You may have heard of the Law of Attraction, which holds that like attracts like, or the phrase birds of a feather flock together. 'This couldn’t be more true to human nature, be it in a social or professional setting. We walk into a room full of people and somehow find ourselves talking to individuals we know already, or people they know. We invite like-minded colleagues to brainstorm with us. We put colleagues we get on well with in our teams. This isn’t surprising; there’s comfort in what we like.
But this also means that you’re not injecting alternative thinking into your projects, or, at the very least, not exploring as many pathways as you can. A group of men will approach problem-solving very differently from a group of women. A team of engineers will tackle new ideas very differently from writers and designers. A group of experts is a powerful asset to be sure, but experts come with egos, preconceived notions, and a host of best practices and insights that can hurt innovation. How can you ensure your teams are exploring as many possibilities as they can when problem-solving or developing new ideas? How do you help intact teams become more intersectional? How do you introduce diversity without creating personnel conflicts?
THE MORE DIVERSITY YOU BRING TO YOUR TEAM, THE GREATER YOUR CHANCES OF FINDING GROUNDBREAKING INNOVATION.
There are several easy strategies for this, but it takes a conscious effort to undo a lifetime of seeking commonality and comfort, for diversity and possible discomfort. In the workplace, look for diversity across many dimensions. Aside from social identifiers such as gender, background and ethnicity, also look at experience, expertise, function, role, tenure at the firm, or even the office someone is working in. If you have an intact team already, invite someone from outside your team, perhaps from different a function, to participate in a meeting-if only for 15 to 20 minutes.
Prep them ahead to maximize the time you have with them. If you’re creating temporary teams for short-term projects, recruit individuals who are as diverse as possible across the dimensions mentioned above. If you’re hiring new talent for your team, do not limit candidates to the obvious. One way to do this is to not start with the resume; instead, a short application with atypical questions can be used to make the first cut in your selection process.
Whatever the state of your team, it is not enough to have diversity in numbers. Creating an open, inclusive dynamic is critical to getting contributions, insights, ideas, and perspectives from individuals to meet the challenge at hand. The more diversity you bring to your team, the greater your chances of finding groundbreaking innovation.
Famous paleontologist and anthropologist Louis Leakey had been studying primate behavior in East Africa for many years, and was looking for a personal assistant to help him organize his research notes and presentations. When he hired Jane Goodall-who had nothing to recommend her by way of field experience other than a love of the outdoors-he realized that someone with no training in anthropology or ethnology could bring a fresh perspective to primate observation. He sent Goodall to the Gombe National Reserve in Tanzania for two years of intensive study of the chimpanzees there, convinced that he wanted someone “with a mind uncluttered and unbiased by theory” and someone who would make observations based on her desire to know more, rather than to prove a theory. The risk paid off, and Jane Goodall’s groundbreaking work on this primate community changed the world’s perceptions of the man-primate link, and made her a legend.
London’s commuting service, Transportation for London (TfL)- also known as the lifeline for the city—has adopted diversity, both for its customers and employees. A study by TfL revealed that though women used public transport more than men, the services, were not designed with women’s needs and preferences in mind. One important finding was that many women did not feel safe when travelling at night. TfL took measures, and made sure there was better lighting, more visible staff, and fewer walking passages underground. Another observation was that many female customers travel with strollers or bags of groceries, which was difficult and uncomfortable. As a result of the survey, TfL made changes that facilitated traveling under these conditions. Naturally, these changes made traveling easier and more pleasant for other travelers as well, not just women. Interestingly, men also felt safer traveling at night after these changes were made, even though there had been no complaints from men about feeling unsafe before. Because of the good results from this effort, TfL decided to increase the number of female employees—they were underrepresented in the organization and the latter believed that that had led to a deficit in insights. The results also made them focus on the needs of several different minority groups to find better solutions and practices-it is simply an effective way of improving their services for ALL travelers.
Danish toy manufacturer Lego resurrected itself from sheer bankruptcy to rebuild its stature as the most iconic name in toy business by relooking some of their existing strategies. They began by forging diversity in the very fabric of the organization to energize creativity and make innovation a more natural, organic process. They hired specialists from diverse backgrounds and fields to create cultural diversity, while reinforcing gender diversity by recruiting women employees at senior levels. These efforts helped create a dynamic and competitive work environment for a creative workforce to thrive and innovate. They range from programmers and marketers to product managers, who collaborate to develop bigger and better ideas, not just to create innovative products, such as digital games Portal Racers and Lego Fusion, but to also disrupt existing markets.
Moving beyond, Lego leveraged on diversity to engage with customers and gain great insights into what they wanted. It built an innovation platform for its fans to submit ideas for new toys, which was then reviewed by Lego marketers and designers. In fact, the Lego 'Research Institute' toy set was developed post a seven-year-old Lego fan’s appeal that he was highly disappointed because “there were more Lego boys and hardly any Lego girls”. It compelled Lego to re-evaluate its product line that until then was skewed towards boys. Geophysicist Ellen Kooijman developed the kit, which included a miniature astronomer, chemist and paleontologist, and Lego’s first female scientist figurines. Taking diversity a step ahead, Lego ensured that the mini figures in the set had a standard hue. The idea was to ensure that Lego figures are acceptable all over the world and fans are able to assign their own individual roles.
DICE (now part of Electronic Arts) developed the multi-award winning game called Mirror’s Edge, by literally bringing together diverse aspects of the creative process to the same table. Tobias Dahl, lead animator at the time, brought animators, programmers, and designers to sit next to each other in the same room-as opposed to the prior set-up of being scattered across separate parts of the same building. It did not take long for the initial discomfort and hesitation with this change to be replaced with a proliferation of innovative ideas. This arrangement of diverse backgrounds created unprecedented collaboration, discussion and problem-solving at DICE. The finished product translated into the release of Mirror’s Edge, lauded by the gaming community for its uniqueness, and recognized with a number of awards.