The intersection of technology and leadership

We’re not trying to be rude, honest!

I got included in on a twitter conversation by Mark responding to Brian talking about how ThoughtWorks people at a particular conference huddled around together. It’s not the first time people have observed that. A natural reaction by people outside of that circle is to comment on this, such as, “You’re not very inclusive,” or “Crowding around together is so rude.” Having been part of these circles before, and being told this judgement (with accompanying observation), I can tell you where it stems from.

ThoughtWorks is a distributed company
Though I can only observe consultants I interact with from other companies, I feel ours is definitely very global. We encourage people to travel from one country to another, frequently rotating projects and encourage each other to present at conferences. Being located pretty much all around the world, it’s natural you don’t get to meet everyone face to face. Even here in London, I am now used to turning up for a new office event only to meet several new people. We work on different projects, so it’s natural not to meet anyone.

Our electronic-social ties are extremely strong
Internally we have, at least what I like to think of as a very active mailing list. When I post something on there, I generally get some pretty good responses particularly from the largest community of software developers. Over time, you get to know someone’s online persona. You have a picture of them in your head, and start to see the nuances of how they express themselves. Even things like twitter help to do this. It’s not uncommon for me to feel more strongly attached to people actively participating in email conversations than some people in the same office of who I rarely see or talk to.

Conferences are attended by ThoughtWorkers from around the world
As I briefly touched upon before, as a global company we try to encourage people to travel and present at conferences. This naturally leads to opportunities for people to meet in person for the first time. It’s strange meeting people you feel like you’ve known for a long time in person for the first time. I still remember, for example, my first day in the London office where I finally met Liz Keogh and Tim Emiola for the first time after conversing with them electronically for 18 months before hand, and them now inducting me into the whole Britishness of “buying rounds” and the way that it all eventually works out.

People have a need for connectedness and belonging
Having just recently talked about it at the XP2011 conference, I noticed that we weren’t the only people to congregate into small circles. For instance, I remember a whole bunch of people from Brazil hanging around together for almost the entire conference. Likewise for a small group of people who worked for the same company in Sweden. It’s a natural thing, particularly in new environments, for people to stay close to those they already have relationships with.

It’s less about you than you think
It is all of these effects combined that lead to ThoughtWorkers aggregating at events. Perhaps it’s also because we tend to be quite loud/opinionated/noisy that it’s more noticeably. Gravitating towards each other isn’t a conscious act trying to exclude everyone. In fact, I know ThoughtWorkers like hearing other opinions, particularly if they’re even more different and based on strong experiences and though happy to contribute to conversation will be welcomed with open arms.

We can get better at this
I know it can be hard approaching a loud, opinionated group of people. I know we can do it better. Being aware of how we’re sometimes perceived, this is how I go about trying to break the perception:

  • Invite others in – If I know someone standing at the edge of a group, I’ll introduce them and explain my relationship to them to others. It helps break the awkwardness and creates more opportunities for everyone to talk about similar interests.
  • Randomly break away – If groups get too large, or hang around too long, I like to break away and meet some new people. I also try to encourage other people to do the same. It’s not only a good way of getting different perspectives, but helps address some of the above issues.
  • Explain to others the contributing factors and perceived effects – By talking people through the above elements, it helps others understand why perceptions come up the way they do. More importantly it lets them decide how they’d like to deal with it

Whilst I can only speak for myself, I do hope that other people can benefit from this by being more inclusive where possible in these sorts of situations.

4 Comments

  1. Michael

    One simple suggestion: make a group habit of forming into a U-shaped group instead of a closed circle. The former suggests openness, the latter, exclusion.

  2. Patrick

    Hi Michael,

    Great tip! I can see how that would definitely help.

  3. Bob Marshall

    Hi Pat,

    A useful explanation. And a common dynamic for groups attending conferences, to be sure.

    If I may suggest – how about discussing the topic occasionally (especially pre-conference) and see if folks are comfortable with the idea of having everyone’s permission/understanding to leave the group, once at conference?

    I observe that many folks huddle together out of respect / concern for their peers (not wanting to ‘leave them on their own to fend for themselves’ – an assumption that this would make their peers uncomfortable or feel abandoned) without actually checking to see if that would indeed be an issue.

    – Bob @FlowChainSensei

  4. Brian Guthrie

    The event I was attending was a speaker’s dinner, and the huddle wasn’t just ThoughtWorkers – it included ex-ThoughtWorkers as well. 🙂 I think this post really nails the sentiment, though; thank you for writing it, as I can now refer to it when the issue comes up again.

    When you form bonds with people you’ve known only at a distance, which happens quite often with the kind of strong internal social ties you mention, and get the opportunity to meet those people for the first time in person, the urge to cluster and pick each others’ brains is almost irresistible. So too with people you’ve met before but don’t get to see all that often; you cherish the opportunity to catch up and reforge old connections. So I’ve been that guy at conferences, and I most probably will be again. I’m not a naturally socially outgoing person, and it takes a lot of effort for me to step out of my comfort zone and go hang out with strangers.

    Luckily, strangers can become friends pretty quickly.

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