INTOUCH : Diversity drives innovation

If managers keep hiring people who look and think like themselves, they’re severely limiting their organisation’s potential to come up with new products, services or ideas.
That’s because diversity drives innovation, says visiting US consultant and author Frans Johansson. “When you combine widely different cultures, you have the best chance of coming up with ground-breaking ideas.”
In New Zealand last month as keynote speaker at the EEO Trust’s Diversity Effect Symposium Johansson explained how innovative companies have deliberately created “intersections” that bring together people of different cultures and diverse disciplines to help spark new thinking. It’s what he calls ‘The Medici Effect’, after family in renaissance Italy whose support of the arts drew many very different people to Florence and resulted in an explosion of creativity.
An intersection, he says, drastically increases the chances for unusual combinations to occur and his speech, like his book, was spiked with some great real-life examples. spider’s web/goats milk connection promises major breakthroughs for US bio-tech company while termite/construction connection has already been exploited in Harare where new office block uses principles developed by termites to do away with conventional air conditioning.
Three forces are encouraging such intersections: the movement of people, the convergence of science and the leap of computation, says Johansson. But companies can do their bit to push the process – by finding inspiration from fields or cultures other than their own, staffing for innovation, leveraging existing diversity (eg through multi-tasking, encouraging the two-way flow of ideas between HQ and outlying/offshore offices) and better managing diverse teams.
“If one person dominates, then effectively you have an homogeneous team – so encourage tolerance, respect, inclusivity. These are key criteria for managing diverse teams.”
One of the hurdles to all this is risk-averse culture – because hiring people who are different involves stepping out of one’s comfort zone.
“If you’re going to hire someone little bit different you’re enhancing the chance of coming up with new ideas and improving business performance but you’re also increasing the possibility of mistakes, so you have to be open about that,” says Johansson. “That’s difficult if top management doesn’t talk about or acknowledge failures – this is truly top down thing.”
Innovative teams or people are more productive because they don’t fear failure.
“They generate and execute more ideas but they also fail the most. We can all create intersections but the advantage goes to those who go to it with an open mind and willingness to reach beyond their field of expertise, to those who can break down barriers and stay motivated through failures. You just have to dare to step in.”
Some suggestions: start with yourself. If you’re rising star in the company, expose yourself to some diversity, says Johansson. Learn how to work in it and with it. Then try to increase the diversity of your staff and work actively to leverage the difference. As participants at the symposium discovered, there are some specific tools, techniques and methodologies for making creative connections.
“But the most persuasive argument for its effect,” says Johansson, “ is to get out there and experience it.”

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