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Whether or not we embrace diversity is not just a choice about how we treat others. Ross Smith FRSA argues that our ability and willingness to do so will determine the future of our institutions, workplaces and markets.

Our world is changing. The information revolution – and all that falls under its influence: communications technology, education, cultural awareness, travel, mobility and migration, economics, and global growth – are all contributing to changing the way we live. We shop in local stores and buy goods from faraway lands. We regularly dine on food prepared from recipes originating from all across the planet. Our workforce is more diverse than at any other time in history. We are in the midst of rapid technological innovation; what was once considered magic is now everyday practice.  

All of these changes have put pressure on companies to be more innovative. The marketplace no longer consists of products and services from down the road. Products made across the planet sit next to each other on the shelves of the super store. How can firms compete within this context? We know the answer is to innovate, but how do we build the innovative organisations we need?

Twenty years of research indicates that diverse work teams outperform homogenous teams on several dimensions. The most successful 21st century organisations will rely on innovative, creative thinking to differentiate themselves.

Cognitive diversity is literally the definition of creativity. A more diverse workforce will expand a team’s creative capabilities. A diverse group that can view a problem or challenge with a set of unique perspectives, interpretations, heuristics, predictive models, and reflections will absolutely make for a better outcome. As US CTO Megan Smith suggests: “All of the math shows that products are better, companies are better, financial performance; everything is better with a diverse team."

And as James White, President and CEO of Jamba Juice argued, bringing these assets to bear requires leadership: “The best leaders will leverage and exploit diversity to help make their organisations more relevant and sustainable… Their workforce will view the world differently. They will come up with better solutions and be more effective in the market by seeing the opportunities that others in the industry do not see.”

Leaders must build teams with diverse perspectives, backgrounds, skills, disciplines, behaviours, personality types, habits, cognitive approaches, age, culture, gender, and other differentiating traits.  Most people believe that innovation requires smarter people, better ideas. That premise, though intuitive, omits what may be the most powerful but least understood force for innovation: Diversity.

We live in a world now where our differences are no longer segmented geographically, socially, generationally or culturally. The greatest creative thinking will come from radically different people coming together through social media and/or other channels and ingesting the thoughts of others to alter their thoughts. Over the last 10,000 years, we have grown as a species by incorporating and blending the advances of others into our learning. Stereotypes cause us to generalise and miss out on creativity; the 21st century innovator will rock the world by discerning the outlier!

Stereotypes are shortcuts that we take to reduce the complexity our brains face in trying to process incoming signals. You can find exercises online to demonstrate how the brain has a blind spot. The blind spot is on an optic nerve head and the brain has no information about what’s there, so it makes it up based on the rest of what it sees. This is what the brain does with familiarity and stereotyping. As we become aware of personal stereotypes, we can self-correct.

Leaders have the responsibility to create a strong bond of trust on the team. There is a natural human trait, present since caveman days, where our reptilian brains were taught to immediately recognise and distance ourselves from those who did not look like us. This is a survival trait that serves our safety and security.

Great teams trust one another. All innovative behaviors – freedom to fail, altruism, experimentation – require a high trust environment. The first step is to identify the behaviours that influence trust. There may be cases where a given behaviour may increase trust for one group and decrease for another. Identifying these tensions will help move the team culture forward.  

The value of a diverse team comes full circle when we understand and provide for our customers. The world is comprised of customers or constituents from very different backgrounds, cultures and perspectives. Customer needs are going to be quite varied, and if the team does not have broad and unique perspectives, how will it be possible to garner the empathy to build great things? A diverse team makes this problem much easier. Yes, market research, interviews, customer feedback can all help, but having a team member who lives in that world will be much more efficient and effective, especially with activities such as market research.

So where can we start? A few thoughts. First, find similarities and differences across multiple dimensions of your team and bond over the similarities and celebrate the differences. Second, deliberately hire people who have different traits. Third, invest time to identify behaviors that influence trust. Fourth, allow time for the culture to create itself and accelerate this by spending time together. Finally, ensure a team truly understands their customers and see the value of eradicating uniformity and bringing in new perspectives.

A fellow Fellow, Charles Dickens, once said: “There is a wisdom of the head, and a wisdom of the heart.” If you have read this far, yours is a wisdom of the heart. Now let’s build together through RSA to make a difference in the world….

 

Ross Smith, FRSA, isDirector of Engineering and Skype Translator at Microsoft Skype Division. He is one of the authors of The Practical Guide to Defect Prevention, a member of the leadership council for the Anita Borg Institute and was part of the organising committee for TEDxSeattle. Email Ross at rosss@42projects.org and find him on LinkedInTwitterSkype, and Facebook.  Find out more about 42 Projects and read more of Ross' blogs here.

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