Lean Startup Conference Organizers Solve Gender Balance Problem

December 10, 2013 0 Comments

While so many organizations and business conferences struggle to achieve or are unwilling to look at gender balance and/or racial diversity, some folks are keeping it simple and getting it right.

In San Francisco today, hundreds of folks will gather for day 2 of the wildly popular Lean Startup conference, based on the 2011 book by the same name by tech entrepreneur Eric Ries. The conference—primarily of interest to entrepreneurs, but quickly gaining mass appeal in larger business and organizational change circles—connects entrepreneurs to learn from each other about how to build strong, customer-focused, highly adaptive businesses and organizations in a rapidly changing world, in situations of high uncertainty.

Writer and event organizer Sarah Milstein, who joined the conference as co-host with Ries last year, has taken an active role in making sure the conference speaker list is comprised of at least 50% women and people of color.

More than this, she’s written about it every step of the way, making a point to share her lessons learned and how-to guidance on gender balance with others. “If your conference has a history of homogeneity, own up to what you’ve done in the past,” Milstein says. “Talk about why you want to change it, and lay out the steps you’re taking to change your results.”

With its roots in manufacturing (and its oldest roots in the Toyota Production System), Lean has largely been a male-dominated field. Lean Startup, a spin-off movement in many ways a different thing altogether, has also struggled with gender imbalance and its own particular brand of insularity.

Here are some of Milstein’s simple, smart tips for planning a diverse conference:

  • Commit to working on the problem
  • Embrace quotas/targets
  • Be transparent
  • Pay attention to language
  • Seek out individuals from underrepresented groups
  • Ask for help
  • Offer speaker training
  • Write a code of conduct, make it available, and stick by it

Read in more detail.

One of the most powerful principles of Lean—both traditional lean thinking and practice (more of a whole-system approach to production and management, whatever the industry, with an emphasis on capability development and organizational alignment) and Lean Startup (lean thinking meets startup thinking, with a focus on the rapid testing of products and services) is this idea that problems are a good thing. Or rather, being able to see a problem and make it visible is a tremendously good thing.

The basic premise is this: if you can see a problem and are willing to wrestle with it, and more than that, work with your team to address the root cause of the problem, change your work habits, and share your learning… then maybe you actually have a chance at solving that problem. This also frees you up to spend time and energy on other things, like being creative and focusing on delivering more value to your customer (or the person on the other end of the relationship, perhaps the recipient of much-needed goods or services).

By naming the gender balance problem regarding the speaker line-up, exploring its root cause, and sharing their learning—Ries and Milstein are demonstrating lean (startup) thinking in practice. Other conference organizers, whatever their field, would be wise to follow their lead!

Learn more about the Lean and Lean Startup communities of practice and their histories here.


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