In a rapidly changing world, organizations must innovate to survive. What many teams overlook is the importance of diversity in innovation. If you want to change the status quo, you need a diversity of perspectives — and an environment where people feel safe pitching, debating, and evolving new ideas.
Fortunately, organizations can make their workplaces and teams more diverse and inclusive. By creating a culture of acceptance and understanding, organizations cultivate cognitive diversity. From there, employees can share their diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives to pursue better thinking, decision-making, and performance.
Learn more about how diversity drives innovation, the benefits of cultivating diversity and innovation, and how to leverage cognitive diversity through Whole Brain® Thinking.
The Importance of Diversity in Innovation
Many organizations are good at executing what they already do well. They have processes, best practices, training, and talented and experienced people for those tasks and strategies. They might not need as much diversity because there’s a known way to do things — even if that status quo isn’t necessarily the best or most effective way. Certainly, those teams operate with less cognitive diversity.
Innovation requires new ways of thinking and doing things, not just new ideas. It’s less refined and messier. For your team to innovate, you need different perspectives and approaches to problem-solving. You need people who will challenge assumptions and push boundaries.
A 2020 study by the World Economic Forum found that companies that successfully implemented diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging were more innovative and realized more revenue from innovation than the market average.
Diverse and inclusive teams create an environment where people can be themselves without judgment. They’re more likely to take risks and share new ideas when that happens. They won’t accept “we’ve always done it this way,” which is essential to doing things differently and unlocking innovation.
Remember that diversity comes in many forms: race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, cultural diversity, and cognitive diversity form only a partial list. Your team members may identify with any combination of these forms of diversity.
Benefits of Fostering Innovation and Diversity in the Workplace
Here are five benefits of diversity your teams can leverage for innovation.
Increased Creativity and Problem-Solving Abilities
When people feel they can be themselves and share their unique perspectives, they're more likely to develop creative solutions to problems. Research suggests that diverse teams are better at solving problems than homogeneous teams. Additionally, diversity contributes to a culture of continuous learning where people are always looking to improve themselves and their organization.
Innovation is often a slow, deliberate process that requires much discussion, iteration, and refinement. If people feel unsafe being themselves, they won’t contribute their distinct thinking styles and preferences to the conversation. Not only does that mean fewer ideas, but it also means many ideas fail to reach their innovative potential.
When people of different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives come together, they're more likely to question assumptions and contribute fresh angles. These diverse teams have better communication, which helps them collaborate more effectively. All of this creates better innovation processes that lead to more informed decision-making.
Adaptability in the Face of Market Changes
Businesses must be able to identify and respond to new trends, changing customer preferences, and new technologies to retain market share and remain competitive. Adaptability means teams can adjust quickly, use new resources and processes, learn new things, and try new approaches.
Having different perspectives and insights on your team, especially at the leadership level, is crucial in building adaptive organizations. This trait is critical when the business gets disrupted or experiences a downturn. When the old ways aren’t working, your team needs to be able to generate new ways of thinking — often under pressure and tight timelines.
Enhanced Reputation and Brand Image
Many job candidates and employees will see organizations that promote diversity and inclusion as having a progressive and modern employer brand, which bolsters recruiting and retention efforts. The more talented your workforce, the more likely they are to develop innovations.
A strong reputation for diversity, equity, and inclusion can also help attract customers who want to support brands doing well worldwide. That enthusiasm can extend to your new ideas and innovations, as they support your cause.
Increased Employee Engagement and Retention
Employees are encouraged to bring their unique perspectives, backgrounds and experiences when a workplace is diverse.
When employees feel appreciated and included in decision-making, they're more likely to stay with the organization. And the longer they stay, the more they bring their experience and knowledge to bear on optimizing existing work and contributing to new ideas and initiatives.
Leveraging Cognitive Diversity in the Workplace
Cognitive diversity is the term used to describe the range of perspectives, skills, knowledge, and experience that people bring to an organization or team. Cognitive diversity is essential to innovation.
Organizations need to be aware of the different thinking processes within their teams to leverage cognitive diversity. Tools such as the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI®) assessment can identify people’s thinking preferences as part of the Whole Brain® Thinking model.
Whole Brain® Thinking is an advanced representation of thinking preferences in people and organizations. Four quadrants represent it: analytical (Blue), structural (Green), relational (Red), and experimental (Yellow). Specific characteristics and tendencies mark each quadrant. Everyone thinks in all four quadrants, and there are no rankings of quadrants or thinking styles.
Whole Brain® Thinking provides insight into people’s cognitive processes, preferences, and defaults so they can be more deliberate and understand other people’s thinking.
Teams that take and share the HBDI® can get to know each other better, introduce cognitive diversity into their work, and begin to leverage it. Here are a few ways leaders can use cognitive diversity to connect diversity to innovation in their teams and organizations.
Encourage Employees to Share Ideas and Perspectives
The best ideas come from communication, connection, and collaboration. Leaders set the tone for team interactions and whether employees can express their ideas and be heard.
One way to encourage your employees is by hosting a collaborative brainstorming session. There are many ways to conduct these brainstorming activities, but they’re always designed to facilitate problem-solving while involving everyone in the group.
Leaders must convey that no constructive idea is a bad idea. When people feel empowered to speak their minds, you have a greater chance to generate diverse ideas — and develop them through open, honest, and constructive feedback and iteration.
Everyone doesn’t share their ideas in the same way or from the same perspective. Some people prefer to talk through ideas, often as they come to mind. Other people want to reflect before presenting, whether verbally or in writing. Still, others like to convey their ideas visually. Some team members might emphasize data and analytics (Blue), while others want to focus on interpersonal effects (Red).
Use Cognitive Diversity to Identify and Solve Complex Problems
Provide your employees with opportunities to learn from each other by encouraging ideas, especially if they are outside the box. In the Whole Brain® Thinking framework, this is quintessential Yellow thinking — experimental, often abstract, and intuitive.
While you might expect to see that type of approach in entrepreneurial thinking, even the oldest and most established teams can unlock their Yellow thinking preference. From there, you can mold those experimental ideas with analytical (Blue), detail-oriented (Green), or people-first (Red) thinking from the people on your team who gravitate to those preferences. That’s the cognitive diversity that your team needs to make a habit.
Address Unconscious Bias for Better Outcomes
Embracing cognitive diversity helps leaders improve decision-making. Their teams consider all possibilities, stakeholders, and possible effects of their actions. Because innovation is novel, you can’t predict every outcome, but you can account for the cognitive bias within your team and its thinking.
Unconscious bias is implicit and unavoidable. We all suffer from this because of our lived experiences and backgrounds. Having an unconscious bias doesn’t make us bad people. So while teams shouldn’t judge or condemn people (or themselves) for this bias, they can work to recognize and respond to it.
Cognitive diversity reduces unconscious bias by introducing different perspectives and thought processes into the workplace. This can broaden the conversations’s scope and provide new ways of looking at the problem. Additionally, cognitive diversity reduces “groupthink” when group decisions are driven by shared opinions and social pressures rather than facts d. It’s easy to see how innovation gets stifled when there’s neither diversity nor accounting for unconscious bias.
How to Foster Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace
If you want innovation to be informed and magnified by diversity, you must start by building diverse and inclusive teams. Here are a few ways to support diversity and inclusion at work.
Establish a Measurable Diversity and Inclusion Strategy
Many organizations make pledges about diversity and inclusion but struggle to follow up, much less define success in measurable ways. Any plan to increase diversity must determine where your organization currently stands, the desired goal, how progress will be defined and measured, and how the strategy will be implemented.
Diversity and inclusion initiatives need high-profile champions in the organization and the proper budget and resources to carry them out. Employees need to understand what’s happening, why it’s happening, and what role they play in increasing diversity and inclusion.
Provide Unconscious Bias Training for Employees
Employees can’t be expected to know everything about diversity and inclusion, including unconscious bias, how it manifests, and what people can (and should) do about it. Training can help explain this concept. Any such training should connect the effects of unconscious bias to work outcomes, showing employees that recognizing and reducing such bias is good for them, their co-workers, and the business.
Provide real-world examples of how unconscious bias can be addressed. Create space for employees to ask questions, during training sessions and afterward. Incorporate this training into onboarding and periodic refresher courses for leaders and employees so they continue to recognize its importance.
Encourage a Culture of Openness and Respect
Organizations are composed of workers from different backgrounds and with different experiences, cultural traditions, thinking preferences, and goals. Those differences represent diversity and opportunity, but teams can only achieve inclusion when everyone respects each other as human beings and recognizes everyone’s unique values.
A culture of openness and respect doesn’t mean people don’t disagree or see situations differently. But it reinforces how people respectfully navigate those differences in pursuit of common goals.
Create Employee Resource Groups
Employee resource groups (ERGs) are valuable resources for increasing diversity and inclusion in the workplace. They create communities for employees who need support, guidance, and a safe space to express themselves and be heard.
ERGs can also help organizations learn more about the needs of groups within the employee population and solicit ideas that improve the workplace and foster innovation.
Provide Mentoring and Sponsorship Opportunities for Underrepresented Groups
Mentoring and sponsorship programs allow employees to grow and develop through the wisdom and guidance of experienced co-workers. Formal mentoring programs help overcome structural barriers, such as leaders promoting and developing people similar to them rather than assessing characteristics that correlate to workplace effectiveness.
Track and Publish Diversity Data
Organizations that struggle to improve diversity and inclusion often do so because they fail to measure their activities — or share those with the workforce and even the public.
Visibility into diversity efforts encourages greater accountability for organizations and leaders. Even if the goals haven’t been achieved, leaders can highlight progress and how they plan to close the gaps. Making diversity data public can help demonstrate an organization’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, which benefits the brand’s reputation among customers, job candidates, and other stakeholders.
Spark Innovation by Embracing Diversity
If organizations fail to innovate, they should examine whether they have a diverse organization where people and their ideas are included.
The hard work is in creating a culture of diversity and inclusion. Start by setting clear, measurable goals and best practices. Then train your managers and employees, hold them and yourself accountable, and report on your progress. As you add diversity and help people feel included, you’ll gradually see that teams feel more comfortable with each other. Increased trust and collaboration within teams will create better thinking, decisions, and outcomes. That’s how organizations realize the benefits of innovation and diversity.
Embracing diversity is just one way to increase innovation among your teams. Learn why inclusive leadership is essential to innovation.