Whenever a disruptive business story breaks—like Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods—the innovation mandates follow. The message: If you don’t start rethinking your game and, in some cases, even reinventing your mission, you could be the next cautionary tale, the “slow giant that failed to innovate.”
As companies focus more intently on innovation, whether it’s the big, transformational kind or smaller, incremental improvements and pivots, we’re also seeing a growing trend in recognizing the value of diversity in the innovation process. McKesson, for example, proclaimed in their 2016 Diversity & Inclusion Report, “We believe a diverse workforce is a fundamental building block for creativity and innovation.” And Apple CEO Tim Cook has said, “I think the most diverse group will produce the best product, I firmly believe that.”
But clearly it’s not as simple as all that. If it was, we’d be seeing a lot more innovative output.
The fact is, going “diverse by design” in order to innovate is hard work. It’s not just a matter of bringing diverse people together. Too often, these teams don’t have the understanding, guiding principles and tools they need to work together effectively to truly benefit from their diversity. So just having diversity isn’t the answer.
Generating breakthrough solutions isn’t always enough either. Innovation efforts don’t usually fail because no one could come up with a great, workable idea. It’s at the execution and implementation phases where things tend to fall apart. One reason? Innovation implies change, and our mindsets create resistance to change.
In other words, you’re a lot more likely to be beaten at the innovation game by internal forces than external ones. But here’s the good news: You have a lot more control over what happens inside your organization than you do the external environment.
The Missing Ingredient: Inclusive Leadership
Too often, these innovation initiatives don’t live up to their promise because the they lack a key ingredient: effective leadership—specifically, leaders who create the conditions for new insights to emerge, for diverse perspectives to be heard, and for good ideas to become great and get implemented. In other words, they lack inclusive leadership.
Inclusive leadership is essential for making sure diverse thinking is respected, managed, heard and applied. And inclusive leaders who understand how different thinkers react to change are uniquely prepared to communicate and influence in a way that gets everyone on board with new ideas and new ways of doing things.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the things inclusive leaders do to help their teams and organizations actually get to the “best product” or incremental improvement and then turn those ideas and solutions into business impact:
- Inclusive leaders engineer intentional opportunities for innovation and collaboration. They rely on data, such as diversity of thinking preferences, to design teams that are optimized for creative and innovative thinking, and then they set them up for success. This includes articulating the “why” and giving people frameworks, guidelines and a toolkit to work together effectively, consider different ideas and push each other to think in new ways.
- Inclusive leaders give “voice” to all the thinkers on a team. Cognitive diversity is a huge asset to a team, but only if every thinker gets a voice. The more diverse the team, the more important it is to have a skilled leader in place. Inclusive leaders, particularly those who are cognitively diverse in their own thinking, play a key role in minimizing unproductive conflict, encouraging different perspectives, and making sure all contributions are respected and heard.
- Inclusive leaders know how to get people on board with change. They recognize that mindsets create barriers to change and that different people view change through different thinking lenses. So they proactively address the questions and concerns that matter most to different people, giving them enough context and detail to keep them from “filling in the blanks.” This also reduces the discomfort people may have with the change.
- Inclusive leaders know how to harness the team’s diversity to meet the business need. Yes, it’s important to be able to generate great ideas. But it you never execute on anything, it’s not only a mostly pointless exercise, it can be demoralizing for the people who’ve worked so hard to come up with the solutions. Inclusive leaders bring in the right mix of thinkers, along with the necessary tools and training, to make sure the team progresses from idea to implementation and business impact.
Diversity is important in innovation, but it’s not enough. If you want a more innovative culture, where great solutions rise to the top and become a reality, start with your leaders.