Diversity of Thought
By Adam Tobias
Diversity is a big topic, and it’s hot for all the right reasons. The subject is very high on the agenda for all forward-thinking business leaders, and I would be concerned if I was working at a company that hadn’t at least thought about how to embrace and foster more diversity. Conversely, I believe that the conversation about diversity and inclusion may be too focussed on what makes us different, which has the inverse risk of further marginalisation and tokenisation of minority or underrepresented groups, not greater integration and harmonisation. There is, however, something that unites us irrespective of our perceived and physical differences, that is the concept of ‘diversity of thought’.
According to McKinsey and Co, organisations that have diverse leadership are a staggering 35% more likely to outperform their non-diverse competitors. We all know (or should know) that increasing the diversity of workforces and developing truly inclusive workplaces is the right thing to do from a moral, ethical and societal viewpoint.However, the commercial opportunities unleashed by diversity are a bigger driver of change than anything else. Money talks.
Organisations in 2018 are 6 times more likely to fail than just 40 years ago; killed by a lack of innovation and adaptability in the changing landscape now called the 4th Industrial Revolution.
Business challenges, and opportunities, are coming faster than ever before. Digitisation, automation and artificial intelligence are fundamentally changing the way all businesses operate, and companies across all sectors are scrambling to find new revenue streams. Innovation revenue, deemed as revenue sources from products and services less than 3 years old, is critical for continued survival. But how do you come up with new products and services quickly within mature businesses and established industries?
The answer seems straightforward enough – ensure your organisation is creative, innovative and adaptable to change. But achieving that requires transformation that radically changes the fabric of organisations and their biggest asset - their workforce. There is plenty of empirical and anecdotal evidence that demonstrates the most effective way to foster organisational innovation (and thereby innovation revenue) is to increase the diversity of a company’s workforce, and especially their leadership team.
Homogeneous teams generally, and naturally, risk falling foul of ‘groupthink’, a term first coined by psychologist Irving Janis in 1972. Essentially, ‘groupthink’ means the desire for conformity within a group or team whereby members minimize conflict and reach consensus decisions with limited evaluation of alternative options or ideas. Janis suggested this happens most often in teams where members are similar to one another (for example from a cultural, ethnic or educational background). He proposed there were numerous symptoms of ‘groupthink’ which include illusions of invulnerability, unquestioned beliefs, rationalisation, stereotyping, self-censorship, illusions of unanimity and direct pressure from the group to individual members to conform to the group’s viewpoint. This phenomenon presents a significant risk to fostering an environment where different ideas are welcomed and actively encouraged, in essence the bedrock of innovation.
According to a report by the Harvard Business Review, ‘outside the box thinking’ (yes, I know, I know) is limited in non-diverse organisations, suggesting that these companies were at least 20% less likely to endorse ideas and suggestions from women, ethnic minority or LGBTQ staff members. The report went on to state that innovation requires an environment where a number of conditions are present, namely; that everyone is heard, that it is a safe place for novel ideas, that team members are given decision making authority, that credit for success is shared and actionable feedback is given freely. It is clear these conditions are not present in a ‘groupthink’ situation.
So, for arguments sake, let’s just say we all agree that diverse teams are more innovative and less likely to display ‘groupthink’ behaviour. And innovative teams display more creativity and generate more ideas that can lead to new products and services that eventually increase an organisation’s innovation revenue. They stay ahead of the competition, and not just survive but thrive. Job done, right? Hmmm... I think that we need to take a significant step back and really think about what diversity means.
To me, there are distinct 3 types of diversity, however with some significant overlap...
What I would call ‘Standard Diversity’ which includes gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, disability and age.
The next type is Neuro-Diversity - often considered as part of disability* - which describes people with conditions that are categorised as autistic spectrum disorders, and developmental-atypical conditions such as ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia.
The third type is ‘diversity of thought’ (*some academics also believe that neuro-diversity can also fall into this category because the neuro-diverse, by definition, think and interact with the world differently than the neuro-typical, however from my viewpoint diversity of thought covers ALL individuals, irrespective of physical or neurological factors).
Let me be clear, embracing all types of diversity is equally important and relevant to successful organisations and societies. Personally, I am passionate about the rights of individuals and their unique abilities to contribute.
My company is a Disability Confident Employer, and we are members and sponsors of the Recruitment Industry Disability Initiative (RIDI) – an inspirational organisation). In addition, I myself have a neuro-diverse condition (no doubt the topic of another article), and our organisation currently has roughly a 50/50 split in terms of gender.
We have diverse religious and ethnic representation and cover at least 3 different age generations. I am not saying any of this to blow our own trumpet, rather to avoid any accusations that I think any of the above groups has weight over the others. And indeed, the boundaries between these diversity types are very blurred and overlapping – it is common for an individual to feature in all 3 separate definitions.
One of the biggest challenges facing the drive to diversity is the fear that people who don’t fall into an obvious or apparent diverse group will be ‘positively discriminated’ against.
I often hear the term ‘pale, male and stale’ – it’s not something I endorse, especially since I’m male, I’m pale and in my 40’s (although I wouldn’t classify myself as stale!). Creating diversity and inclusion by definition means that no group is discriminated against. Therefore, I believe it’s this 3rd group, diversity of thought, that really connects us all and where we should be really focussing our attention from a commercial standpoint.
Conceptually, diversity of thought reflects the simple truth that despite our similarities or differences, we are all unique. We all have our own personal cocktail of experiences, values, personality and culture that informs and shapes how we think – how we solve problems, how we approach tasks and actions, how we categorise and interpret information and how we navigate ourselves through life, both professionally and socially.
I recently filmed an interview with Toby Mildon, a renowned diversity thought leader who has worked with organisations such as British Airways, the BBC, Accenture and Deloitte about diversity of thought. Toby highlighted that many managers and leaders have ‘diversity fatigue’ as the topic has been talked about so often and in many cases these individuals feel disconnected with the subject. He suggested that often the penny drops about diversity in general when talking about diversity of thought, because it relates to each of us, and therefore managers often felt more of a personal connection to the subject...
Deloitte’s excellent report, Diversity’s New Frontier, succinctly outlines the potential commercial opportunities that can be released through a greater understanding of neurology and human thought processes. This greater understanding of how we think will enable organisations to realize the full potential of the workforce, allowing managers to identify an individual employee’s optimal contribution to a specific task or function. Furthermore, the uniqueness of the individual’s thinking is a more reliable factor in creating a diverse workforce because physical diversity is not a sufficient substitute for diversity of thought - it doesn’t ensure that people will think differently just because they are physically different. Like other forms of diversity, diversity of thought guards against ‘groupthink’.
It also allows faster and greater scale of new innovations by utilising different approaches to problems that might be counter-intuitive to so-called ‘experts’ or subject matter specialists. The ultimate aim is to align employees to tasks based on how they think and that they are highly suited to, creating a ‘cognitive fit’ and significantly increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of every task.
OK, assuming this all makes sense so far and diversity of thought appears to be where it’s at, how do we get there?
First, seemingly obviously, is an organisation’s recruitment and retention strategy. It doesn’t just mean hiring unconventional candidates (although there is a strong argument to hire from outside your industry and technical skillset) but understanding how your existing workforce or team thinks and acts, what their strengths are, how they approach problems and where the potential cognitive gaps are, so these can be narrowed or filled. This can be done by reducing the importance of traditional interviewing methods and adopting a more test-based approach with tasks and problems associated with a specific job function. Seek out those with different and conflicting opinions to the status quo, with the intellectual capacity to learn new technical skills without necessarily having those skills at the outset. In addition, unlocking the diversity of thought in the existing workforce also presents a terrific opportunity. An organisation’s culture or existing structures may have contributed to hiding an employee’s real talents by reinforcing an unspoken push for conformity, so that individual doesn’t feel comfortable in expressing views and opinions that may go against the expected norms.
This leads us to a requirement for a different style of management – no longer are you seeking consensus and deference to a team leader’s opinion, rather looking for a state of managed friction.
This requires managers and team members to abandon any instinctive desire to avoid conflict but rather seek it out, albeit carefully.
Team members should be free (and actively encouraged) to express opinions and ideas without fear of criticism or rejection, and managers must be careful not to allow support of their own opinions and ideas to be connected too closely their authority, i.e. allowing constructive conflict, even with their own views, but know when to step in to lead and direct when appropriate.
Finally, a better way to advance talent is to provide sponsorship and mentoring internally, so that those who think one way are paired with a sponsor or mentor who thinks in a different way, allowing individuals to promote the hidden talents of their colleagues. There should also be a shift away from individual evaluation and more of a focus on team-based evaluation. This approach values each member of the team equally despite their differences, because of their differences.
What is clear is that creating a workforce with true diversity of thought in abundance is a serious challenge. This cannot be achieved rapidly (unless your organisation is very small and agile), rather this is a gradual cultural change process that needs careful management along the way. It also seems apparent that it’s a never-ending journey, as neuroscience and technology continue to combine, enabling a greater understanding of the mind and the human condition.
At the heart of this discussion for me is the opportunity for evolution and science to act as a greater catalyst for effectiveness, efficiency and opportunity, both for individuals and commercial organisations. Understanding where our true strengths lie, how we can overcome challenges together as cohesive and creative units and uncover innovative solutions to problems. Organisations face greater commercial uncertainty in this digital age than ever before. Those that can continually adapt and evolve have the potential to blossom, and those that cannot will likely face greater challenges that threaten their existence in the longer term.
Adam Tobias (Partner)
Inventum Consulting & Inventum Search, Co-Founder of Wells Tobias Group