Why diversity is important to innovation

Why diversity is important to innovation

We’ve just finished the 11th Annual Innovate Carolina conference, and since this is the year of COVID we held a virtual conference rather than our traditional in person event. It was good to spend time talking about innovation and hearing from others who had different experiences, rather than focusing on the illness and all the negative reporting.

We had a good turn out and I think a good panel of speakers, and I found that even though I’ve been doing innovation related work for over 15 years there are still plenty of things to learn.

I’ve long believed in the concept of diversity and what a strong and diverse team can bring to an innovation program. But we had some compelling discussions today that stretched my thinking.

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Diversity is itself diverse

When we talk about diversity we often fall into a trap, thinking that we can create diverse teams by ensuring there are people of different ethnicities on the team.  While different people from different backgrounds or races do bring new perspectives, diversity is far more, well, diverse, than just ethnicity or race.  From our talk today it incorporates:

  • Personality types – using Myers-Briggs or other assessments to find introverts and extroverts, hard-headed factual thinkers and people directed by emotion.
  • People with different levels of experience.  Blending a team of experts with people who are encountering the problem or challenge for the first time means that not everyone brings all of their experience, or history, to solving the problem.  Some naive observers may wonder why the problem exists at all.
  • People from different functional areas.  One speaker noted that engineers are convergent thinkers, hammers looking for a nail.  As a recovering engineer, I can say that’s not true of all engineers but it is a reasonable expectation.  Engineers look at problems differently than do people from a legal function, and differently again from people in medicine, or procurement.
  • Blending people of different ages.  If we asked how to overcome boredom forced upon us by staying at home, younger people who are more facile with technology may answer one way, while older people who grew up with fewer technologies and had to “create their own fun” would probably arrive at different answers
  • People with disabilities.  In one of my favourite talks, Lindsey Braciale from Advocations in Charlotte talked about a market that goes unnoticed – people with different abilities or disabilities – and their innate ability to innovate, because they often are forced to.  Yet many innovations intended for this smaller segment work their way quickly into the general population.
  • The emerging diversity of smart machines, AI, robots and other digital transformation.  Our speaker – Ken Hubbell from Wells Fargo – asked us to consider if it is unethical to NOT tell your employer that your AI or machine learning algorithm is actually doing your job.  We are already engaging smart machines and predictive analytics to make decisions, and soon AI or other smart devices will work alongside us.  Are you ready for the diversity of a transhuman workforce?

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The problem with a diverse team

However, we also know that without a lot of social engagement and team building, a truly diverse team can be difficult to manage, because each of these categories has different ways of looking at a problem and different ways of creating solutions.

Rarely does any innovation team take a truly holistic view toward solving a problem.  Instead, most teams are formed by people who are already comfortable working in a shared context and model.

Working with a really diverse team will take more time, to socialize the team and get everyone on-board and comfortable with a shared approach.  This places more responsibility on the team leader, who may not be familiar with managing so many different perspectives.

We need better leadership and facilitation skills, in order to recruit more diverse teams, in order to do better and more proficient innovation work.  Instead, we settle for limited scope and homogeneous teams.

COVID as a discontinuity

It remains to be seen how different business operations will be after the COVID pandemic, but one can imagine that innovation will be more relevant in the future, because of operational and business model changes required by COVID, and the need for new perspectives and ideas will be high.

Companies that revert to old models – assembling the usual suspects, organizing a limited investigation or discovery and generating the same old ideas – will be disappointed in the results.

Now is the time to consider new team structures and new participation, which will require more upfront team development but will lead to better ideas.

Successful digital transformation is a matter of know how and access to the best talent. We connect you to both.Click for more.

Jeffrey Phillips Digital Transformation

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