Overview: Diversity in your innovation team is crucial for finding unique ideas, improved decision-making, and better execution of those ideas. To add diversity, though, will require more than just asking people to pitch in on teams.
Why Diversity Matters
Pride Month emphasizes that different perspectives have always been key to innovation. In many cases, the solution to a problem is often found by looking at it from a different angle.
However, no matter how flexible our thinking, how we view the world is as much shaped by the outside forces around us as it is by our personal experience. That makes recruiting a diverse group, in every respect, particularly crucial, for three reasons.
Finding Unique Ideas
Life experiences tend to shape an approach to a problem and help find the right one. A good example is polar explorer Roald Amundsen. While Amundsen had plenty of experience navigating tundra and polar areas. When he arrived in Canada and met the local Inuit tribes, he learned their language and bartered not for food or supplies, but for knowledge. It was something previous European explorers had lacked the courage, or ability to swallow their pride, to even consider.
In fact, that had been an ongoing problem in Arctic exploration to that point. Many Europeans refused to even consider eating the local food, which meant bringing tons of canned food with them while ignoring local hunting practices.
The Inuit taught Amundsen how to make shelters, how to improve their mobility across the ice, and how to clothe themselves for maximum warmth and safety in cold temperatures. He and his team used this knowledge to successfully navigate the Northeast Passage for the first time and later, to reach the South Pole. Without respecting the Inuit and their knowledge, though, he likely would have died on the ice.
When groups are made of diverse people, weaker ideas are more likely to face a challenge, and more facts are included in the decision. One famous study recruited financial experts and placed them in both ethnically homogenous and ethnically diverse teams to properly price certain assets.
The diverse teams fit the market price 58% better than the homogenous ones. It turns out that the more varied groups were more likely to challenge speculation and request facts to back them up. The study mostly gained publicity for its broader social conclusions, that bubbles form in part due to social conformity. But it offers an intriguing result for those who need decisive choices in their innovation program.
Conversely, a lack of diversity can lead to outright disaster. For example, in 2007, the German company TrekStor debuted their new MP3 player, which was highly technically accomplished. But somehow got through the entire process with nobody challenging a product name that sounded like a literal hate crime.
A study by Cloverpop found that an inclusive team had 60% better results. The reason why is fairly straightforward; because the decision-making is done by a diverse team. It’s been better tested, and more possible challenges have been spotted and addressed.
Conversely, when a more similar team made the decisions and delegated them to a more diverse group, the execution was poorer. This underscores that diversity is needed throughout the innovation process, not just at one point.
Making Innovation Inclusive
Changing the makeup of your innovation team, however, requires much more than asking for volunteers in the LGTBQ community or other groups to attend meetings.
Innovation does need an overall direction in most organizations. However, that direction shouldn’t be set completely in stone. Many goals are broad enough that there are multiple paths to reach them, and a diverse organization should offer the tools to choose that path.
Keep in mind the lesson above; that a goal handed down from on high, with no feedback, is less successful. Ensure that feedback is incorporated into the process from the very beginning.
One aspect of inclusion that isn’t well-considered is that there are some aspects of diversity that people view as private. Some employees simply don’t want to discuss their medical concerns, their personal lives, or life experiences in the workplace. Respecting those boundaries is part of inclusion.
Offering tools that protect privacy and anonymity will encourage more diversity in the process. If your team knows they can be candid about their experiences without inviting conversations they don’t want, they’re more likely to offer them.
An innovation system should be accessible to everyone on the team. While having a committee to lead innovation can be useful for keeping the process on track, not everyone has the time to attend an open meeting or is willing to send an email. Look for ways to make your process accessible to everyone.
This is also good for filtering ideas. Ideas at their most basic need to be refined. No matter how good they are, and having an accessible platform for feedback can ensure a broader range of thought.
Part of collecting feedback is the implicit promise that it’ll be incorporated. Transparency in any process builds trust. But in innovation, in particular, is useful for communicating needs. If an idea doesn’t reach the execution stage, understanding why will help the entire team grasp what works better.
More importantly, if a diverse team sees that their feedback directs ideas and solves concerns with them before the idea is executed, it clearly demonstrates that you’re listening.
Part of the reason companies are hesitant around inclusion is that it may open the door to some tough conversations. Well-meaning people can discover they’ve been hurting the feelings of their coworkers by complete accident.
The companies that succeed will embrace these conversations. By understanding a variety of perspectives, it helps others incorporate them going forward and improves the decision-making process not just in innovation, but across the company.
Diversity and inclusion is always going to be present in any organization that recruits the best people for the job. However, getting the most from that diversity involves not just acknowledging LGBTQ Pride Month, and encouraging conversations, but making sure their voices are heard, on their terms.
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