Three dots representing a team

Diverse empowered teams

Move faster by empowering diverse teams to act.

Better together

team: a group of people working together toward a common outcome

At IBM, we’re often asked to solve our users’ and clients’ hardest problems––problems too complex and multifaceted to be meaningful solved alone. We rely on the strength of our teams in order to solve these complex problems and generate value for our users and clients.

While it’s important to focus on user outcomes, it’s equally important to design the way our teams are organized to achieve those outcomes. To ensure our teams’ ability to generate better ideas and deliver real-world outcome for users, we consider two important team factors: diversity and empowerment.

Differentiation through diversity

diverse: composed of differing elements or qualities

IBM has a storied history of progressive policies toward the inclusion of diverse identities, experiences, and expertise. We strive to honor and amplify this legacy by making diversity an intentional part of every recruiting decision, educational opportunity, promotion, and compensation decision we make.

Diversity is more than just a moral responsibility. It’s fundamental to the success of our teams. Consider this: when building teams, you aren’t just assigning resources––you’re framing your approach to the problem. Each team member brings their unique perspective and expertise to the team, widening the range of possible outcomes. If you want a breakthrough idea, you’re more likely to get it with a diverse team.

Diverse teams see the same problem from many angles. They have a better understanding of any given situation and generate more ideas, making them more effective problem solvers. While it takes effort to harness and align such different perspectives, it’s at the intersection of our differences that our most meaningful breakthroughs emerge.

Speed through empowerment

empowered: having the expertise and authority to achieve a desired outcome

If diversity helps teams generate breakthrough ideas, empowerment enables them to turn those ideas into outcomes.

Consider a design team that can quickly deliver mockups but has to wait for a separate engineering team to implement the work. Or consider a team bogged down in meetings, constantly trying to win stakeholder agreement for every little operational decision. Neither situation enables a team to move fast.

In contrast, empowered teams have the agency to make everyday operational decisions on their own. They’re equipped with the expertise and authority to deliver outcomes without relying on others for leadership or technical support. By pushing operational decisions down to the lowest level, we give our teams the ability to achieve the rapid iteration our users and clients demand.

In practice

At IBM, a recent visual design graduate from a historically black college in Atlanta, Georgia might find herself working with a software architect in Beijing, China who’s been at IBM for decades. They may not understand each others’ way of life. They may never meet in person. But their fates are intrinsically linked––because in the midst of the complex problems we’re solving, they need each other more than ever.

Making these relationships work requires effort from managers and team members alike. As a team manager, your responsibility begins with staffing teams with the diversity of perspective and expertise they need to be successful. As a team member, your responsibility is to cultivate inclusive behavior, harness conflicting perspectives to generate new ideas, and take the initiative to achieve a great outcome.

As a team manager

Assign team leadership

At IBM, we define teams as people working together toward a common outcome. When you use IBM Design Thinking, you’ll use Hills to define your intended user outcomes, and therefore, the breakdown of your teams as well.

For each Hill team, you’ll also want to assign core leadership team. These leadership teams should be composed of functional leads from each discipline. Grant them the authority to handle day-to-day triage on the team and hold them accountable for achieving their assigned outcome.

Form self-contained teams

Consider these different aspects of your own identity, experience, and expertise. No single dimension defines who we are. Rather, they combine together to shape our unique perspective.

Identity

  • Age and ability
  • Gender identity
  • Race and ethnicity

Experience

  • Cultural upbringing
  • Geography
  • Language

Expertise

  • Education
  • Organization
  • Discipline

Building diverse teams requires you to actively seek people with different perspectives. Avoid staffing teams based on alignment of identity, experience, or expertise. While this may seem counterintuitive at first, remember that every dimension of diversity is vital to a team’s ability to manage complexity and generate breakthrough ideas.

However, empowering your teams to turn those ideas into outcomes requires special attention to a team’s diversity of expertise. To achieve self-reliance, equip each team with the full range of expertise needed to independently deliver their assigned outcome. This minimizes dependencies on resources beyond their control, enabling them to make decisions quickly and independently.

Aim for a balance of expertise that maximizes the team’s productive capability. Though your ideal ratio will vary per project, we’ve found that on an average IBM software team, one user interface designer can keep about eight software engineers busy. Adding more engineers without also adding designers means engineers will either be blocked from moving forward, or they’ll need to make user interface decisions without a designer’s input.

Ideal IBM software team ratio

  • 1:8 Offering Managers to Engineers
  • 1:8 Designers to Engineers
  • 1:1 Designers to Offering Managers

Give them space

The most challenging part of working with a truly diverse empowered team may have nothing to do with staffing.

As a stakeholder, working with an empowered team requires you to give them the space to define their unique character. While this doesn’t mean you can’t stay in the loop with them, it does mean giving control over day-to-day operational decisions to the team.

You may not always agree with the way they work. But just remember: when John F. Kennedy challenged NASA to go to the moon, he didn’t micromanage the team. He got out of their way and empowered them do what they do best.

As a team member

Be inclusive

What goes through your mind when you’re adding people to a meeting invite? Who are you including? Who are you excluding?––and why?

The truth is, instinct often leads us to avoid conflict and seek out those who think alike. But keep in mind: When teams fail, it’s usually not because they don’t have great ideas. It’s because they aren’t including the people who have them.

As a designer, you may find yourself struggling to understand the limitations of a technology stack. As an engineer, you may find yourself struggling to identify the prevailing values of your client’s organizational culture. But if you fail to lean on each others’ expertise, you both fail to grow.

At minimum, critical team conversations should include representatives from every discipline affected. It would be unwise for engineering to make timeline decision without engaging offering management in a conversation, or for product designers to make brand decisions without consulting the marketing team.

This kind of radical collaboration requires a foundation of trust, respect, and shared ownership across the team.

Take advantage of conflict

Consider the last time someone disagreed with you.

Did you listen to understand their argument, or did you listen to poke holes in it? Did you explore the underlying reasons behind their point of view, or did you seek reinforcement from others who shared yours?

Diversity invites conflict––and conflict is a wellspring of creativity. Harnessing this creativity requires us to listen to understand, not just argue, with those who may disagree. When you listening to understand, you uncover brand new ideas together and contribute to a more open and collaborative culture.

At IBM, we have a saying: “Empathy: first with each other. Then with our users.” The next time someone disagrees with you, don’t jump straight to why they’re wrong. Try saying, “help me understand.” It takes courage to admit we don’t know everything, but it’s essential to improving our team’s collective outcome.

Take initative

Being empowered to act means your stakeholders have entrusted you with a shared responsibility for your team’s collective success. While this doesn’t mean you can ignore their counsel and direction, it does mean that your team is expected to take the initiative to solve problems and deliver your assigned outcomes on your own.

This responsibility can be uncomfortable at first. But when your team rises to the occasion, you deliver better outcomes faster, build trusting relationships with stakeholders, and grow your skills as a leader.