What are the real-world benefits of diverse teams – and what does it take to make them work? I had a chance to find out when I was asked to lead product management for the Cisco team that developed App Discovery, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution for getting a handle on shadow IT (applications not managed by IT). The 30-person team came from different countries (U.S. Israel, India), different corporate cultures (including Cisco acquisitions CloudLock and OpenDNS), genders, backgrounds, and perspectives.

Getting a diverse group to work as a team isn’t always easy – but it’s well worth the effort. It meant our team more closely resembled the customers that use our products. And I’m convinced the App Discovery team was more productive, more innovative, and better able to see around corners because of their diverse makeup. Although we had the good fortune to be able to meet in person when this project initially kicked off, I think by using video technology you can accomplish many of the same breakthroughs.

Here are some lessons our team learned along the way:

Tip 1 – Meet face-to-face early on (even if that’s virtually)
After brainstorming product goals in their own groups, our 30-person team had the advantage of meeting for a week in Tel Aviv, which helped us get to know one another. According to Pallavi Priya, one of our software engineers, “Each team had its own working style. Over the course of a week we got to know each other and after that, we were comfortable working together to solve problems.” But even if you can’t meet in person, schedule informal video meetings where everyone can get to know each other on a more personal level before you begin to collaborate .

Tip 2 – Build trust
At the beginning of our time in Tel Aviv, some people were a bit wary of other teams – more inclined to guard their knowledge than to share. Trust developed as we spent time together. Our lead architect Joseph Barnett commented that, “The team in Israel went out of their way to make us feel welcome. We ate lunch together every day and even went paddle boarding. The time we spent together built trust, and in a short amount of time they developed groundbreaking technology that blew my mind.”

Tip 3 – Adopt a startup mindset
According to Yaron Caspy, product manager on the Tel Aviv team, “Working in design sprints is a great approach for diverse teams, Within Israeli culture there’s a tendency to get right down to business,” he said. “We put that to good use by holding an Accelerator Workshop – a 5-day sprint where we produced actual deliverables. People from different cultures and countries got a chance to work together in person before returning home to collaborate remotely.”

Tip 4 – Respect differences
Before the trip, the teams talked about cultural differences. Knowing ahead of time that some teams are more vocal than others helped Priya accept suggestions in the right spirit. “Rather than taking comments as a criticism, I saw it as early feedback,” she said. Harry Fu, a software engineer from the San Jose team, added, “Working with the Tel Aviv team I was struck by their positive attitude and ‘do-it’ culture that never shies away from challenges.”

Tip 5 – Be inclusive
As a group leader, I worked to make sure nobody felt left out. If somebody walked into a conference room and other team members were speaking in a foreign language, we made it a practice to stop and summarize what had already been said and then immediately switch to a shared language.

Tip 6 – Go for equity
While equality is treating everyone the same, equity if giving everyone what they need to be successful. With this in mind, the App Discovery team decided to host regional meetings instead of one general meeting on Pacific Time that would inconvenience or exclude people in other time zones.

Tip 7 – Focus on the user
Designers from CloudLock and Umbrella came from different time zones and cultures and used different tools. Claudia Love, head of user experience for Cloud Security, noted that, “When it comes to design, you can either get frustrated and defensive or take a more open approach and think about the overall good. I saw a lot of openness to new approaches in the App Discovery project.”

Tip 8 – Be an ally
Make sure everyone is heard. Some people are less comfortable to speak up initially, others can be louder and perhaps even take over the meeting. “A leader, like a good quarterback, makes sure that the ball gets to the right person,” said Caspy. “Sometimes that means actively bringing quieter people into discussions.”

‘Tip 9 – Assume good intentions
“When people from different cultures and backgrounds come together, someone might say something that rubs people the wrong way,” Love noted. “We assumed people had good intentions, which helped us work through differences to find a constructive solution.”

Tip 10 – You do you
“Remember there’s a reason you’re on the team, so be yourself,” said Caspy. “If you’re quiet, tap into your quiet element. If you’re expressive, be expressive.”

For me personally, it’s about shifting one’s mindset from Me to We. This project proved that when people with diverse opinions and backgrounds come together, they can do amazing things. I’d love to know which of these tips you think are most important in building productive and diverse teams.

P.S. For more on the power of diversity and inclusion, I invite you to watch the replay of our Cisco Live session,” Raising Up the Voices of Young Women.


Rohit Sawhney

Group Product Manager

Cloud Security