IT leadership: 5 steps to foster inclusive decision-making

Every member of your organization should be encouraged to share their ideas and participate in decision-making. Here's how we make that happen
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At user experience meetups, I’m often asked, “How does Design or Research get a seat at the table?” At LGBTQ in Tech meetups, I’m often asked, “How do those who identify as LGBTQ get a seat at the table?” I’d wager that most, if not all, people from traditionally underrepresented groups in tech ask the same question.

This is a question that nobody should need to ask in the first place. Tech leaders have a moral obligation – and a business obligation – to ensure everyone knows exactly how they can be included in decision-making.

Everyone with a good idea should be given the respect to have that idea thoughtfully and authentically considered. Everyone, regardless of demographic, should be able to freely contribute and lend their expertise to the conversations when decisions are made. It isn’t just the morally right thing to do; it makes good business sense.

To accomplish this within Research & Development at Tricentis, we use a framework called “R&D Thinks.” Participation is not limited to the R&D department. We also invite solution architects, support engineers, marketing content strategists, product marketing managers, and others to participate – and they do! 

Tech leaders have a moral obligation – and a business obligation – to ensure everyone knows exactly how they can be included.

Making a truly inclusive environment goes far beyond a multi-cultural photo on a website or one-and-done training seminar. It involves changing the way we do business to make inclusivity part of our company DNA. One way to achieve that is with a framework that focuses on bringing forth the best ideas and critiquing them – all while being as inclusive and as equitable as possible in the most transparent way possible.

Our newly unveiled R&D streamlined decision governance framework aims to do just that.

[ For more tips on building a culture of creativity, read 4 exercises to ignite creative problem solving on teams. ]

Here’s how our chief product officer, Dr. Grigori Melnik, explains the goals for the R&D Thinks framework:

“As an organization grows from a couple dozen to hundreds and then thousands of team members, it’s important to have an idea framework that captures and disseminates not just the decisions (about ideas, scopes, technical or UX designs, business models, user journeys, internal improvements – anything, actually) but also the rationale for those decisions, tradeoffs analysis, and other considerations. It drives alignment and helps the team (including future hires) quickly gain a better understanding of those decisions. More importantly, it preserves the context and the rationale behind these decisions when we might need to analyze their consequences and/or revisit them in the future.”

Requirements of our streamlined decision governance framework

When we set out to create and implement this framework, we had several requirements related to making sure that as many people felt comfortable participating as possible Everyone in the organization must:

  • Have a common, easy-to-use method of suggesting improvements
  • Be able to asynchronously comment on other peoples’ ideas without fear of reprisal
  • Be able to lend their expertise and unique viewpoint to the critique and evaluation of other ideas – even if that expertise is outside of what they were hired to do
  • Have as much transparency as possible into the decision-making process, including what ideas are being considered

We named our framework “R&D Thinks” to reflect the following:

  • We have an opportunity to think about new, innovative ideas in addition to our regular work
  • We get the opportunity to think about these ideas and flesh them out in a structured way before presenting them for consideration

The R&D Thinks framework has been live for a little over three months now and we’ve achieved what we set out to do: bring more people into the decision-making framework so that we see a marked increase in the quality and quantity of great ideas.

It has been amazing to see the most junior employees change the direction of certain initiatives. Our chief product officer has changed course based on the input of someone who has been with the company for less than three months. Team members have challenged their boss’s assumptions and have made our initiatives better as a result. A program manager has weighed in on something very technical and an engineer has changed the course of a visual design direction on a prototype given their keen sense of aesthetics. It is amazing to see that ideas are judged by their merits and rationale, not by the person who creates them.

Putting R&D Thinks into action

We wanted to keep the process simple to make it as easy to use as possible. Here are the five steps:

1. Explore an idea

In this step, people conduct research, look at market trends, and confer with their colleagues or customers. Because this is an explicit part of the process, everyone in the organization expects to field questions from other people. This helps to reduce the barrier people have in reaching out to others.

2. Create a short document

Using a pre-defined template, the person with the idea fleshes it out, including a crisp statement about the benefit and the rationale for decisions made in the idea. Usually, this is only about 2-3 pages and has the benefit of helping the author to clarify their thinking.

Research has shown that capturing an idea in writing leads to deeper critical thinking and increased understanding. In essence, it helps to clarify your thoughts. Writing down ideas gives the idea’s originator a bit more distance from the merits of the idea. Focusing on the originator of the idea leads to more bias.

3. Conduct a team review

The idea is then tracked in our requirements management system (Jira), which is visible to everyone at Tricentis. If someone sees an idea and they want to add themself as a reviewer and approver, they can. They don’t need to ask their boss for permission, and they don’t have to ask the idea originator either. Everybody’s input is welcomed.

In this step, the intended project team member and additional reviewers weigh in on the idea. They asynchronously leave comments directly inside the document. This allows for more participation from people in different time zones.

4. Conduct a final review

We try to resolve comments asynchronously and we aim to approve asynchronously as well. If we can’t come to a resolution, we use a standing meeting to resolve any outstanding issues. We can usually get to a consensus. However, in the rare cases we can’t, our CPO makes the final call on which way to go on a particular issue. Interestingly, it doesn’t always break the way the most senior-ranking person would like. Ultimately, it all comes down to our CPO’s assessment of how well a given solution aligns with our strategic objectives.

5. Act on the idea

Approved ideas are then prioritized based on how much impact we anticipate they will have. Interestingly, by this stage, the originator of the idea is largely forgotten since the idea has thoroughly been vetted and critiqued by many people. By the time an idea goes through review and approval, it really has become a shared idea.

Let your teams shine

Diversity and inclusion have become so commonplace in the parlance of corporate-speak that it almost loses its meaning. It’s used as a marketing tool instead of a way of doing business. At Tricentis, we value diversity and inclusion so much that we upend existing processes and traditional ways of doing business in order to ensure more people are included and engaged in the decision-making process.

We hire very talented people for their expertise. It only stands to reason that we give their talent a platform to shine. The R&D Thinks framework does just that.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Sean Michael Kelly
Sean Michael Kelly is the vice president of user experience at Tricentis. Sean is a user experience professional with over two decades of experience across domains such as aerospace, healthcare, and tech.

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