Is your team ignorant or inept?

One thing I like about working with people in 'industry' is that they want and expect to see evidence for things. They will ask questions about why I'm doing what I'm doing, and challenge my assumptions about lots of things.

In a meeting a few months ago, someone asked me why we want to maximise engagement in meeting settings. And it was a really clarifying question. I rambled in the moment. I asked, 'well why would you recruit the best people you could find if you didn't want them to play an active role in the doing of the work?' And, 'if they aren't engaging, why would you invite them to the meeting in the first place?'

I have thought more about it. It stuck with me. What is the best argument for prioritising people in a meeting? (Aside from the obvious case that it's the right thing to do.)

Let's start with 'ignorance and ineptitude'

In The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gwande outlines some amazing medical phenomena: the death rates of sepsis patients were once much higher, because it's a notoriously complex disease to diagnose, and requires extreme meticulousness to treat. If medical professionals missed steps in the treatment, or did them in the wrong order, their patient would die. Getting sepsis treatment right was not about being experienced — it was about being organised.

Following this example, Gwande breaks mistakes down into two categories: errors of ineptitude, and errors of ignorance:

  • Errors of ineptitude are mistakes you make even though you have all the information you need to make the right choice.
  • Errors of ignorance are mistakes you make because you don't have the information you need to make the right choices.

I believe that most of the problems we come across in tech, stem from errors of ignorance. That's because a lot of our technology is built by non-diverse teams. Even if the people on these teams are highly-skilled, amazing people, but very similar, they can still lack the knowledge and experience you get from teams which are more diverse — and so they don't always make the best choices.

Teams made up of equally amazing people who are diverse, and have the skills to do some great things together, will make all kinds of errors of ineptitude — unless you create environments in which everyone can maximally engage.

Now that you understand that concept, here's a quick fact about the human brain: we have 11 million bits of information per second at our disposal. Most humans can only process 40-60 bits of information a second. So there's a lot of information we are missing out on.

Non-diverse teams that stay non-diverse, by hiring people that look and think like them, are essentially choosing to receive non-unique information, despite their limited capacities of perception. They are wilfully setting themselves up for errors of ignorance.

What about diverse teams with different backgrounds, life experiences, perspectives, and proclivities? Well, they should have more information at their disposal when they consider what they know because their perception is different. These different perceptions only matter — and can only be useful — when you can put all of that information on the table, and allow people to engage with it.

If and when technology teams become more diverse, they need to find ways to maximise engagement or else they will struggle with the same flat perspective. Once strong, talented, diverse teams have space to properly collaborate, only then can we stamp out the errors ignorance AND errors of ineptitude.

You can't work as a team if all of you see the old woman... some of you need to see the young woman too!
You can't work as a team if all of you see the old woman... some of you need to see the young woman too!


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