How to Foster an Inclusive Culture in Your Product Development or Project Team

Inspiring Inclusion: 5 Tips for Project Leaders

Leaders in product development and project management need to recognize how important inclusion is for achieving their goals. But what is inclusion? Inclusion is about making a work environment where every employee — no matter their gender, race, age, or sexual orientation — can participate and add value. These examples are just some of the many ways to show inclusivity. It also means organizations look for and keep diverse talent. In fact, research shows a strong link between diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) and improved business results.

According to the latest Pulse of the Profession® report, research showed that organizations that prioritize DE&I have better-than-average project performance rates. In fact, DE&I is the organizational initiative with the highest link to above-average project performance among all the ones included in the survey. Organizations also experience financial benefits when they foster an inclusive culture.

We spoke to women leaders to learn how they foster inclusion and why it matters in their projects. Project managers, regardless of their gender identity, have a key role as leaders among their teams, giving them a special opportunity to encourage inclusivity. Here are the top 5 ways project managers can work to create inclusive teams.

1. Having a diverse team skill-based composition.

It is not enough to meet quotas for diverse teams, it is also important to leverage different viewpoints and backgrounds. Research showed that 88% of project professionals think having diverse project teams adds value. And project managers can promote diverse hiring practices.

Victoria Toney-Robinson, PMP, senior program manager at Google in Hamburg, Germany; founder of the Black Googler Network's Germany chapter, and global co-chair of the network, says that when hiring, you should ask for a diverse representative pipeline if you cannot make the decision or call. Otherwise, people tend to use their existing pool. Skill-based and competency assessments allow you to go deeper into the requirements and match the candidate that meets a good fit to an exciting team.

Sarah Castle, co-founder, and director of IF_DO Architecture, London, England, and 2023 PMI®Future 50 honoree concurs. “The first step is defining a goal. What does success mean to you? Does it entail more women in leadership roles? More Black, Asian, minority, or ethnic diversity? Ask what your objective is and what you expect the benefit to be.

A good team has many diverse backgrounds and a good representation of the customer base. The skills and the competency requirements are ethnic independent and will prioritize the right competencies which are not yet found within your development or project team. Adding more diverse skills will enable you to be more inclusive for your intended customer base and will ensure you already tackle majority of feedback prior to ever reaching a customer.

Sarah, a Part W founder for gender equity in the built environment, shares some advice for project professionals to build diverse teams.

  • Use inclusive language, skills-based criteria, and gender-neutral terms in job descriptions.

  • Hide CV [or resume] details when screening applicants to reduce unconscious biases.

  • Ask the same questions to everyone in interviews. Have a diverse panel of interviewers. Let team members help with hiring decisions, not just leadership.

  • Admit that no [organization] is perfect and strive for continuous improvement.

2. Create a culture of open communication.

Building diverse teams project managers should foster a positive, supportive culture where team members can share bold ideas. Open communication improves outcomes and encourages innovation and creativity. It also makes team members feel more included and valued for their diversity. Observe your team and know when people speak up or hold back their opinions. A team with diverse backgrounds and experiences will interact differently depending on who is present. Having rotations in how the teams are formed will help you see how people change their behaviour with different participants. Create an environment of open communication and let the participants open to each other. This is crucial for creating an inclusive work environment. The same team will behave differently with different subsets of team members.

The project manager should create an psychological safety environment, says Dr. Poornima Luthra, associate professor at Copenhagen Business School, Copenhagen, Denmark, and author of “Leading Through Bias.” “You want an environment where people communicate constructively, not aggressively or passive aggressively."”

Dr. Luthra suggested some ways for project managers to foster this behaviour.

  • Invite different viewpoints and perspectives.

  • Ask “What are we missing? What are we not seeing when we make decisions or brainstorm?”

  • Make people feel their voice matters and create space for it.

“This means having the project manager and other allies in meetings, brainstorming sessions, and discussion groups to prevent interruptions and stop them when they happen,” she says.

3. Establish inclusive project planning and decision-making processes.

Inclusive project planning means asking for input from all team members and listening to feedback. Creating an inclusive culture involves integrating DE&I into the teams decision-making process. This also requires incorporating inclusion into the organizational strategy, including project processes. By recognizing blind spots and actively looking for diverse views, project managers can make more effective project plans, make smarter decisions, and increase project benefits.

“Be receptive to ideas,” says Asya Watkins, PMP, founder of Women of Project Management, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. “Go in saying ‘this is my best’ and be willing to expose your weaknesses. Ask ‘Do you see any gaps? Do you see any of my blind spots?’ and be genuinely open to getting constructive feedback, because those are going to be the most successful projects. The end user of that project, they can sense when someone really, carefully planned this out.”

Victoria values the role of project professionals in getting diverse feedback. “In project management, be aware of who needs to be involved. Check what views are present, what views are missing and find out how to fill these gaps.”

Dr. Luthra agrees with Asya and Victoria. She thinks that's why allyship matters. Allyship is when one helps and speaks up for underrepresented groups, even if one does not belong to them.

She says project managers should be curious about how people who are different from them see the same project team. They should admit they do not know how others feel and recognize their own privilege. That is how they can be allies.”

4. Foster mentorship opportunities.

Career development depends on mentorship, especially for women and other marginalized groups. Studies show that programs like mentorship can have significant benefits for employees. Organizations that have these programs achieve better project performance rates than organizations that do not. Project managers should proactively look for mentorship opportunities for team members and support their progress within the organization. By supporting diverse talent, project managers can develop a pool of future leaders and ensure long-term success. For Victoria, mentorship makes a difference.

She says mentorship is the key to boosting your career and your success. Find as much support as you can, create that support structure with people who care about you, who can assist you when it is tough, who can cheer for you when it is great, and keep you balanced in between.”

The author of “Show Your Worth,” Shelmina Babai Abji from Seattle, Washington, USA, also said finding the right mentor was important.

She advises that you need to be very deliberate and strategic about who you seek as a mentor. “You must know who you are and where you are. Who do you aspire to be? Where do you want to go? Your current state, your desired state, and then identify which people will help you move faster and succeed towards your desired goal. This is all up to you. You cannot wait for someone to come and offer to be your mentor. To help you. You need to take charge of this.”

5. Celebrate and recognize achievements.

It is important for creating a culture of inclusion and belonging to acknowledge and celebrate achievements. This can affirm team members and promote a culture of accountability. By honouring diversity and inclusion, project teams can enhance their teamwork and morale, which can lead to project success.

“Be very clear about why you are celebrating,” says Dr. Luthra. “Say that you are celebrating this because you have seen these behaviours and these behaviours have contributed to these outcomes. Really emphasize the behaviours, because then you are telling everyone that these are the behaviours that you appreciate, and these are the outcomes that you can be proud of because they helped us to make better decisions. They helped us to be more innovative and creative when we are facing a certain issue or solving a certain problem, and those are things people remember more than anything else.”

Let us inspire inclusion.

To form your project team for product development, assess and elicit skills and competencies that reflect the diversity of culture, age, gender, and ethnicity. Emotions and their expression and perception are not tied to race, age, or gender. They can be understood across cultures and have the same effect. By including skills, competencies, and emotions in your elicitation and requirements processes, you will build a diverse team of experts who can provide feedback that matches your clients' varied customer base.

Closing the gender gap is vital for project success and requires inclusion.

Sarah says: “As a female leader, you should empower everyone around you. Give space to the young women and those who are less vocal.”

Project managers can foster inclusion and diversity by promoting open communication, feedback, mentorship, and celebration in their teams.

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