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What diversity has to do with innovation

What Does Diversity Have to Do with Innovation?

For many, the word “diversity” brings up images of staid EEOC training or well-intended but not necessarily critical programs—the “have-to-dos” that don’t get much buy-in or enthusiastic support across the business. So it’s probably not the first word that comes to mind when you’re talking about innovation.

But here’s why it should be.

“A diverse group of people can be more innovative than a homogenous group.”

In making that statement, David Greenberg, Senior Vice President of HR for L'Oréal US, emphasized that he’s not just talking about the more traditional definition of diversity but also diversity of thought, which he says is key to how L’Oréal fosters innovation. While he acknowledges that there can be more friction and discomfort when you bring together people who think differently, “the output,” he says, “is more innovative.”

Cognitive diversity­ has been getting a lot of attention lately for this very reason. Modern business issues demand innovative thinking, especially when you consider the fact that, from market conditions to customer demographics to the problems, tasks and tools, nearly all of the variables have changed. With so much complexity, we need diverse perspectives and ideas. You can’t use old processes to fix new problems.

Our research, including the six-year study on team effectiveness conducted by the US Forest Service, as well as numerous examples from companies like Caesars/Harrahs Entertainment, has consistently shown that you get greater creative output and, ultimately, more effective solutions when you bring together heterogeneous thinking teams and give them practical tools to leverage their differences. Furthermore, mentally balanced teams consider more options, make better decisions and exceed expectations more often than homogeneous teams.

The reason is that applied creative thinking, which drives innovation, isn’t just the domain of certain people or functions. It doesn’t matter if someone prefers structured, logical thinking or expressive, free-flowing, imaginative thinking; all are necessary, not just to finding innovative solutions but, just as importantly, to successfully implementing them.

That legendary innovator Steve Jobs, who would have turned 60 last week, recognized this, and spoke about the importance of a having a balanced team:

My model for business is The Beatles. They were four guys who kept each other’s kind of negative tendencies in check. They balanced each other, and the total was greater than the sum of the parts. That’s how I see business: great things in business are never done by one person, they’re done by a team of people.

When a team has a diversity of thinking and approaches working together as a synergistic whole, it has a huge advantage. The development team working on the Kinect Adventures games at Microsoft Game Studios’ Good Science Studio is a great example.

Shannon Loftis, head of Good Science Studio, says that while in a typical design project, the creatives have the loudest voice, this wasn’t going to be a “typical” game. The project presented her with the perfect opportunity to innovate the design process and break away from traditional thinking about game design.

The Kinect Adventures team was purposefully assembled with a balance of thinking styles and then given the data, skills and tools to recognize, appreciate and take advantage of all of their thinking strengths. Not only did this “diverse by design” approach allow the team to tap into different perspectives and test new ideas, it also helped them shorten the development time because they avoided the overruns and delays that often plague design projects. The creatives and the project managers all had equal voice.

The front-end work they did was critical, though. To go back to Greenberg’s point, there can be more friction, so just having diversity on a team isn’t enough to successfully drive innovation.

Here’s what we know about cognitive diversity in teams, based on our research:

  • Heterogeneous groups can be extremely creative and successful, or they can “crash” if they fail to take the necessary steps and time to find synergy.
  • The more mentally diverse a group is, the more it needs a multi-dominant facilitator/leader to bridge between different perspectives.
  • The first step to high performance is providing team members with data on how they are similar or diverse in their thinking, and the implications for the task at hand. Too often, this step is skipped, and frustration follows.

If you want to get the innovative benefits of cognitive diversity, our advice is to start by giving team members an understanding of how they each think (using a tool like the HBDI® assessment) so they can learn about their own preferences with a clear focus on application in terms of solving real business challenges—so they know it’s not just another “feel-good” teambuilding exercise.

Then bring them together to learn about their thinking differences, how different thinking preferences can contribute to innovative ideas and solutions, and how they can complement each other and add value to the innovation process. Provide team members with tools to leverage their differences, and let them get to work on a real challenge.

Once they see that the results they get together will almost always outperform those they get separately, the conversation about diversity will take on a whole new tone.

Be sure to check out The Whole Brain® Business Book, Second Edition (available May 2015), which includes a comprehensive list of creative problem solving tools that align with each preference.

Harness the Power of Thinking Diversity

Tags: innovation, Thinking Styles, Teams, Thinking Preferences

The four-color, four-quadrant graphic, HBDI® and Whole Brain® are trademarks of Herrmann Global, LLC.

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