Diversity as the driver of innovation

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It is increasingly evident that innovation emerges from converging disciplines. We have all heard success stories about teams made up of very different people. Therefore, when forming innovation teams, be they entrepreneurial or intrapreneurial, it is important to factor in their diversity as this encourages creativity. However, all that glitters is not gold, and diversity also implies risks, generates conflicts, and may produce negative effects which can even neutralize the benefits.

To successfully address innovation, there are at least three basic elements without which it is not possible to innovate systematically and sustainably. The first is to have diverse people who can contribute different points of view, experiences, and knowledge; the other two are to have time and physical or virtual spaces for this diversity to be able to dialogue, intersect. and experiment.

We should probably add other elements, such as a committed leadership willing to allocate resources to innovation, in addition to providing focus to guide and set the direction that the people involved in innovation teams must follow. In any case, this time I want to concentrate on diversity and how to achieve more effective innovation teams through it.

When talking about diversity, this can refer to many different dimensions, for example, demographic aspects or hierarchy levels within an organization. However, I will approach it from a dual point of view, one on the range of functional areas and knowledge existing within the team and the other, on the differences with the cognitive style chosen for solving problems for which you can use the Kirton model that distinguishes between adapters and innovators, and obviously there is a whole range of nuances between the two extremes.

  • Adapters: solve problems through well-established processes using logic and routines based on linear thinking. These people are more inclined to generate innovations within the current paradigm.
  • Innovators: usually make rather obscure connections between ideas and consider different aspects at the same time, without following a pre-established order. They are more likely to generate innovations that fall outside the current paradigm.

Diversity provides the opportunity for properly combining different knowledge, skills, cognitive styles and other resources available to generate innovative solutions. The reason for this direct relationship between diversity and innovation is because it encourages teams to have different perspectives on how to solve a problem and consider multiple alternatives at the same time. Then through experimentation and integrating some of these, achieve higher levels of inventiveness.

Unfortunately, it’s not all advantages with diversity, it is also a source of conflict. When team members have different values, priorities, communication styles and incentives, this breeds a series of drawbacks, such as a less identification, less cohesion, discomfort of some members with conflicting opinions, and the possibility of developing negative feelings towards other team members.

Team dynamics leading to positive or negative results from diversity largely depend on three aspects:

  • Collaborative learning: the ability of team members to learn together and from one another.
  • Psychological security: the assurance that expressing opinions in opposition to the majority will not generate rejection nor negative consequences.
  • Shared vision: a shared way of seeing and understanding things.

Collaborative learning

Collaborative learning encourages innovation as it increases the chances that diverging opinions voiced by members with dissimilar knowledge and perspectives will be understood and considered. As members of homogeneous teams speak similar languages in terms of education and functionality, it is usually easier in such cases to listen and understand the rest of the team. So, in teams that are highly and functionally diverse, it is more difficult to achieve collaborative learning, making this a barrier to overcome if we are to harness the benefits that such teams can offer.

In teams that manifest an aggregate cognitive style that is closer to the one defined by Kirton as adapter, usually low levels of collaborative learning are also observed. Perhaps in this case it is because team members show a strong preference for logical and sequential thinking, so they do not feel the need to understand or question the opinions of others.

In contrast, for teams that tended to act more like innovators connecting elements that do not a priori present a clear relationship, higher levels of collaborative learning are observed. The results coming out of these teams tend to be more inventive solutions that cannot be communicated or understood without a series of meticulous interactions to bring about understanding out of which new knowledge arises. In a way, collaborative learning becomes a mechanism to assist team members, who feel forced to make themselves understood and to understand the rest of the team.

Psychological security

Psychological security fosters innovation. When people are afraid of receiving criticism, rejection or any other negative consequence, by not sharing the opinions of other team members, they diminish the chances of providing information input that contradicts others, even though such opinions are essential for achieving higher levels of learning and inventiveness.

In teams where a discipline or a specific department carries greater weight, it is possible that the rest of the team members have misgivings about contradicting the prevailing outlook. Something similar can happen in teams composed of people coming from different hierarchies within the organization. In such situations, the person with the most power may be tempted to take the lead, which may lead to members with opposing views to prefer not to say anything, rather than take any risks.

These aspects weaken the benefits that diversity can offer, so steps must be taken to ensure that no discipline or department takes over the team, and that managers who participate in innovation teams do not use their power to make their opinion predominate. It is advisable managers to put aside their role to favour the creation of a safe ambience in which all opinions can be openly and fearlessly expressed.

Shared vision

Shared vision is another element that can be grounds for low levels of creativity and innovation in teams. Although shared vision may shorten timescales s and speed up the implementation of new solutions, it is also very possible that the teams exhibiting this behaviour may ignore or distort information contradicting the vision the team has already developed, as well as adopt attitudes that end up silencing the dissenting voices.

Therefore, teams that come to a shared vision quickly will find it hard to generate radical innovations, since such innovations require going beyond the obvious, beyond the initial assumptions and to question elements accepted as absolute truths. In contrast, teams lacking shared vision favour various interpretations of the information they have, which at the same time is an opportunity to integrate visions and learn.

Steps for building more innovative and diverse teams

  1. Increase functional diversity: the most diverse teams generate more innovative solutions, since they have a greater stock of knowledge and intellectual capital.
  2. Mix adapters and innovators:   to strike a balance between experimentation, and the connection of seemingly unrelated ideas without losing sight of the feasibility and implementation of new solutions. y
  3. Boost collaborative learning: to do this, team members must ask questions, exchange opinions, experiment, reflect on results and analyse errors.
  4. Guarantee psychological security within teams: it is essential to make clear the importance of making room for all opinions, even penalizing if necessary behaviours that try to silence divergent voices.
  5. Fight against shared vision: ask team members to question the assumptions shared by the team and to consider information that does not only support their points of view. Traditionally, recruiters look for people who fit into the company’s culture. In my opinion that may be appropriate in cases when seeking efficiency, but if what is desired is to create new things, then teams must also include people who have little in common with the average profile in the company.
  6. Team leaders with empathy: those who lead innovation teams should not be chosen because of the pecking order or even their technical knowledge. They should be people with social skills, capable of listening, understanding and communicating in empathically. To ensure that the circumstances are in place to maximize the advantages of diversity, while minimizing the disadvantages largely depends on these people.
  7. Resources and top management’s commitment: innovation efforts will hardly generate results without resources being allocated or top management’s clear and unequivocal commitment

Organizations can create environments as a mechanism to evade conflicts in which members of diverse innovation teams are willing to learn collaboratively, feel safe to express their opinions, and are able to avoid shared visions. Such organizations can gain key competitive advantages for developing innovative solutions.

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