Mixing People. Fueling Innovation.

Mitra Best | US Innovation Leader, PwC

While diversity usually suggests differences in race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and physical abilities, consider how these attributes may be linked to innovation. Imagine these features to embody different experiences, different perspectives, and different skills, and the connection becomes more apparent.

Every day we are inundated with massive amounts of data. We use our filters to select and shape this information into meaningful knowledge.  Our filters develop over time and are based on our experiences –leading to personal assumptions and defining our prediction models. When confronted with problems, we search for solutions based on these filters.

Naturally, we attract people with similar filters — people who think and behave like us. After all, why should we complicate matters with opposing ideas or conflicting points of view?

Yet dissonance can lead to new perspectives and limitless possibilities. Innovation results from a renewal, reinvention or creative reinterpretation of an idea, product, or service, or a completely new application of an existing tool or methodology. A truly diverse team will by definition produce differing perspectives. If we are able to constructively leverage this tension of opinions to explore fresh ideas, we can drive strategic innovation and advance new business models.

Innovative companies such as Google (GOOG), Toyota (TM) and 3M (MMM ), believe diversity to be an invaluable ingredient that leads to sustainable competitive advantage. These companies have long recognized the value of cross functional collaboration and understand that a diverse workforce is a contributing factor to their highly coveted successes.

When we are exposed only to people who agree with us, we continue to operate within our own realm of experience, perspective, and skills. Unquestioned assumptions remain unquestioned and it becomes more difficult to generate new ideas — even if we gather the brightest people from the most sophisticated institutions.

I’ve spent several years working in Silicon Valley where the diversity of brain power conveyed in the breadth of engineers, social scientists, mathematicians, physical scientists and other professionals from varied academic disciplines and different parts of the world contributes to its cache as a technology innovation hotspot.

Today we see the economic benefits of a diverse workforce which by its very nature creates new and innovative value in the marketplace. We should challenge ourselves to think of diversity beyond “tolerance” or “acceptance” and begin recognizing diversity as a critical component of innovation and competitive advantage.

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9 Responses to Mixing People. Fueling Innovation.

  1. sghani says:

    A very insightful read. One often hears of diverse viewpoints as being a primary requirement for building a culture of innovation, but this article rightfully extends the thinking by enlarging the meaning of terms such as “acceptance” and “tolerance” insofar as they advance innovation within an organization. In the end, ideation is really about making the right association around disparate ideas, perhaps even ideas in conflict, and the extent to which organizations can accommodate such apparent clashes will largely define how successful they are in developing the insights that result in the successful products and services of tomorrow.

  2. Sarah Firisen says:

    Totally agree Mitra. As this interesting piece discusses, http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/2301497/check_your_assumptions.html a large part of what it means to be innovative is to break with conventional orthodoxies, to challenge conventional assumptions. It’s impossible to do this with a homogeneous workforce. Diversity, in all its forms, brings new perspectives and insights that challenge cherishhttp://pwcinnovate.wordpress.com/wp-login.php?action=logouted assumptions and spark innovation.

  3. Krishna Kumaraswamy says:

    Definitely agree that diversity does promote innovation and new ideas. I really like the line – “constructively leverage this tension of opinions”. Having the insight to look out for opportunities from these diverse views is a key requirement.

    Diversity alone probably does not result in innovation, but provides a good environment where new ideas could emerge. With standards and methodologies being adopted in each field to improve efficiency, promoting diversity will be an interesting challenge. Success will probably depend on how well we can walk the thin line between being efficient and being diverse.

  4. Niloufar Molavi says:

    Mitra,

    Great article. Building a diverse organization is a business imperative and, as you point out, among other things it allows for strategic innovation.

  5. Nice piece, Mitra! I agree that diversity is crucial to sparking and sustaining innovation. In this regard, a company you might consider placing on your short list (Google, 3M, Toyota) is Cisco. I would add that research I’m currently conducting indicates ethnic diversity and functional diversity are not the only crucial forms of diversity which drive innovation. Diversity of roles is also critical. In addition to innovators (of course!), innovation teams need synthesizers, planners, challengers, adapters, and more. Simply drawing in “functional areas” from a company’s divisional structure can help get your project down the implementation path, but functional team members – in the aggregate – may not offer a sufficient diversity of roles. This means that unseen gaps may exist early in the project’s life which don’t come to light until later in the game, when it can be tough to make changes.

  6. David Steier says:

    Very well said. Yes, like Krishna, the goal should definitely be to “constructively leverage this tension of new ideas.” (We all seem to agree on that, so maybe we are not diverse enough!)

    The question is how. There is an interesting article in Monday’s WSJ entitled “Why Diversity Can Backfire on Company Boards” with the lead “Too often it can lead to personal battles and inhibited discussions. Here’s how to make it work.” I found it very useful – the points made there seem to apply beyond corporate boards .

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703558004574581851089027682.html

  7. Jeff DeLisio says:

    I think this truly gets the point across that the perspective is not a call for some vague, well-meaning tolerance, but a chance for facilitating real dynamism in an organization.
    I think Krishna’s comment indicating that Diversity alone is not sufficient is right, but it has become necessary, especially when you consider how we work increasingly in a worldwide or world influenced mode and yet we are still wired to continually see things primarily through the filters discussed here.

  8. Mitra M. Best says:

    Thanks to all of you for the feedback, and to Sarah and David for specific references. We all seem to agree that diversity plays an important role in innovation, but diversity alone is not the answer. We need to foster an environment in which diversity of ideas and perspectives can flourish productively. The complexities posed by potential “disruptions” associated with diversity deserve a dedicated post.

  9. eric imbs says:

    I can confirm that active participation in Innovation is the common element that attracts and bonds diverse groups together, generating constructive conversations between people who previously had no reason or motivation to engage.

    Front End:
    In terms of aligning promotional activities and developing a binding interface through which your community interacts with each other and shares insight, take your cues from popular external sites and marketing.

    Tailored:
    Innovation tooling should be purpose built, either in house or from an insight management platform specialist *plug* (don’t simply opt for say, Sharepoint as the interface simply because it’s there already).

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