March 21, 2017

Diversity Makes Projects More Successful

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Katharina Borchert
Lack of diversity may be stunting projects' growth potential, said Mozilla's Katharina Borchert at Open Source Leadership Summit.

Open source projects are by their nature intended to be welcoming, pulling in contributions from many different volunteers. But in reality, open source and the tech industry in general often lack diversity. Speaking at the Open Source Leadership Summit in February, Mozilla’s Chief Innovation Officer Katharina Borchert told the crowd that working to bring ethnic, gender, and skill diversity to open source projects isn’t just the right thing to do because of moral grounds, it’s the right thing to do to make projects more successful.

“The next generation of people coming online and potentially willing -- even eager -- to engage with us, to contribute to our work, they're not going to look like us, they're not going to talk like us, and they're going to have different expectations,” Borchert said.

“If we want to future-proof our communities, if we want to future-proof our work and everything that we really care about, we need to engage those people. We need to understand those people, and we need to be able to open up our communities and embrace those people,” she continued.

Several studies have outlined the benefits of bringing diverse viewpoints and backgrounds into an organization, and Borchert drew from a handful of those in her presentation. A study from McKinsey Research, for example, showed that across industry, gender diversity on a leadership team brough 15 percent higher financial returns than those without; those with ethnic diversity brought 35 percent higher returns.

Borchert also highlighted work from Karim Lakhani, a professor at Harvard Business School and a member of the Mozilla board of directors, who has dedicated his career to researching open innovation and Open Source communities.

“Open Source is really, really good at taking big problems and breaking them down into small tasks, which in turn allows a much larger pool of potential contributors to join,” Borchert said. “[Lakhani] has also identified some things that we're not really good at. The main thing is we're still not very good at avoiding group think and avoiding monocultures by bringing very different disciplines to the table. This is really, really important in the problem solving process.”

According to Borchert, open source projects tend to favor code over software and engineering over product. But, by excluding -- whether consciously or not -- contributors from other disciplines, projects are stunting their own growth potential.

“[Undervaluing non-coders] leads to undervaluing other roles that are also really important in the work that we do and that you need to have at the table if you do want to build really good products,” she said. “That's researchers, UX designers, marketers, all the people that you do need if you really, really want to reach your customers. This actually has impact on our work.”

The solution is to deliberately design communities that are inclusive of people with varied backgrounds and skillsets. That doesn’t have to be a dreary exercise in forced cooperation, she said; the best results come from a fun, creative process that brings people on board and then retains them.

The key, she emphasized, is designing with specific inclusionary intentions in mind. “It is so hard to fix problems that have manifested overtime in established communities. We clearly need to do that, and we need to address the issues we have. We can avoid so much of the problems if we are very intentional about our values, our principles upfront.”

Borchert urged projects to publish their efforts and their findings and shine light on their mistakes as well as their successes, so that the community could start learning from each other. Such sharing of information, she said, is fundamental to success. “I have usually learned way more from the dramatic failures in my life than the great successes. It's really important to share the lighthouses, to share the best practices, and to celebrate together.”

Watch the complete presentation below:

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