What Does Diversity Have to Do with Innovation?

What cognitive diversity has 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. Read more

How to Get Value from a Team’s Thinking Diversity

Trying to navigate a thorny issue? Need an innovative solution? Looking for a way to help your team dig deeper and really flex their thinking muscles?

Bring in diversity—of all kinds.

Our research, and the experience of companies like Harrahs Entertainment and Brown- Forman, has shown what a difference difference makes on a team, whether you’re trying to solve a complex problem or come up with more creative ideas. A recent Scientific-American article echoes this point with the particularly eye-catching title, “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter.”

The article points out that not only do people with different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives benefit from the diverse information they bring to the group, the diversity itself provokes different thinking, “jolting us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not.”

So difference in a group can lead to better problem solving and decision making as well as more innovative ideas—but it’s not just as simple as putting diverse people on a team and seeing what comes out of it.

From a thinking preference standpoint, we know that when a team has representation from across the thinking spectrum, each person will approach problems quite differently. This is a huge benefit to the team, but only if the team recognizes each others’ preferences and how they each add value.

Honoring different thinking approaches will allow every member to share their thinking and ideas openly. Once that openness occurs, the team’s creativity begins to emerge as they’re motivated to take advantage of the different thinking styles rather than viewing them as obstacles. And as a foundation for a discussion about diversity, thinking gives people a non-judgmental starting point. It’s not about behaviors, personalities or other attributes; this is just how someone prefers to process information.

Here’s what we’ve learned about setting up a diverse team for success:

  1. The more heterogeneous (mentally diverse) a group is, the more they need a multi-dominant facilitator/leader. Agile team leaders are critical for managing and leveraging difference on the team.
  2. Heterogeneous groups can be extremely creative and successful OR they can “crash,” unless they take the steps and time necessary to find synergy.
  3. Stereotyping of others is a major impediment to team development (he’s a “this” or she’s a “that”).
  4. Because cultural differences can make working as a team even more challenging, more process time and consistent communication are even more important.
  5. Virtual teams need a common language even more than co-located teams to increase the speed of relationship building and decrease miscommunication.

Remember: Successful teams practice “creative contention.” Any team that does not disagree is not doing effective work or leveraging their differences. The art is in knowing how to do it productively.

Are you bringing together diverse thinking to get more innovative? How do you encourage and manage creative contention?

What Makes a Team Work

One thing that’s becoming clear in today’s VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) world is that effective teams can give organizations a distinct advantage. They bring together the people power and the thinking power to get things done faster, more efficiently and more successfully.

But we also know it’s not as simple as that. There’s a reason less than a quarter of workers prefer to work on teams.

Are more team-building activities the answer? Sensitivity training? Personality and communications workshops?

These activities can be helpful, but on their own, they’re not enough. The frustrations, miscommunications, subpar results, and same issues that keep coming up, time and again, bear this out.

The problem is that too many organizations try to build trust — a key attribute of effective teams — by focusing on behavioral issues first. But because behaviors can be affected by a variety of external factors, the fix is often only a temporary one at best. To build trust, we have to focus first on what drives the team’s behaviors and actions at the root level: thinking.

Missing this key ingredient means organizations will also miss out on the full potential, power and competitive advantage teams can provide. Particularly in today’s world, as cross-functional teaming increases, more team members operate virtually and globally, and projects and problems are becoming more complex, a focus on how the team thinks will become even more critical to developing exceptional, consistently high-performing teams.

We’re creating teams to bring together and then funnel the knowledge and skills of the members towards solving business problems and achieving business outcomes. While teambuilding exercises can build camaraderie, and personality and sensitivity workshops can develop interpersonal understanding to help improve communications, none of these can really take hold without a foundation in how the team’s collective intelligence fuels business outcomes.

And after all, achieving business outcomes is what they’re there for, right?

Our next white paper will address key ways you can apply a thinking-based approach to get the most from every “meeting of the minds” so you can truly leverage the power of teams. It will also explore how to use the designed-for-business Whole Brain® framework to:

  • Optimize a department’s strategic and day-to-day effectiveness
  • Set virtual and far-flung teams up for success
  • Make cross-functional really work
  • Give “voice” to the full cognitive diversity within the team
  • Strategically deploy teams to solve critical business problems

In the meantime, tell us: What are the biggest challenges you’re facing in getting the full benefits of the team’s collective intelligence? Are there any standout team experiences that come to mind? What made them work so effectively?

Share your thoughts in the comments, and be sure to check back next month to download the free white paper.

Size DOES matter – 5 Steps to Better Team Meetings

Saturday morning, my spinning class was raucous, a cacophony of conversation. The instructor had a hard time breaking through with her standard and ever increasing challenges. The spinning room had recently expanded from a surprisingly small group of bikes 7 to 9 bikes and none of us thought it would make any real difference.

The din of Saturday’s session proved us wrong.  When there is more than seven in a group, interaction becomes much more complex to manage. In the case of our spinning class, it really did not matter as long as our instructor could speak loud enough to break through the noise. In working with teams and workgroups on the other hand, it can make or break the productivity.

A study done by the US Forest Service some years ago showed that size was one critical ingredient to group effectiveness, with no more than 7 being the ideal number.

In addition to size, having the right people at the table is essential. In a recent article in Fast Company, Meetings are a Skill you can master,  and Steve Jobs Taught Me How,  Ken Segall  describes how important it is to ensure the right people are there—if not, they might create unnecessary noise or cacophony that distracts from the task at hand.

This issue of size and noise is further complicated by working virtually. In a recent study The Challenges of Working in Virtual teams, they found that 94% found a key challenge for virtual team members was the inability to read nonverbal cues and 85 percent  felt an absence of collegiality among virtual team members. 

These five steps will help you ensure that size matters in your team meetings:

  1. Get to the Core: Think about who really needs to be on the core team. For anyone that you hesitate with, use them as adjuncts on an as needed basis.  Tip–Think about why someone is under consideration—are they needed to contribute or for information or partial work only. If the latter, use them as an adjunct member.
  2. Mix It Up: Evaluate your selection and make sure you do not have too much similarity in the group. As a group gets smaller, diversity can be even more important, especially if the task requires  tackling a tough challenge or one that required creative thinking. Tip: Look to build a Whole Brain® Team, bringing together different thinking styles. (The HBDI® Profile can provide an accurate and quick snapshot of a groups’ thinking.)
  3. Lead with a Rubber Band: To best leverage the thinking in any team or group, a facilitator must stretch their thinking to hear and take advantage of the different perspectives in the group. Tip: Our research showed that  Whole Brain® thinkers will improve the effectiveness of a group. Don’t have one? Tip: Apply Whole Brain® Thinking team tools to help the process and learn how to stretch your thinking profile, as if it were a rubber band.
  4. Who Really Needs to Be There?: Segall’s article describes Steve Jobs asking a person to leave a meeting because she did not add value in that situation.  I think the biggest error was how she got invited there in the first place, if indeed she did not add value. Expelling is extreme and you risk removing people who will add a different perspective. Tip: Think about who needs to be there and what their perspective brings to the table first. Avoid letting lurkers stay just to be politically correct-meeting time is costly and most people, when asked graciously, are pleased to have time freed up if they are not really needed.
  5. Get personal: When working with virtual teams, ensure that members know each other and can see each other for best results. Tip: Use technology (SKYPE is free) to allow virtual team members to see each other and make eye contact for improved communication. Use Thinking styles assessments to accelerate the getting to know you process—it will save you time later!
  6. Make It Work: If you are not in a position to influence the size or make up of your team, look for ways to make the best use of the team members and meeting times. Tip: Create sub- teams or task forces to reduce meeting time. Always have an agenda and clear goals before you get started and make sure everyone fully understand what you are there to do—and feel they can self-select out if they are not adding value!