Are you hearing from everyone on your team?
You’ve a brilliant team with varied perspectives, but not everyone is being heard. See how to measure the diversity of input in your meetings.
Diverse input is crucial, but missing
In software design, development, marketing, sales, and support, including diverse opinions drives more successful business outcomes. And it can prevent unethical outcomes. To ensure a variety of perspectives, hiring a diverse team is a required first step. But even on a team that’s full of amazing people, you can still lack diverse input if only a small number of team members always dominate discussions.
Meetings can stifle diverse input
In meetings, some people jump right in to share their opinion, while others can’t seem to get a word in. Telling “quieter” team members to lean in or speak up is ineffective because it ignores the valid reasons those team members behave the way they do:
- Thinking before they speak — Some people prefer to think through their idea before speaking. But by the time they’re ready to share their input, the meeting has moved on.
- Cultural norms — Interrupting or speaking over someone is considered very rude by some. So those people will wait for a polite time to speak, a time that never comes.
- Communication differences — Speaking rate and pause length vary from region to region. So when one person thinks they’ve given everybody a chance to weigh in, someone else might still be waiting for a signal it’s their turn to speak.
- Social cost — Not everyone is allowed to be equally assertive. Certain people face significant social cost if they are perceived to be too forward or to be speaking out of place.
- Individual differences — All of that doesn’t even include people who are using assistive technology, language interpretation, people who are working in a language that is not their first language, and people who just processes language differently.
These issues are significant. But if you happen to be someone in a position of institutionally supported power or authority, are a member of a majority or dominant group, don’t use assistive technology, are working in your first language, are neurotypical, or are simply confident or extroverted, you might not realize how difficult it can be for your teammates to contribute. You might even be crowding out their voices inadvertently.
It’s the responsibility of a meeting chair to include everyone
Advice that focuses on getting “quieter” team members to adapt and push their way into discussions doesn’t address the systemic reasons those people are shut out in the first place.
If you manage meetings, here are some ways you can set up your meetings to get more diverse input:
- Prepare an agenda in advance — Every meeting should have a list of topics to discuss or goals for the meeting. (If you can’t say why you’re meeting or what you’re going to talk about, cancel the meeting.)
- Provide background information — Share links to previous meeting minutes, latest status information, design artifacts, or state-of-the-art information, anything that meeting attendees can review before the meeting so they arrive at the meeting prepared to contribute.
- Invite people to speak — Instead of placing the burden on individuals to elbow their way into the conversation, the meeting chair must keep track of who has given their input already, and then invite others to do so too. Develop your skills. Don’t just put someone on the spot. Work at making attendees feel safe enough to share their opinion.
- Slow down and listen — Particularly when people get excited about a topic, its easy for a group to talk faster and louder and to interrupt each other in their enthusiasm. The meeting chair must manage the energy, pace, and flow of meetings so there are quieter, slower times too when quieter voices can be heard.
- Text input— In addition to the meeting discussion, provide a mechanism for attendees to enter their input in an alternative way, such as in a meeting chat, a Slack channel, or a dedicated input app. Include the text input in the discussion.
- Anonymous input — If you’re already thinking of ways to include text input, consider the option to enable people to provide that input anonymously. (How workable this is depends on the nature of the meeting and the size of the team.)
- Asynchronous communication — The best ideas might occur to someone before the meeting starts and important questions might come up after the meeting ends. Prepare a system to handle asynchronous communication related to the meeting discussion.
- Meeting minutes — Generate a searchable transcript of the meeting, so that teammates can review what was discussed, confirm details about what was decided and why, and remember what the expectations were for everybody after the meeting.
At their best, meetings can be a great way to generate spontaneous ideas, answer questions, and clarify details in real time, with the connection, empathy, and positive energy that real-time communication can bring. Artifacts like an agenda and meeting minutes as well as practices like supporting asynchronous communication can make meetings more successful. The right tools can help make creating and managing those artifacts easier.
If you are trying to improve how you manage your meetings to get more diverse input, one way you can track progress is to measure how much speaking time meeting attendees have.
You could track this by hand, but tools can make it easier. With web conferencing software, you can record your meetings and then download the recording. Some web conferencing tools will generate a timestamped text transcript complete with speaker names (based on the input channel for logged-in users.) Even if your web conference software doesn’t have that, you can use Speech to Text software to generate transcripts, including timestamps and detecting different speakers.
Sample Python notebook
Here is a Python notebook you can use to analyze a meeting transcript to measure how much time meeting participants speak in a meeting:
The analysis will vary, depending on multiple factors:
- If the nature of the meeting is a presentation, it would be reasonable for the presenter to speak the most.
- For a brainstorming or collaborative meeting, you would hope for all attendees to speak somewhat equally.
- Even when you anonymize results by removing attendees’ names, you can still tell how balanced participation is.
- You can track results for individual meetings and track results over time.
Warning: The goal of using a tool like this is to help the meeting chair improve. The goal is not to harass people who “aren’t participating enough” or censor people who are “talking too much”. View the behaviour of the meeting participants as a symptom of how the chair is managing the meeting.
Tech companies desperately need the input of people who are currently not contributing to software development discussions. To get that input, companies need to change the way that input is collected and the way meetings are run. One way to track improvement is to measure how much time people are able to speak in meetings.
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