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Diversity Drives Innovation

Posted by Denise on 28 September 2011 | 0 Comments

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Consider this scenario.  You’re hiring.  You have three candidates who can equally do the job, but come from quite diverse  backgrounds.  You apply the final filtering factor ... fit  with the company' .  Sounds reasonable?  Well Yes.. and No.  It depends on what ‘fit’ means to the selector(s) and the extent to which they challenge conscious and unconscious  bias or prejudice.  How do we describe ‘fit’?  ‘They’ll fit in here…”.   What does that mean?; values fit, personality fit, more like me or less like me?

In this situation to what extent do you  really question whether you  are hiring for capability or because  of ‘sameness” .  That ‘sameness’  value is an incredibly significant part of many organizations  that needs to be addressed.   Are you looking for ‘Yes’ people who will confirm, rather than challenge,  your thinking?   Peter Drucker suggested: "If you and I always agree, one of us isn't necessary."  Depending on the job function and industry, the  ‘right’  person for the job may not be who you expect.

Fostering Diversity in the workplace

How diversity management is owned and managed by an organisation can often signal where it sits in terms of organisational priority; Human Resources or Senior Leadership owned and led (or a combination of the two).  There are two prevailing schools of thought;

  • the compliance rights and fairness camp that underpins Human Rights Legislation,
  • the strategic advantage camp, i.e. diversity results in superior business results. 

For organisations that are rooted in  a ‘compliance’ zone  it is likely to be owned and driven by HR.  This is not to suggest that  HR practitioners are more comfortable with compliance;  they often wrestle with ways to achieve wider buy-in outside of compliance.    A compliance approach only offers a minimum base line and fulfils a limited requirement.  A compliance focus  doesn’t generate the appetite to move  beyond compliance to a ‘best practice’ (Employer of Choice), or ‘leading practice’ (Leader in Diversity).

For those organisations that are serious about achieving competitive advantage  leveraging their people capability to achieve this will be top of their agenda.  To embed this into the organisational DNA takes a mind shift that has to be led from the top.  

Understanding Diversitydiversity intersection

Diversity consists of visible and non-visible differences which will include gender, age, ethnicity, disability (Social diversity),  knowledge, education, experience, personality (Informational diversity)  and work style (Value diversity).

The theory behind the business case for diversity suggests  that people from diverse backgrounds, approach a problem from different viewpoints, and, armed with a collective range of knowledge and experience, produce a better finished product.  Research undertaken by the University of Texas in 2003 found that diversity did foster innovation but only if embraced by the whole group.

Developing a Culture that embraces Diversity

Leveraging diversity as competitive advantage starts with an understanding that a diverse way of thinking improves results.  It requires a targeted focus, that seeks to achieve a number of key goals;

  • Developing a high performing,  positive, inclusive workplace that attracts, engages and  retains the best of the best.  This is not about the average or mediocre.
  • Developing a culture of innovation that results in better products and , ultimately,  a better company. 

With these people goals you have one of the pillars underpinning competitive advantage.

Embracing diversity

Easier said than done.  This is about understanding individual strengths and personalities, creating an environment where people feel valued and  where their  ideas and opinions are actively sought, listened to and acted upon.  This isn’t about agreeing to every idea that is put forward.  Where ideas and suggestions are either taken forward or rejected, it’s about explaining the ‘why’ behind the decision, and how it either meets, or doesn’t meet, the organisational vision and goals.  People then start to align their input and behaviours to meet those goals.

Embracing diversity is about ensuring you walk the talk and deliver on the promise.  Anyone who comes into a new culture; whether that is a new country, organisation or team, will understand that some adaptation is needed.  However, adaptation needs to be a two-way street.  To fully benefit from the new methods and ideas that a newcomer brings also requires adjustment on the part of the organisation.    As I read recently “they hired me for my differences; then once I got here they started chopping off my corners”.

An organisation that recognizes, and embraces diversity, creates opportunities for its’ people to interact at all levels and in different ways across the organisation – horizontally and vertically.  Relationship building and workplace interaction are strong features; knocking down siloed thinking and encouraging cross functional thinking and interaction.   Interventions include workplace design (does it encourage collaboration or silos?),  embedding diversity management & understanding into the competency framework and holding people accountable; cross-functional working and meetings;  reviewing employment practices to ensure you are tapping into the widest talent pool available; stepping into another persons’  shoes for a day; training staff at all levels in intercultural awareness and communication.   Interventions such as these (and there are many more!)  help organisations  hire the best person and their staff to understand crucial business issues and it’s people through a different lens.

Where to start first?

Try not to do everything at once but focus on a few priorities that matter to your people and your organisation and build on that.

The  onus for the execution of a diversity strategy falls on leaders at all levels. Organizational leadership  sets  the tone and implements ways in which  people with diverse talents, personalities, and backgrounds  can freely, and safely,  exchange their ideas.  There needs to be a recognition from the top that there's not just one way of doing things, and importantly to understand and face the fact that your people might be smarter than you.

Whilst having a strong culture of diversity acceptance can have a positive impact on employee relations it can also assist in bring in new customers.  Organisations that have staff who reflect their customer demographics  are better placed to design and deliver products and services  that meet the need of their customers, in the way that their customers  want it.

“What we need is a great big melting pot”

At least that’s what Blue Mink sang about in the flower power era of the late ‘60’s.  Whilst their focus was then about colour and race, the melting pot needs to be larger, much larger,   now.  The diversity wheel below demonstrates the breadth of what we need to be thinking about in terms of what 'diversity' means.  Individually and organizationally we need  to understand things from a much more diverse perspective, because that's the global world we live in.  However, organisations, need to be careful of portraying diversity as  the silver bullet that will automatically provide employers with competitive advantage.  Workforce diversity isn’t a competitive organisational strength unless it’s effectively managed and led.  For some managers that means shifting  gears in how they listen to and treat diverse people.

Whilst  inviting a diverse array of opinions is important to success, it's just as important to watch out for those whose contributions counter organisational growth.  As Jim Collins suggests, great organisations get “the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. “ ( ).

I volunteer with migrant and refugee groups and have come to understand the meaning and importance of intercultural awareness and competence  in our daily living.  Overlaying this learning to my professional life I’ve also come to realize how little this competency features in leadership and management development programmes.  Intercultural competence is not a ‘nice to have’ but a ‘must have’ if we are to harness the strengths and talents of our diverse population.

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