equipment you will use during the actual meeting (i.e., slide clicker, projection screen, computer, etc.)

Running the Meeting

Now that the prep work is done, it is time to ensure you maximize the unique experience of the group to accomplish the desired outcomes. Bringing a group of diverse leaders together can be a challenge, but if you have done the appropriate prep work, these next steps should be easy. Every working group is different but below are a few pointers for running the working group.

Establish credibility

If the group of individuals is unfamiliar with each other, have everyone introduce themselves along with their expertise. This will help others in the group get a feel of what the individual strengths of their teammates.

Value Input

Leaders are usually Type A personalities, and therefore, you will need to balance providing an opportunity for input with keeping the group on task and schedule. However, remember that you have gathered this group because they have valuable input. Allow team members to provide relevant input and be ready to reel the team back in when the discussion veers off topic.

Embrace conflict

The likelihood of everyone agreeing is highly unlikely and truthfully that not what you really want. You want different viewpoints, just be ready to jump in and redirect the discussion when the conversation strays from healthy to adversarial. One way to help with this is to have a timekeeper and a recorder. This way, the individual can assist you in keeping the meeting flowing.

Stay on task and schedule

One of the reasons you self-prep is to ensure that you account for time and are clear on the direction you would like the group to go. Make sure you stick to your timeline and keep focused on your objectives.  You should quickly identify valuable input that leads to actionable solutions. Likewise, you should promptly identify when teammates are admiring the problem without providing actionable input so that you can direct the team back on task.

Follow-up

After the meeting, there will still be work that needs to be done. You still need to consolidate input, document feedback, and possibly prepare for follow-on meetings.  There are also a few steps necessary to close out the working group properly.

Follow up thank you note

As I mentioned earlier, the attendees offered their free time to help you solve a difficult problem, and therefore the least you can do is follow-up with a thank you note. This can be done via e-mail to the group, if the group is small, it may be a good idea to contact each attendee by phone or in person to thank them for their time and efforts.

Do not forget the minutes

Make sure you consolidate the minutes and provide back to the attendees. This serves to inform the group of what was discussed, but also allows for a check to ensure you adequately captured their input.

Inform of progress

As you address the identified problems for which the working group provided solutions, provide feedback on the progress. Did any of the solutions pan out? Did a particular member’s input lead to a breakthrough?

Acknowledge contributions

When I am successful in solving a problem due to the efforts of a working group, I ensure I publicly acknowledge their contributions. You will likely call on some or all these individuals again, and you want to ensure they know the value of their efforts. Remember that no great endeavor was ever accomplished alone.