Building a diverse workforce is the secret to having a more innovative and decisive team, officials from the Defense Information Systems Agency’s (DISA) and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) said during an AFCEA NOVA webinar this week.

When employees bring differing experiences and opinions to the table, it can actually “spur innovation” and “improve the quality of decision making,” according to Serena Chan, the senior technical advisor of DISA’s Operations and Infrastructure Center.

“Having diverse groups means we’re less entrenched in the groupthink, which means we’re not blind to a lot of key pieces of information,” Chan said during the event. “I think homogeneity can lull people into thinking that they are making better decisions because everyone’s agreeing with each other. But when you have differing viewpoints, it can challenge each other to actually sharpen the performance of the team.”

Unconscious bias can present a barrier to bringing in diverse talent, and the Department of Defense takes unconscious bias “very seriously,” Don Means Jr., the director of DISA’s Operations and Infrastructure Center, said.

In fact, Means said DoD requires each of the services, agencies, and components to take a “stand-down day” to discuss extremism and facilitate open conversations to ensure a work environment free of discrimination, hate, and harassment.

“Everybody has biases, and it can be a very sensitive topic, but whether we’re aware of them or not, everybody has biases. It’s the way that we operate,” Means said.

One way Means’ team is working to combat biases is through a new hiring pilot in DISA’s Cyberspace Operations Directorate. Means said names were removed from resumes to prevent unconscious bias and the directorate worked hard to ensure it “had diversity across all spectrums on our panels.”

“That worked phenomenally well. We’re going to expand that to the entire center,” Means said.

As for the VA, Jolisa Dudley, the director of VA’s customer experience strategy in the Office of Resolution Management, Diversity & Inclusion (ORMDI), said her team is taking a deep dive into diversity statistics.

Dudley’s office is partnering with VA’s Veterans Experience Office as part of an identity insights project that focuses on intersectionality.

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“Very few of us are just one thing. Most of us hold multiple identities,” Dudley said. “What we want to figure out is when you come to the department, what are the identities you hold, and what are some of the bright spots or barriers that you feel are associated with those identities?”

One of the discoveries her team found through exit surveys was that women often feel as if they are not getting the recognition that they deserve in their jobs. This poses a big problem, Dudley said, especially when there are very few women in senior leadership positions at the VA.

“We’re trying to figure out what happened, what’s causing that,” Dudley said. “There are a lot of things to dissect and go through on this, but we’re extremely excited about it.”

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Grace Dille
Grace Dille
Grace Dille is MeriTalk's Assistant Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.