Homogenous vs Diverse teams: What should you aim for?

Last night I watched a VICE documentary about North Korea from 2008. There was a line from Shane Smith about what North Korea is trying to do that really stuck with me. He said

“This country is trying to create the most homogeneous people in the world.”

In communism, that seems to be the goal. And of course, the way I was brought up and think about the world, is that letting everyone live out their own beliefs and desires is a much more fulfilling way to live life.

Then, as I often do when reading or watching something, I related it to myself, and more specifically our approach to building Buffer. We have a set of values, that we largely aspire to live up to. I think they are very helpful to the team and me personally to live a fulfilled life. We try to hire and fire according to these values and I’m quite happy with the discipline we’ve applied to it over the last few years. There’s very little compromise we’ve made on our values.

A quote that I like to share with team members and others when it comes to hiring is Sahil Lavingia’s:

“Less time trying to convince people. More time trying to find people that are already convinced.”

So essentially, we could argue that we’re also trying to build a largely homogeneous team at Buffer, hopefully one that is self-selected and not forced upon anyone that doesn’t enjoy our set of values.

Homogenous vs diverse teams

The core belief I have and want to question a bit with this reflection, is the idea that the more homogeneous you are as a team, the more clearly you can all pull on the same side of the rope. If you constantly have nay-sayers, or people that criticize your approach, it’ll be hard to get anything done, especially when you’re a very small startup. That’s where I think a lot of our approach to a value and culture driven company is rooted in.

The other side of the coin seems to be that stark diversity sparks strong discussions, which to some extent then sparks innovation. Previously people have said to me “Isn’t it good to have some people who disagree strongly with your approach on your team?” or “I always like having people on my team who fiercely argue my points, they help me get to a better perspective.”

Consciously or not, I often dismissed them and said “no, I don’t want that”. Now I’m not so sure anymore. I would say that this is not how things work at Buffer. We have great discussions and people are not afraid to speak up about ideas, yet we don’t have this full-on debates and heated arguments, where we really fight it out.

I’m not sure whether we should have that. Or whether we shouldn’t. I just thought it’d be interesting to reflect on how homogeneous or diverse a team should be.

I’d love your thoughts about this in the comments below.

A short reflection on something I don’t have an anwer to: “Homogenous vs Diverse teams: What should you aim for?”

— Leo Widrich (@LeoWid) February 26, 2015

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