Thursday, September 25, 2014

What Else Don''t We Know?

This post arrived today via email from the Google blog.

My thoughts?  It's brilliant. I want to make sure that you had the opportunity to see it as well. At the bottom of this post is a cut & paste from the original. Go ahead and take a look before continuing.

Now take another look, with a more critical eye.  Make some notes about what you might not have seen in the first pass that you caught in the second.  Compare your notes with mine when you're done.  I'll be interested to compare notes and join our thoughts.

The email begins with an anecdote guiding the reader to a comfortable place, a view of the business' well known work in the technology sector, and then invites you to step back in time for a behind-the-scenes look at a blatant mistake in the product's requirements analysis and development... except it's not referred to as mistake; we'll say that what was built was nearly perfect every case that the developers could imagine, but there was something of a silly oversight that any unwittingly and innocently biased group of us might have made in the same situation.  Since we all know that the very successful product works fine today, the email doesn't have to go much further to suggest that the author was quick to take action and capable enough to resolve it.

But consider this rhetorical question:  When Google made assumptions to accommodate the left-handed user, did they inadvertently overlook the case where the video was showing that things were actually upside-down?

Some arguments are simply unresolvable. Some issues are simply too heated at the time to survive taking a stand.  How does Google address race, gender, and other other imbalances of their employee demographics when compared to the general population?  Read carefully:  They don't.  Through some clever slight of hand, the topic has shifted. If it makes the reader feel that they care, however, they did change the gender of a conference room, showing responsiveness to their employees' concerns.

And the employee concerns? Look at how Google has invited their own employees to accept that this blindness of sorts is something that they each suffer from unknowingly, and look how they have been invited to check themselves and each other. The guilt or blame associated with discovering or being accused of bias is absolved by first accepting that we all suffer from this "original sin" of sorts and then by being open to addressing it as the company did itself.

All of this aside, on the first reading the Google release, did you get that warm fuzzy feeling?

Reading it again more critically, do you see the alchemy?  To me, it's beautiful... but I acknowledge that I might be blinded by my zen-biased reading.  Tell me, what did you see that I missed? There is certainly more...

Posted: 25 Sep 2014 08:00 AM PDT
When YouTube launched their video upload app for iOS, between 5 and 10 percent of videos uploaded by users were upside-down. Were people shooting videos incorrectly? No. Our early design was the problem. It was designed for right-handed users, but phones are usually rotated 180 degrees when held in left hands. Without realizing it, we’d created an app that worked best for our almost exclusively right-handed developer team.

This is just one example of how unconscious biases influence our actions every day, even when—by definition—we don’t notice them. These biases are shaped by our experiences and by cultural norms, and allow us to filter information and make quick decisions. We’ve evolved to trust our guts. But sometimes these mental shortcuts can lead us astray, especially when they cause us to misjudge people. In the workplace, for example, the halo effect can cause us to inflate performance ratings or in-group bias can lead us to overlook great talent.

Combatting our unconscious biases is hard, because they don’t feel wrong; they feel right. But it’s necessary to fight against bias in order to create a work environment that supports and encourages diverse perspectives and people. Not only is that the right thing to do, but without a diverse workforce, there’s a pretty good chance that our products—just like that early YouTube app—won’t work for everyone. That means we need to make the unconscious, conscious.

The first step is education; we need to help people identify and understand their biases so that they can start to combat them. So we developed a workshop, Unconscious Bias @ Work, in which more than 26,000 Googlers have taken part. And it’s made an impact: Participants were significantly more aware, had greater understanding, and were more motivated to overcome bias.

In addition to our workshop, we’re partnering with organizations like the Clayman Institute and the Ada Initiative to further research and awareness. We’re also taking action to ensure that the decisions we make at work—from promoting employees to marketing products—are objective and fair. Here are four ways we're working to reduce the influence of bias:

  • Gather facts. It’s hard to know you’re improving if you’re not measuring. We collect data on things like gender representation in our doodles and at our conferences.
  • Create a structure for making decisions. Define clear criteria to evaluate the merits of each option, and use them consistently. Using the same standards to evaluate all options can reduce bias. This is why we use structured interviews in hiring, applying the same selection and evaluation methods for all.
  • Be mindful of subtle cues. Who’s included and who’s excluded? In 2013, Googlers pointed out that of the dozens of conference rooms named after famous scientists, only a few were female. Was this our vision for the future? No. So we changed Ferdinand von Zeppelin to Florence Nightingale—along with many others—to create more balanced representation. Seemingly small changes can have big effects.
  • Foster awareness. Hold yourself—and your colleagues—accountable. We’re encouraging Googlers to call out bias. For example, we share a “bias busting checklist” at performance reviews, encouraging managers to examine their own biases and call out those of others.

As we shared back in May, we’re not where we should be when it comes to diversity. But in order to get there, we need to have this conversation. We have to figure out where our biases lie, and we have to combat them. Tackling unconscious bias at work is just one piece of making Google a diverse workplace, but it’s absolutely essential if we’re going to live up to our promise to build technology that makes life better for as many people as possible.

Posted by Laszlo Bock, SVP of People Operations, and Brian Welle, Ph.D., Director of People Analytics