By Jawn Lam, Ed.D. and Le Anne Harper
You may have heard this adage: “Problems can’t be solved by using the same kind of thinking that created them.” When we apply this principle to organizational workforce planning, it means a perpetual stream of fresh perspectives is an absolute must if businesses want to stay agile in a dynamic market. Accordingly, talent management strategies should proactively seek diverse perspectives. This concept intuitively feels right, however, it isn’t always easily accomplished. Let’s take a deeper dive into the business case for diversity to understand why attracting and inspiring new perspectives is a true competitive advantage in a competitive marketplace.
Contention Can Be a Good Thing
A study conducted by researchers at Northwestern and Stanford showed that heterogeneous groups generate more ideas than their homogeneous counterparts do. But the upside doesn’t stop there. Creativity is only one advantage of a diverse team. The researchers found the two types of groups tackled problems differently, not only with the number of proposed ideas for final implementation but also in their approach to the initial analysis process.
Sure, a group of like-minded individuals can work more economically and produce deliverables more quickly than a motley crew can. When you and your colleagues are synchronized in your work style and thinking patterns, it’s easier to distribute workloads and trust the outcome will be as you expect. Familiarity has benefits. It reduces stress and puts everyone at ease. But there’s a tradeoff to that amiability.
Among groups of like-minded individuals, the study identified the following common behavioral pattern. When someone has an idea (on how to approach the analysis or solve the problem), everyone else quickly agrees. No one else questions. There is little, if any, contention. And if there is no contention, there can be no synthesis. And without the synthesis of thoughts, there will only ever be one perspective. Innovation cannot grow in that type of infertile ground.
Collaborating with people who have similar values, priorities, and perspectives will reduce cognitive friction in our workflow. It’s much easier to interface with an agreeable clique. There are appropriate times for those types of monolithic groups. When speed and efficiency are of paramount importance, such as times of crisis, you want a well-trained team that operates like a deployed special forces unit.
Typically, the introduction of new members into a group jostles the dynamic, making working in a diverse group more cognitively expensive. The costs come in the form of the lag and debate that emerge as interpretations and interests are tested and argued as a result of this divergent thinking. The natural reaction to the dissonance felt in polarized settings is to raise shields and adopt a stance of self-preservation. However, over time, the interactions will find a steady state as long as we take a step back from the intensity of emotionally uncomfortable scenarios. We can then reap the benefits of heterogeneous groups: robust ideation, more authentic social connection, and innovation.
There is a misconception that new members are the fountain of fresh perspectives for a stale group, but the researchers discovered this is not always the case. Still, while new members may not be the sole source of novel ideas, they are often the catalyst that unlocks everyone else’s stagnant creative juices.
The Collective vs. The Individual
Knowing this, let’s embrace the value of our differences and exploit their advantages for our collective benefit rather than conforming to existing corporate norms. Magic happens when we all accept that there is not a single person in the organization (no matter how smart or how high in the org chart) who has a monopoly on truth or genius. Once we accept that no one individual will ever be as good as the collective “us”, then we can level up our organizational capabilities.
Companies that want to win the race aren’t leaving this to chance. They’re engaging external experts to facilitate diversity transformations, including educating the C-suite and gaining buy-in, training and empowering line managers and their HR partners to drive cultural change. In our in-house work building D&I programs in corporate America and external consulting, we’ve seen companies make deep and meaningful commitments to diversity and inclusion that extend well beyond legal compliance and positive PR. Some companies are creating D&I programs from scratch and others are creating headcount to ensure company-wide, ongoing diversity inculcation.
Many of our clients realize the practical value of this diversity work and engage us strategically to advance their internal efforts. In recent years, entertainment companies have come under fire for inaccurate casting choices (aka whitewashing) and stereotypical, derogatory depictions of various minority groups. They leveraged our expertise to identify and introduce them to diverse creative professionals from under-represented talent pools who could add authentic first-person legitimacy to their narratives. In less than 3 months we found more than one hundred film, television, and digital creatives who represented new possibilities for one studio client—LGBTQ, female, LatinX, and African American perspectives. With a bold, but simple, commitment, an exclusive hiring legacy was disrupted, horizons were broadened, and the studio’s trajectory changed for the better.
This studio’s leadership recognized that far beyond diversity being just a “politically correct” value to embrace, this was an investment in tangible revenue opportunities. According to the MPAA’s 2018 report, per capita movie attendance in 2017 was highest among Latinx and Asian audiences. At the time, the highest-grossing superhero movie ever was Black Panther; this record-setting film, with a predominantly black cast, cost approximately $200 million to make and grossed more than $1.3 billion to date. Further validating the viewing audience’s appetite for diverse perspectives, Frozen II, Disney’s animated sequel featuring two female leads, has grossed more than $1.2B in the months since its release.
Well trained leaders and industry experts know how to draw out the mixed experiences of each individual on the team to everyone’s advantage. Helping each person understand where everyone else is coming from requires more time and patience, but the ROI is well worth it. Companies are finally capitalizing on the profound financial and business benefits offered by well-managed diversity efforts.
Leveraging Your Diversity
Left unmanaged, differences in education level, economic status, gender, race, cultural background, upbringing, personal value systems, and a variety of other factors can become reasons for division or excuses to maintain the status quo. However, with the right internal framework, organizational awareness, and leadership support, those diversity dimensions can instead become compelling competitive advantages that lead to greater organizational performance.
If you’re ready to take a closer look at how effectively you’re leveraging diversity as a competitive advantage, here are some questions for you to consider:
● Legal compliance is the price of admission for companies to stay in the game. What does your company do above and beyond what’s mandatory to enable and inspire new ideas and drive innovation?
● If you assess each business unit in your organization, how balanced and varied is the mix of perspectives? What can you do to shape your line manager’s practices, beliefs, and comfort levels around diversity to ensure maximum performance and contribution of everyone on the team?
● How well-equipped are your leaders to identify, attract, and retain diverse and under- represented talent?
● Do your brand and marketing efforts convey a commitment to inclusive hiring?
● What existing internal resources, external advisors, and best practices can you leverage to evolve your company’s diversity efforts and ensure long-term viability and competitive advantage?
Jawn Lam is an organizational effectiveness consultant with expertise in change management and leadership development who helps companies strengthen their vulnerable corporate governance policies. His professional passion is helping leaders navigate enterprise politics, obtain legitimate authority, and sustain organizational influence which he does as Principal Strategist at DurableLeadership.com.
Le Anne Harper leads the Diversity & Inclusion practice at Katalyst Group, a talent advisory firm that finds unicorns and purple squirrels for industry-leading companies like The Gap, Samsung, Nike, and Sony. She is a talent consultant and diversity evangelist who has spent 20 years helping companies transform and thrive by recruiting and cultivating the world’s best talent.