06 April 2021

Building Cognitively Diverse, Engaged, and Empowered Teams: A conversation with Ultranauts’ CEO

Stacia Garr
Co-founder & Principal Analyst

TL;DR

  • In this webinar Stacia Garr is joined with Rajesh Anandan, Co-founder and CEO of Ultranauts Inc
  • Who is Ultranauts, and why is creating a universal workplace essential so everyone can thrive
  • Learn what innovative business practices and tools developed by Ultranauts, helped create that universal workplace
  • How objective recruiting plays a role in job performance
  • What is Biodex and how does it correlate with employee feedback
  • Rajesh also talks about Ultranauts new initiative to help other companies detect bias in their talent practices and move the needle on their DEIB efforts

TRANSCRIPT

Introduction

Stacia Garr:
Hi, everyone. Thanks so much for joining. We're going to go ahead and get started. So for those of you whom I have not met, I am Stacia Garr and we are RedThread Research. I'm a, co-founder here with RedThread and I am just thrilled to be hosting this session today with Rajesh Anandan, who is the CEO of Ultranauts. And Ultranauts, you're going to learn all about them in the course of the session and how they have built these, as we described it here in the title of cognitively diverse and highly engaged and empowered teams. Now, before we get started, just want to share with you for those of you who don't know we are RedThread and we are human capital research and advisory membership. And we focus on a range of things, including people analytics, learning, and skills, performance employee experience, HR tech, and most relevant for today diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. So if you have a chance, check us out @redthreadresearch.com. Now just some quick housekeeping for our session today. The session will be recorded and shared with all registrants. And we want you to go ahead and ask questions through the Q&A function. I believe there's also a way to up vote your favorites. So if you see questions that others have mentioned, go ahead and up vote those. You're free to interact with one another in the chat, and you'll just need to make sure that you adjust the settings to include panelists and attendees. Otherwise you'll just be sending messages to the panelists, which is fine, but probably isn't the amount of interaction that you may be hoping for. So just go ahead and, and make that shift. If you have a moment we'd love for you to get started by putting in the chat, your name and your organization, and anything that you're in particular, hoping to learn from today's webinar.

Stacia Garr:
So with that, we'll go ahead and get started. So it is my pleasure to introduce Rajesh Anandan. We've practiced many times before the session, and I hope I hope I didn't mess up. But you know, this webinar really came about as a introduction on LinkedIn through a mutual friend who said you two absolutely must meet each other. Because you know, you have a wonderful story with Ultranauts in the work that you're trying to do, and we have an opportunity to, to help you share that. So with that, I guess would love to start with what is Ultranauts, who are you, what's this company that you've helped build?

Who is Ultranauts: Creating a universal workplace where everyone can thrive

Rajesh Anandan:
Well, Stacia, thanks for hosting the session and glad to share a bit more about what what we've been up to at Ultranauts. So Ultranauts is a onshore software and data quality engineering services firm. We, my co-founder and I started the company eight years ago with a mission to demonstrate that neuro-diversity including autism could be a competitive advantage for business. And our very simple theory of change was to build a world-class business that could create value for clients and be commercially viable and successful. And along the way, reimagine how in organization functions, how a company thinks about talent sources, talent manages teams, develops careers, so that a much wider group of humans could thrive and along, you know, and we're now eight years in and we've learned a lot. And part of our mission of course, is the share what we're learning to make it easier and more effective for other organizations to also embrace your diversity. So I'm always thrilled to have the chance to share some of what we've learned and some of the practices we've developed for our team at Ultranauts.

Stacia Garr:
Great. And why did you do this? So how did you arrive at this decision to build a neuro diverse team? And I'm really, why was it important to you?

Rajesh Anandan:
You know, I I'll spare the retroactively crafted founder story. Cause those things you just can't believe, startup origin stories, that sound like a neat straight line. My co-founder and, Art Shectman you know, we were at school together undergrads at MIT in the early nineties. And you know, when you're in an engineering school, you over-index on other humans who are different. And I think for a lot of us, for the first time we found a space and an environment and a community where it was all fine, we could be whoever we were. And there wasn't need a need to hide parts of who we were for fear of being bullied and things like that. And we didn't have these labels then I don't think I'd heard of autism until much later, but in retrospect, we of course have close friends who are neurodivergent and who we've seen, how they've struggled, trying to navigate a world that was not designed with them in mind and unfairly had to figure out how to function in a society and workplaces.

Rajesh Anandan:
And so fast forward a few decades, I'm dating myself here, but I'd done some research with another friend who runs a due diligence firm and research and consulting firm, Stax's. Looking at a thesis I had around communities of humans who were being overlooked or underestimated because of ableist views and looking for evidence of an over-indexing of attributes that could be strengths in the workplace. And so I was describing some of the findings from this research with Art, my co-founder, and he's been a serial entrepreneur and he was building a software development shop at the time. And he said, you know, some of the profiles sort of traits or attributes you are describing are exactly what I would look for in a quality engineer. And I could never find good quality engineers. And gosh, if you can find me a few folks who have these strengths I've got work that needs to be done.

Rajesh Anandan:
And so that's how we got started. As an experiment, we, you know, went to a couple non-profit advocacy groups for adults on the spectrum, and they were kind enough to humorous and help us craft a job description. We posted that job on grass. It's an advocacy network for autistic adults, and we had 150 applications within three days.

Stacia Garr:
Wow.

Rajesh Anandan:
A third of the applicants had graduate degrees, no one had any sort of work experience that related to the job we needed people to do. So we stumbled through the screening process and identified three of the applicants, trained them up pretty quickly and saw within a few months that they were able to do the job at a very high standard. And that was all the evidence we needed. And we launched Ultranauts then at the time called Ultra Testing as its own firm.

Stacia Garr:
Very interesting. So it sounds like you started with certainly with research, understanding, you know, kind of a little bit about this landscape and then with, as you said, an experiment at the beginning but now, you know, fast forward, how many years ago was that?

Rajesh Anandan:
Eight years ago. Okay.

Stacia Garr:
So now fast forward eight years ago, and I'm sure that, you know, over the course of this time, you've gotten a lot of questions about what it's like to lead a diverse team. We talked about this in our prep session, you know, and what misconceptions people people may have. So can you talk a little bit about, you know, from that start with those three quality engineers to today, what you've seen?

Rajesh Anandan:
So I would say, well, so many things and we'll touch on some of the sort of learnings we've had as a team. During the conversation I would say the most important thing is that if you take any group of humans you will not be able to describe that group accurately with any single statement. And so while our intentions were good and certainly there's evidence of an over-indexing of certain traits, like logical reasoning ability, or visual pattern recognition ability among autistic adults relative to the general population, these are generalizations, you know, it doesn't actually describe any specific individual. And so I think the biggest learning is that the sort of generalizations and these tropes, even if they're well-intentioned are not particularly helpful and keep you from getting to the ground truth that you need to understand in order to develop and design the kind of systems that actually work for everyone. And so you know, I'll, I'll simply say while ableist tropes are bad, clearly. So to our super power tropes or tropes about heightened abilities, and as one of my autistic colleagues shared, you know, in her words, she said, listen, all my life I've had to be exceptional just to be accepted. Like, can I just be accepted?

Stacia Garr:
Hmm. Yeah. Great point. Well, let's, I think that leads nicely into this question that I had for you, which is what is your team actually look like? So let's go to that slide.

The Ultranauts team

Rajesh Anandan:
So today Ultranauts is a team that spread out across 29 States. We've actually been a fully virtual organization from day one. So we've had the luxury of eight years of experimenting and trying different tools and practices to keep our team engaged and connected. And so when COVID started to unfold operationally, nothing changed. We were all already working from home and, you know, maybe my colleague who heads up growth and I traveled didn't travel anymore to events. I mean, that was pretty much the only thing, but we, we, our DNAs as a fully virtual organization so we're fully distributed and incredibly diverse. And so three quarters of our team across the company are autistic, and that's not just our analysts and engineers, it's our quality managers or colleagues and leadership team or head of outreach.

Rajesh Anandan:
And so that's been very intentional because we fundamentally believe that if you can bring together different brain types, different information, processing models, different problem solving styles, different thinking styles, different learning styles, and forge collaborative teams, you could do better. And there's a fair bit of evidence that backs up that assertion that cognitively diverse teams do perform better in terms of solving more complex problems, surfacing more unique insights and driving continuous improvement. And in our case all through the lens of improving software and data quality in highly complex and fast moving domains. And, you know, the one thing I would say is we have adopted this approach because of our fundamental belief that our differences as individuals do actually make us better together. And not because we are trying to create jobs for artistic talent, like that is not while that is a part of what happens because of the nature of what we're doing.

Rajesh Anandan:
The mission is to demonstrate that diversity neuro diversity and which leads to cognitive diversity is in fact an advantage. And so we go out and of course invest differentially in reaching pools of talent who've been left out and marginalized. And so sourcing looks very different for us. And we can talk a bit more about that later, but from the time you apply, everybody's treated the same. You get to work at Ultranauts because we believe you are the best brain for the right job. And not because of anything else. And because of that, you know, we've been able to create an environment where diversity really is embraced and it flourishes.

Diversity

Rajesh Anandan:
And if you could go to the next slide, not only are we cognitively diverse, but arguably we might be the most diverse engineering firm in the world across any dimension, you know, so if we look at gender 40% of our team are cisgender female. 5% are non binary, 5% are trans and other 12% have other gender identities. And so, you know, in a way cis-gender males are certainly not the majority or a plurality.

Stacia Garr:
And can you for, for our audience who may not know what cisgender means, can you explain that?

Rajesh Anandan:
Sure. that would be individuals who identify with the sex of their birth, born a male identify as male. And then in terms of race and ethnicity 28% of our team are people of color. Now, this is an area where we are not reflective of the population the American population. And so we've got work to do but we also think of diversity in terms of socioeconomic status. Three quarters of our team were unemployed or underemployed, nothing to do with their fierce capabilities as professionals and humans and everything to do with the construct of how you know, people get hired and the sort of highly subjective and ineffective tools that are commonly used, which leave out incredibly capable humans from having a fair shot at contributing. And so we've been on this journey to try to change that.

Rajesh Anandan:
And over 40% of our team used to live in poverty. And so we think about diversity across many dimensions. We don't think that point solutions to improve or increase diversity on any one dimension can work. There's certainly no shortage of failed attempts to say, Oh, let's set up a program focused on X group. Because the reason you might need a program for X group is because there are underlying sort of inequities in how the organization functions. Maybe it's in how you recruit, how you develop talent or how you manage, you know, how you build relationships how information is shared all of this stuff. And if you don't get to the root of what's creating unfairness and an uneven playing field, then all these point solutions just don't work. And on the other hand, if you can really take an honest look at what is, what are those underlying causes that are resulting in a workforce that is not diverse on whatever dimension it is and you start to tackle, attack those surgically. Then what you end up with is a diverse work force. As we have, like, we didn't set out to be gender diverse or racially diverse or socioeconomically diverse. We, this is an outcome of the process we've gone through.

Stacia Garr:
And I think one thing to, to call out for folks is that, you know, just to to pick on one of these you've mentioned here that 10% black, the technology industry is historically really it's incredibly difficult or to get that number very high. It seems for I think, many of the reasons that you've mentioned, but just for folks, for point of comparison, I was recently actually looking at at Facebook's numbers here and, you know, they, they at least have been saying, they've been putting a big focus on this. And, and even with that big focus, I think their numbers are like 3%. So even though this is not necessarily where we would want it, it's still, I think, remarkably better than what we tend to see in the tech industry.

Rajesh Anandan:
Yeah. And so part of the challenge is to continuously challenge ourselves. Like good compared to what you know. So when we look at the broader sort of technology industry or kind of engineering fields and we're all quality engineers, it's a low bar and it's meaningless, you know, so it's I think, you know, the only sort of valid comparison is what is it in the general population? Cause everything else, it starts to sound like an excuse, right? Oh, there isn't a pipeline of talent or, well, you know, maybe this particular discipline is doesn't have as many graduates or what have you, by the way, we also looked at our team in terms of academic background. And actually I think almost 30% quarter to 30% of our team. If we look at team members who are performing extremely well don't have a college degree. So, you know, we're seeing bigger efforts around this like Google certificates where we're trying to disrupt that barrier of, if you're not part of the third of the population that have a college degree, then suddenly you're left out of a whole wide range of fields, which makes no sense.

Stacia Garr:
Yeah, no completely agree. We actually, we just published a podcast. We did with a gentleman called Matthew Daniel who's with Guild education. And we spent quite a bit of time talking about that exact topic about how this, this issue of college degrees leaves out so much of the workforce. So just kind of moving us on, you know, these numbers are great, but I think a lot of people would want to know, okay, well, what results have you seen so far with your business? So can you talk a little bit about that?

Rajesh Anandan:
Yeah. we've grown at over 50% a year in terms of, you know, growing the business while maintaining a hundred NPS among clients and our clients include a range of leaders in the industries that we work in from, you know AIG, Berkshire, Hathaway, Bloomberg Bank of New York, Mellon, Cigna, Comcast Warner media. We also work with startups. We work with pure technology companies and SAS companies. Slack's been a long time client. And then so commercially, we're professional services firm. So we're growing at a really healthy clip. And we saw the sort of impact of that as COVID started to unfold and companies started to shut down entire business units and shut off contractors and vendors and all this stuff. And we took a hit as well. Looking back a year, Q2 last year, I think for us, as for many organizations was not fun at all.

Performance

Rajesh Anandan:
And we lost a couple bigger accounts, took a real hit to our top line, but we recovered in a quarter and because the services we provide in terms of data quality engineering and software called engineering, are that much better than what's out there. We ended the year having grown our top line by 70%. In the middle of what was arguably incredibly challenging year. And, and we do that because we do this work better. If you could go to the next slide, you know, the nature of what we do is preventative. If we're doing our job, bad stuff, shouldn't happen. You know, your software should launch and release without any critical failures, your machine learning models and predictions, your analytics engine should be accurate and trusted, so bad things don't happen. But there've been a couple of examples where we've been brought in to replace a larger consulting firm, and we had to redo an entire piece of work, or there was a really well defined, measured baseline we were starting from.

Stacia Garr:
So it was possible to compare what we did. And the results we were able to deliver. In one case, a Prudential business unit brought us in to replace an IBM team, doing some fairly technical kind of compliance testing on their software. And we were able to not only use the same sort of automation tools, but actually do the same work so much more effectively that we increased the sort of rate of detection of defects by 56%. I mean, you have to ask, like, what were they doing before? Not only that we were able to actually do it in sprint versus delaying delivery of that platform. And no surprise, we replaced IBM at that business unit and, you know, completed 14, 15 projects. I think in another case we were brought in to replace or in place of CapGemini by an AIG business unit.

Rajesh Anandan:
And CapGemini is a great firm. They were sort of working across that company and this particular CTO didn't want a sort of cookie cutter industry solution. They were building a highly complex underwriting insurance underwriting platform and needed a partner that could have just capable, quality engineers, who not only had the technical skills to build sort of a scalable test automation framework, which sounds like a bunch of garbage, but actually be able to understand the business and what that meant was our quality engineers read through the 500 pages of underwriting logic, and actually understood it and cared enough to also understand the pricing regulations at the state and federal state level that varied by product and synthesize all of that into what to test to answer. The simple question of is this policy quote being delivered, correct, because the stakes are high. And so we've been able to show over and over again that yes, actually we do this better.

Rajesh Anandan:
And because of that, we've been growing as a business. And that's because of not in spite of the diversity of our team.

Inclusion

Rajesh Anandan:
The one other thing I would say, if you go to the next slide is that we think of success, not just in terms of the value we provide to our clients. Obviously we're a business. That's what success is. We would create value in a differentiated way that that helps our clients extract, you know, grow the business, mitigate risk and so on. But we also do think about success in terms of our ability to create an environment where everyone has a fair shot at success and can thrive. And does that in a, in the context of a team where they feel connected and engaged and they feel like they belong. And so we measure loneliness. We created a simple metric that we call our net loneliness score.

Rajesh Anandan:
Think of it like NPS for customer health as a forward-looking indicator of the health of your business. The loneliness score is similar in that it's a forward looking indicator of the health of our team, therefore the health of our business. We have a bot that pulls our team at 5:00 PM local time every day. Every day is a single poll. We cycled through about a dozen of them as a team we've kind of arrived at what those calls are. And each one ties back to a dimension of inclusion or wellbeing that we as a group have decided that it's important for us. And so loneliness is one of them. And we now have data for several years that we are consistently not a lonely group, a whole lot less lonely than the American workforce. You know, I think a few years ago, the surgeon general at the time was sounding the alarm about loneliness being an epidemic in America. And it's only gotten worse and 40% of American workers reported feeling lonely at work before COVID and we are now even more isolated. And before COVID I think 15% of Ultranauts reported feeling lonely at work and during COVID in spite of being surrounded by fear in panic we had the systems in place that actually brought our team even closer. And so, you know, the last quarters loneliness polls were averaging closer to 10% and that's, you know, people responding to that poll saying, I feel lonely at work.

Stacia Garr:
Right. And I think that's remarkable, you know, particularly as you mentioned, you're a remote team from the start. And so you know, that you know, that ability to even improve upon what you, what was happening during the, during COVID I think is really remarkable. One thing I don't think you mentioned at the beginning is how many folks are on your team? How many people work for Ultranaut?

Rajesh Anandan:
So we're still a small firm, you know, we're just south of a hundred people.

Universal workplace

Stacia Garr:
Okay. Okay. Yeah. Just to get folks on the line have a of the scale. Okay. So we've talked about, you've got really strong diversity, you've got really strong business results and other results such as this, so help us understand how do you do this? What does this, what does this look like? What's the workplace design look like?

Universal workplace: Flexible workplace norms

Rajesh Anandan:
So we think of what we're doing or trying to do as creating a universal workplace, which simply is shorthand for applying universal design principles to reimagine and redesign the system that is work top to bottom. And so for us this universal workplace has sort of four dimensions to it. One is building flexibility in as the norm, not as a thing you need to ask for an exception. Certainly having the flexibility to work from an, in an environment that you've been able to design based on your own needs, hugely important for our team. Maybe, you know, it's not for everyone. And you're seeing some of the research come out where it's working from home is super productive for some, but not all for our team in general. You know, many of our teammates may not have even applied if this was not an option, but we think of flexibility across a lot of other dimensions as well.

Rajesh Anandan:
We've moved away from the notion of a FTE, a full-time equivalent as sort of the way to think about units of work and a work week, because it turns out there's really no evidence that suggests that a 40 hour, 50 hour work week is optimally productive for all humans or even most humans or even many humans. And yet this is the construct we're stuck in. And in our case we have incredibly capable team members who would be hyper-productive for some fraction of that time. But if they were forced to work this quote full time week, simply to have a salary or simply to be able to progress in their career, you know, it, it would be unproductive. It might be overwhelming. It would be bad for their health and, and just bad for the team. And so we have created what we call a DTE, a desired time equivalent.

Rajesh Anandan:
So in almost all of our salaried roles you have, and I would say over 85% of our team are in salaried roles. So that's important to you. You can't have any of this stuff without income stability. And that's been a journey for us as a small business, right? And a lead startup we've we've had to work our way to this point where now we feel like we've dealt with some of those core issues around income stability. I would say, you know if you can't, if you don't have that, and you don't have psychological safety as just building blocks, you have nothing. And so, you know, you've got to address those things first because otherwise you don't have a conditions for people to be able to use their bandwidth and their brain cycles to focus on value and work, and instead have all these other fears that, that are playing in the background.

Universal workplace: Transparent decision making

Rajesh Anandan:
So flexibility's important. A second dimension is just transparency. You know, when you bring together people who are this different, who have very different views and experience, and maybe in some cases bad experiences at other workplaces, unfair experiences, it's really important to have as much transparency as you can, in terms of, particularly in terms of decision making, like, you know, one of the polls that we cycle through with this bot is I forget the exact phrasing, but it's like, I understand how decisions are made at this company, particularly those that affect my job. And so you respond on a Likert scale, you know, and that's sort of our proxy for do people feel like they know what's going on and why things happen. And so we've done a lot to create that transparency so that people do feel like they understand why decisions are made and what's being made.

Rajesh Anandan:
We publish our sort of performance dashboard that the leadership team works with and works off of to run the business. There's 40 odd KPIs and it's published. So the whole company sees the same metrics that the leadership team is responding to. Whenever that the leadership team meets, we meet once a week as a group, we publish notes on actions, decisions. So there's transparency. Obviously we don't publish everything. Like if there's some HR stuff happening, but for the most part, it turns out, you know, there's nothing special about what does the leadership team talk about? Cause every organization I've been in, you know this is kind of a pet topic of what, what do they talk about? And at Ultranauts you don't have to worry, or you don't have to wonder about this. It's a waste of brain cycles to wonder, because here it is.

Stacia Garr:
Can I, can I jump in on that? One thing I really like about that is we did some research actually over the course of the pandemic and are continuing to do it, that we called the responsive organization. And two of the components of a responsive organization was distributed authority. And then also growth and transparency. And what I like here is, is that pulling of those really with the obviously the transparency of these metrics and kind of how the business is doing, but then also the, the logic behind these are the decisions we made and sharing that because kind of understanding how decisions are made, helps others make their own decisions and make better decisions aligned with the same principles that the senior leadership team does. So there's something I really like about that.

Rajesh Anandan:
Yeah. And I don't want to, you know overstate the notes. You're absolutely right. Like having providing context for why decisions are made. It's just so important because that's the only way you can have individual actors in a system making good decisions. Otherwise, you know, you need a very hierarchical bureaucracy which is ineffective. And we can certainly do better on that front. You know I would say trying to build those organizational habits where providing the context is just part of what we do, you know, even on the leadership team, like we have a diverse leadership team and we've tried to adopt a habit where the night before the weekly meeting, if you have an agenda, item or topic, you've got to submit it. You know, we use Trello and we're engineers, so this stuff is all this, send it here and it'll populate somewhere and isn't it great.

Universal workplace: Focus on team wellbeing

Rajesh Anandan:
But the format we try to use is first give people a heads up, right? So put the thing on the agenda before the meeting and then provide the context, you know, do you want a discussion? Do you want a decision? Like, what is the purpose of this? And then what is the context, you know, that I need to know in order to have an informed conversation about the decision or about to meet and then you know, wellbeing obviously it's important particularly because we're distributed. It's impossible to know when someone is not doing well. You can't see that someone's not doing well. You might not run into them in the hallway. You won't see them stressed out at their desks. And so it's really important to not only sort of measure wellbeing. Like we have our bot that's getting a pulse check of the team every day.

Rajesh Anandan:
But also de-stigmatize mental health as much as possible, make it okay to take time off. You know, everybody in the company has to go through a part of onboarding is just going through a workshop around managing stress and anxiety. We have access to as a standard for, you know, kind of part of the resources everyone has access to. We have access to a mental health services provider where you can have therapy sessions or counseling sessions. We have a team forum every couple of weeks. That's hosted by a life coach that that we work with. And that's a safe forum for people to just share concerns that they have with a group of peers in a moderated way. A life coach has office hours that you can sign up for one-on-one and all of this stuff around wellbeing, we try to make it provide lots of possible ways you can get help and we try to make it really easy to ask for help, and we try to make it okay that you need help.

Rajesh Anandan:
And kind of diffuse a lot of the stigma around mental health by talking openly about it at a all-staff meeting a couple of months ago, we had a member of the leadership team, very openly share about some of the mental health challenges that they're struggling with to just create the sense among the team that this is, you know, this is okay, and it's okay to share. It's okay to ask for help, but that takes time and creating that sort of the safety, you know, the psychological safety only happens through actions and what the team sees as sort of observes around them and and sees their peers doing, the managers, and leadership team. And that creates the safety and the feeling of safety that allows people to then actually feel safe, to ask for help or call out a mistake.

Universal workplace: Inclusion business practices

Rajesh Anandan:
And then the fourth dimension, I think the most important one here is that for us inclusion is not just a feeling. We've tried to define it for ourselves and then design inclusion into our core business practices. And this is a very different approach from most organizations where there is a defaulting to creating quote workplace accommodations for kind of team members have different needs. And to us that that's a that's not a solution. You know, that's a symptom of the problem and only a bandaid and is not a bad place to start to figure out how you need to change your practices so that that person doesn't need a special accommodation. And so we'll talk a bit more about that, but everything from how we do recruiting, not just for, you know, one group of job applicants just for everyone, or how we provide and think about learning and development, not just for one group, but for everyone and how we run our projects and our teams which we just published a paper on what we call inclusive, agile, which is just a better way to implement agile and scrum better for everyone, not just one group,

Stacia Garr:
Right? Yeah. Well, let's go there because I love the folks I'm sure want to know, you know, how do you approach let's, let's start with recruiting. So what does the talent acquisition and hiring process look like?

Objective recruiting

Rajesh Anandan:
Sure. So if you could go to the next slide there's been a fair bit of research looking at the efficacy of different recruiting techniques in predicting on the job performance. And it turns out doesn't matter, which study, you look at the most common tools that are used, like a resume review, which essentially is looking at previous work experience or a subjective kind of unstructured interview, which is right with bias are just really ineffective. You know, it turns out pattern matching the past is really hard to do, and it doesn't predict the future. And also it then actually calcifies the status quo when you leave people, you know, if someone hadn't had a shot before, they're never going to get a shot. But also we, you know, dramatically overestimate our ability as humans to spot talent. And so the reality is that whether you look at years of work experience or other things that are looking at the past, like reference checks, these have no correlation with, on the job performance.

Rajesh Anandan:
Unstructured interviews are almost useless not as useless as years of work experience. And then when you start getting to structured interviews, you know, asking the same set of questions of every candidate, and then before you start interviews, you have a scoring rubric that defines what a good answer is. So that you're just trying to constrain the natural human bias that will kick in, it's everyone, and there's no way around it. You can't train it out of people but you could try to put some guard rails to minimize it. So structured interviews can be helpful, but most helpful are observing and actually evaluating someone's work and someone's abilities. And so you could call that a job test. And so at Ultranauts, we use job tests for all applicants for all roles, because it's just a better way to more objectively understand if someone's going to be able to do the job. We of course do use interviews, but they're all structured.

Rajesh Anandan:
And they come in toward the middle of the process, not at the beginning where you have no data. And they're focused on really trying to dive deeper into someone's interests and motivations to understand whether that aligns with the core work to be done and the nature of that work. Because we want people who are going to be excited and driven and motivated to do the job they're being hired for. And again, this is not just for, you know, autistic applicants that have to do job tests. You'd never do that with like set of a program where all your female applicants have to do this very different process, right? You just wouldn't do that. You shouldn't do that for any group because if the process can be better, it would be better for everyone. And so the one thing I would say on this is when it comes to job tests it's not only for technical roles.

Rajesh Anandan:
Of course, most people we hire we're hiring for a quality analyst or quality engineer role, but we use job tests for everyone. So we may be the only company in the world that hired a head of growth and sales, where the, you know, applicants had to take job test, because let me tell you if you're, you know, decent in any kind of sales role, surely you can have a convincing conversation, but that says nothing about your ability to, you know, strategically dissect a market opportunity or creatively and quickly get to a senior decision maker. But these are the things you could test. It's easy enough to construct, you know, a test or a simulation that allows you to observe and see how someone's able to do that, which is going to be a whole lot more accurate than asking them questions and getting really convincing answers.

Stacia Garr:
So we had a question come in through chat about potential recruiters reservations around structured interviews. So a sense that they don't have the choice to ask the questions they want to. So is that something you all have encountered? And if so, how have you addressed it?

Rajesh Anandan:
So part of this is you do need to be able to kind of go deep into someone's strengths and interests because really, you know, the whole process is less about finding reasons not to hire someone it's just really to understand what they bring to the table. What are they going to add? What are the strengths that they haven't and do those lineup with the job to be done? I would say, you know, first, even just starting with the job description, like we try to unpack the role into the actual requirements of the job and, you know, work backwards from there. Like what, what are the skills you need or the competencies you need. And then to the extent that has very specific requirements around experience, we fleshed that out. But when you do that, you're able to and then for each of those requirements, how will we validate that requirement?

Rajesh Anandan:
So some of those map back to things where we're trying to validate in an interview, some of those map two things, we're going to validate through a work simulation or a job test. And so the focus of the interview then is to try to drill down on those attributes. We're trying to validate in that interview. And so, yeah, we start with sets of questions, and then the recruiters do have the flexibility to go add questions, but, but they've got to cover a minimum set of common questions because otherwise there isn't, you know, it's much harder to compare across interviewers certainly, or, or even with the same interviewer across across applicants.

Stacia Garr:
Right. Okay. Makes sense. I'm just conscious of time. So I want to make sure we move on because you mentioned learning and career development in, in your approach to that as well. So can we talk a bit about how do you think about that a bit differently than maybe a traditional organization does?

Rajesh Anandan:
Sure. you know, as a professional services firm creating an environment that allows for and supports continuous learning and creates the conditions for accelerated learning are mission critical. Doesn't matter, you know, what skills you come in with 18 months later, those are out of date. So having a kind of engine that's continuously building our capabilities on our team is absolutely missing critical. So everybody who comes into the firm in, you know, in our core delivery team, which is 90% of our employees. So we haven't done this for everyone, but it's covers our core services delivery team all the analysts, all the engineers, all the managers has what we call a learning path that they are currently on and they know what learning path they're going to be doing next and a learning path to simply sort of a micro kind of module that tightly coupled theory and practice and is designed for neuro diversity.

Design for neurodiversity

Rajesh Anandan:
And if you go to the next slide we've sort of been on this journey to redefine how corporate training happens because most corporate training doesn't work. We know that doesn't actually impart skills and then it's particularly unhelpful for learners who are neuro diverse. And thanks to my colleague, Nicole Radziwill, who in addition to running large scale engineering teams and being a data scientist is professor data sciences is near divergent and she's been sort of authoring an architecting, our approach to learning. We call it designed for neuro diversity. It has a few very specific principles, and we apply that to how we create curriculum and learning experiences. And so that's table stakes, but most organizations just put up, you know, a one hour video when you're supposed to learn something. You know, you've got to create learning experiences that are self-paced that are actually designed for engagement.

Rajesh Anandan:
You've got to have hands-on practical exercises coupled with the content in micro modules versus like study this thing for, hours and hours and hours, and then you have one exercise at the end. Like that's not how learning happens. And those activities need to actually tie back to your day job. So it's relevant. So you can actually ingest internalize it. And then some very specific things around how we design for accessibility and kind of different learners. But everybody, you know, on our delivery teams has a learning path that they're on. They know what they're going to do next. And this is framed around what we call a launch pad. It's acute, you know, we're Ultranaut, so everybody's a launchpad, but it's your personalized learning path. And we're at startup, right? We don't have a lot of resources and yet we've made this important enough because it's mission critical that we create this environment around continuous learning. And so everybody who comes in you know, as part of their onboarding has a launch pad that ties to like, where do you want to go? Like, what is the aspiration? What is the role you're trying to work towards and then work backwards from there to where you today, what is the learning path you need to take now? And what's the one you need to take next?

Stacia Garr:
Yeah, that's great. Question that came in was round just, you know, there's obviously a lot of technical skills that people need to develop and use. But what about the non-technical skills? So are you, is there kind of a specific thought and effort that you put around your learning and development efforts to enable people to focus on you know, potentially things like active listening or communicating more effectively or something like that that you think is, you know, important so that all of the audiences, all of the diversity in your team can be affect, you know, feel included.

Rajesh Anandan:
So to us, that's not a question of training, it's more a question of systems because, you know, it's like you can have all the workshops you want people go back to their desk and behave exactly the same that they did before. And so, as we think about aligning on the way in which we work and communicate and treat each other we think in systems and tools, right? So very organically from one of our projects emerged a different way of implementing agile and scrum because it turns out while agile was designed to be inclusive. In fact, it is not. And so because on our teams, right, we're running agile scrum teams where we'll be brought in by fortune 500 firms to build test automation, frameworks, or do data quality audits across the enterprise. It's complex technical work, it's moving fast, we've got a wide range of communication preferences.

Rajesh Anandan:
You know, we've got a significant portion of the team with selective mutism and don't speak. We have a significant portion of the team who have auditory processing challenges. We have a significant portion of the team who have severe anxiety or workplace PTSD. And so we're running teams that have all of that stuff going on. And so it's important that the way in which we run and manage teams and manage work and communicate allows everyone to be able to contribute and participate. So very basic things like, you know whenever we have a interaction like a standup meeting or a town hall meeting you can always participate in chat. You can send in your questions or suggestions beforehand. So you don't have to think on the spot, things are transcribed. So if you're having trouble hearing and following along, you don't have to text your brain for that. You can just consume the information in a way that works for you. That's the simple stuff, and it's surprising that this isn't universal, right?

Feedback- My Biodex

Rajesh Anandan:
The more interesting stuff is around things like feedback, you know? So it turns out that the way, most managers are taught actually doesn't really work for most people. So like, you're always taught when you're giving critical feedback, give it in the moment in a live conversation, sandwiched by positive affirming comments. Well, it turns out for our team and I would guess for most people, most teams that's not optimal, you know, it really depends. But then how do you have an effective way to give feedback? If it depends? It depends. It's not an announcement. So we've built in the ability to very quickly look up someone's feedback preferences. So that it's a one single command in Slack to pull up someone's feedback references. If you're about to have a conversation where you're going to share some feedback as a peer or a manager and we've made, you know, we productize that into what we call the Biodex, which came out of a simple kind of thought from a team member a few years ago, who said something like, you know, like it never really figured out how to work with some of the members of my team. I wish humans came with a user manual. And so we said, yes, wouldn't that be nice? And so that's evolved into what we now call the Biodex. It's got 20 odd fields, and these are all things you should know about me about how to work productively together, including my preferences around receiving critical feedback.

Stacia Garr:
I think we have a screenshot of that. Don't we in the deck?

Rajesh Anandan:
Yes. I think if you click maybe to the next.

Rajesh Anandan:
The slide after that.

Stacia Garr:
Yeah.

Rajesh Anandan:
Yeah. So you know, that's the simple bot screen that you can look up if you want to look up someone's feedback preferences. And I would say, you know because of the way in which we work and having these systems and tools and process it also allows us to really surface the strengths people bring. It doesn't constrain us, you know, all of the systems and process and tools simply take away a lot of the stuff that might otherwise be really taxing or alienating, which then frees up a lot more brain cycles in bandwidth for the real work to add value to clients and to innovate in our own practice. And so there's an example of that, certainly the Biodex which is now a bot, and we released it to a group of alpha users because anytime we described this, every team says, Oh my gosh, I want the Biodex.

Rajesh Anandan:
I'm like, yes, yes, we'll get around to it. You know, we're not a software developer, we're not a product firm, but we can cobble together a product. And, another kind of example of just taking what we're doing for ourselves and you know, making that useful to others. And in this case, as an actual service, is a service we launched last year that we call talent bias detection, which essentially is taking all of our capabilities and techniques around auditing data and understanding data called, usually a chief data officer or chief digital officer might bring us in to do an enterprise data quality audit or to build kind of automated quality checks into their information supply chain so you can trust what you're getting on the other side and all of this, the same sort of skills and techniques applied to interrogating the data exhaust being generated throughout the employee life cycle turns out can be incredibly helpful to surface patterns of bias and actually bring a data driven point of view to the conversation around, great you want to improve equity in the workplace? Where do you start? Where do you actually make those investments?

Stacia Garr:
Yeah. Yeah. And we've talked a lot about that type of work in the DEIB tech research that we've done in and how you that can both help us understand what's happened in the past, but potentially be able to flag when that bias is happening in the moment for folks.

Rajesh Anandan:
Absolutely. And so, you know, simple use case of that is performance reviews. So we're, you know, a couple of engagements we're doing are around essentially building bias detection and running just you know, normally you might run some simple word association and well, we've got 20 different sort of techniques to do that, to really go deep in a much more precise way. And once we do that audit because we're engineers, we're building those quality checks so that they can run automatically every time there's a review cycle and go from sort of surfacing patterns of bias into being able to raise a red flag or an individual performance review that has sort of a high likelihood of bias. So it's much more actionable and kind of real time.

Stacia Garr:
Yeah. Great. Well, I know we are just about at time, so I'm going to move as just here to the end and want to encourage folks to get in touch either with, with me or with Rajesh. I guess just a final thing you mentioned with this bias, bias identification that you're now doing some work helping other companies, do you want to spend just a moment kind of wrapping us up and telling us about what you're doing there before we let folks go?

Rajesh Anandan:
Sure. You know as you might imagine, it's very sensitive work. And so there's not a lot I can share other than to say, the core problem that we're helping companies with is that, you know, most companies have made very serious commitments to tackling inequity in the workplace across different dimensions, including race. There are a lot of sort of hypotheses around how to do that. And no shortage of advice you can get. But very little evidence in terms of, you know, what actions can have the greatest impact. And so we've narrowed in on a few different aspects of the employee life cycle, like performance reviews, or kind of these employee practices, talent practices, performance review is being one kind of leadership, potential identification being another succession. So, and we're able to go in understand sort of the processes that contribute to that outcome of like a performance review or promotion decision, and then apply a whole range of different techniques, including analyze the actual text looking for over a dozen different types of bias in helping companies build essentially a lexicon of biased words.

Rajesh Anandan:
And, and the reason this is hard to do with sort of an automatic ML tool is it's so company specific, right? And so there's a bit of work to be done in the context of the company taking the time to actually understand the specific processes and nuances in order to start kind of building that talent bias audit of a performance review process. And then from there, honestly, it's fairly straightforward to automate that audit or those bias checks, so that every time you have a review process or every time you've got a, you know, leadership potential discussion, that's got an output of documentation that you can run the same sort of analysis and just spot the red flags. It's never going to answer the question in a yes or no way, but it certainly helps you figure out where to focus.

Stacia Garr:
Yeah, definitely. Well, wonderful. Thank you so much for coming on and sharing your story with us and with folks who are listening today and who will listen on recording as well. We really appreciate it and good luck to you and your journey of continuing this work and in sharing it with others. Thank you so much.

Rajesh Anandan:
Stacia thanks so much for having me.

Stacia Garr:
Thank you. Bye-Bye.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stacia Garr

Stacia is a Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research and focuses on employee engagement/experience, leadership, DE&I, people analytics, and HR technology. A frequent speaker and writer, her work has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal as well as in numerous HR trade publications. She has been listed as a Top 100 influencer in HR Technology and in D&I. Stacia has an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree from the London School of Economics.

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