Monday, June 12, 2017

Supporting inclusiveness in diverse software engineering teams with brainstorming

By: Anna FilippovaCarnegie Mellon University. USA (@anna_fil)

Associate Editor: Bogdan Vasilescu, Carnegie Mellon University. USA (@b_vasilescu)

Diversity continues to be one of the most talked about issues in software engineering. It is a paradox – we understand that diversity is important not just for equity and increasing the pool of available candidates, but because it improves the quality of engineering. However, in practice, diverse teams struggle with the very thing that makes them so important – voicing differing or dissenting opinions. Because the benefits of diversity depend on everyone speaking up, it is important to create supportive group processes that ensure all team members can voice their opinions without fear of judgement or being ignored.

In this post, we describe one strategy that is likely already in an engineering manager’s toolkit – brainstorming.

The diversity paradox
It is well established that diverse teams are more creative and better at problem solving because they can leverage varied life experiences to make unexpected connections and avoid groupthink through constructive criticism. They are therefore particularly important in contexts where creative problem solving is required, such as in solving engineering challenges. The advantages of diversity come not only from inherent traits (such as someone’s gender, or race), but also through acquired experiences (like education or living in different places), and it is important to support both in teams.

However, numerous research has shown that diverse teams struggle with leveraging their full potential – in unconstructive environments, team members who are in a minority struggle with feelings of intimidation or being ignored, while clashes in backgrounds between different factions in a team result in misunderstanding, suspicion and conflict. In the short term, this impacts the effectiveness of diverse teams, while in the long-term it could lead to greater intentions to leave the software engineering profession for minorities, especially in the early stages of their careers.

While we have made significant strides in improving representation at different levels of the pipeline, representation alone does not guarantee an effective team. It is important to think beyond supporting diversity through numbers alone, towards inclusive group processes through which minority individuals and challenging opinions are not only welcomed, but systematically integrated into the bigger picture.  

Brainstorming: an accessible strategy for diverse teams

Though we can take several different approaches towards more inclusive group processes, it is helpful to consider strategies managers may already be familiar with. Brainstorming is one such well-known technique designed to support innovation in teams with 4 core principles:
1)    Focusing on idea generation and discussion in a way that
2)    withholds judgement, and
3)    supports any ideas no matter how controversial, while
4)    encouraging the integration of all the ideas proposed rather than discarding them.

In other words, brainstorming supports exactly the kind of environment minority members of diverse teams need in order to feel comfortable voicing dissenting opinions without fear of judgement, criticism or being ignored. Despite this promise, little empirical work had looked at the impact of brainstorming on teamwork in diverse groups to-date.

In a recent study, we observed the effects of brainstorming on satisfaction in a short-term, time intensive group work setting. Our study involved 144 participants across two non-competitive hackathons in the software engineering domain.  

We found that brainstorming supported 1) better satisfaction with the process of working in the team and 2) a clearer vision of the team goals for all team members, regardless of their minority status, but the effect was significantly stronger for minority team members.

Without brainstorming, team members who described feeling like a minority in their group (we did not distinguish between inherent and acquired traits) felt less satisfied with the process of working in their groups, and were less clear about what their group aimed to produce, compared to their teammates. However, as Figures 1 and 2 illustrate, in teams that did utilize brainstorming, minority team members matched their teammates in terms of satisfaction and alignment with group goals.
Figure 1 The impact of brainstorming on satisfaction with working in the team by participant minority status
Figure 2 The impact of brainstorming on goal clarity by participant minority status 

Key takeaways

Brainstorming is a readily available technique that managers are likely already familiar with, and, as our findings suggest, helps diverse teams work better together. In fact, because brainstorming supports satisfaction and a clearer vision of the team goals for all members of the team, there is reason to take a second look at the technique even if you are not yet managing a diverse team.


Nigel Bassett-Jones (2005), The Paradox of Diversity Management, Creativity and Innovation. Creativity and Innovation Management, 14: 169–175.

Anna Filippova, Erik Trainer, James D. Hersbleb (2017) From diversity by numbers to diversity as process: supporting inclusiveness in software development teams with brainstorming. In Proceedings of the 39th International Conference on Software Engineering, ACM, New York.

Elizabeth Mannix, Margaret A. Neale, (2005). What differences make a difference? The promise and reality of diverse teams in organizations. Psychological science in the public interest, 6(2), 31-55.

Alex Osborn (1957) Applied imagination: Principles and procedures of creative problem-solving. C. Scribner’s Sons; Revised second edition.

Carroll Seron, Susan S. Silbey, Erin Cech, Brian Rubineau (2016) Persistence Is Cultural: Professional Socialization and the Reproduction of Sex Segregation. Work and Occupations, 43:2, pp. 178 – 214.

William A. Wulf. (2002), The Importance of Diversity in Engineering
in Diversity in Engineering: Managing the Workforce of the Future. The National Academy of Engineering (eds.) Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

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