Innovation building blocks: diverse perspectives and voices

Innovation building blocks: diverse perspectives and voices

I’ve been writing a series of blog posts focused on some of the most fundamental building blocks.  These fundamentals are necessary to sustain innovation in corporations, and are most often overlooked or treated as an afterthought.  Some of the building blocks I’ve reviewed are:

– having a cultural bias for innovation
– encouraging discovery and exploration
– ensuring enough time, and the right kinds of time, for innovation

Today I am focusing on the importance of diversity for innovation success.  When I refer to diversity, I am speaking of a spectrum of concepts:  different perspectives, different experiences, different educations, internal and external perspectives, perspectives from people who are new to the problem as well as from experts, and so on.

Let’s first talk about why diverse voices and perspectives are so rare in many corporate innovation teams, and then look and what a little more diversity can do.

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The usual suspects

One of my favorite movies is Casablanca, and in one of the most telling scenes, the police chief acknowledges a crime has been committed and tells his men to round up the usual suspects – in other words, the same criminals they rounded up for any crime.

In many ways, innovation teams are often built this way.  Executives want the work to go well, so they round up the usual suspects to participate.  But these usual suspects aren’t criminals.  No, they are the best and the brightest.

In a corporation, the “usual suspects” are typically high performing people who have demonstrated their ability to deliver high quality outcomes at low cost, typically running an existing process or product.  These folks are tightly bound to existing rules, thought processes, markets and corporate history.

This makes them the perfect suspects if we are trying to emulate an existing product or process, and perhaps the worst  participants for an interesting innovation team.

It’s very often the case that these people are not very diverse.  When I say they aren’t diverse, I don’t mean diverse in terms of race or ethnicity, but in terms of how they think, what they know about customers or market needs, the amount of risk they are willing to bear, how creative they are when allowed to think about new ideas, their experiences and so on.

Far too often these teams are formed and have great homogeneity in the way the participants think, and that leads to limited innovation.

Let me give you an example.

Clarifier, Ideator, Developer or Implementor

I’ve used the Foursight personality model to help my customer teams gain some understanding of this issue. The Foursight model helps identify four personality types when it comes to developing a new product.  A clarifier seeks clarity – asks questions about strategy, purpose and scope.

An ideator loves to generate ideas but may not be all that committed to realizing an idea.  A developer likes to develop raw ideas as prototypes or pilots, but may not enjoy implementing the idea.  Implementors are the ones who see a prototype or pilot over the finish line to become a new product or service.

All of these capabilities are necessary for innovation.  If everyone is an ideator, it is unlikely the idea will progress to become a new product or service, as an example.

In one company where I led innovation work, and where people were assigned to the innovation team, I used the Foursight model to determine the interests and proclivities of the people on the team.  Of the 8 people on the team, seven were either developer or implementors.

This was a challenge for a team that was expected to create radical new ideas!  Only one member of the team even enjoyed generating new ideas, much less thinking creatively and divergently.  I say think not to belittle the skills of the other participants, but to note how likely it is that the “best” people are often not the right people when it comes to innovation.

The Foursight analysis represents just one aspect of diversity.  It reflects the role people like to play in an innovation activity.

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Another Example

In another case, I worked with a team creating new medical devices.  This meant we had to have people on the team who had 1) product development and engineering skills 2) business and marketing skills 3) medical experience and 4) legal skills.  This is also a diverse team, and without all of those skills on the team – working in some harmony – the project would fail.

Of course, each of these functions represents different skills and experiences, but they also have different language, different expectations and sometimes very different ways of working, so diversity does bring with it some challenges.

Diversity – of ability, race, ethnicity, education, age, experience and so many other factors is what creates truly interesting ideas.  So why don’t companies invest more and plan more for diverse teams?

There are a couple of reasons.

Why homogeneous teams are often created

While some managers and executives will recognize that diversity is important, I’d guess that at least 75% or more of the innovation teams I’ve worked with were fairly homogeneous.  There are several reasons why homogeneity is so often the case.

First, the usual suspects are often the most favored and recognized people.  Many innovation teams are staffed with people known and valued by the management team.  Dissonant voices or people not well known to the management team aren’t often included.

This reflects concerns about speed, comfort and awareness of the skills and attitudes of the individuals.  It’s logical to want to seed the team with successful people, but often these very people limit the scope of work.

Second, some innovators or people with divergent ideas or voices are considered troublemakers or malcontents, so few managers want to appoint people to teams who may create conflict. Yet many of these people have the insights or knowledge you need.

But it requires identifying the skills and vetting the members, and perhaps taking a risk on one or two team members.  Few managers like taking risks on team members in high profile projects.

Third, diverse teams often take longer to form and norm.  By their very diversity of approach and experience, it may take longer for such a team to form and norm.  But when they do, they have the chance to perform far more effectively and creatively.  Again, an issue of speed and cost.

Finally, I think there’s a real lack of understanding about the value and importance of diverse ideas and voices.  Some of that is based on how much risk and variance have been removed from business processes and management, and some is just a lack of engagement and understanding by management teams.

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Diversity – of many kinds – is a critical building block

Diverse people with widely different experiences, perspectives, education and backgrounds are more likely to spot needs, understand customers, generate newer and more valuable ideas and find the issues and challenges in an idea more quickly than more homogeneous teams.

The problem today is that building these teams is more work, takes more time and creates more risk for managers, who prefer a predictable, quick and engaged team, even if that means the opportunities for innovation are far lower.

If your team wants more and better innovation, include more people, who have more diversity of thought, perspective, experience, education and other factors, as quickly and as often as possible.

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