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Diversity can unlock expertise and spot missteps

In today’s world and generations gone by, there have been incredible experts and leaders out there. People who have made bold calculations or predictions that have proven themselves out. While the need for people like this is greater than ever, in today’s hyper-connected world the idea of one person as a gifted genius who can fix it all is an illusion. The world is becoming more complex not less. Cultural, political and economic touch-points intersect at greater rates each day and no one person has the ability to know, let alone understand them all.

What is important as you create your work is having a team or advisors that can help you ask the hard questions. Whether this is a group you already have or need to convene, it’s important to understand that if all the people you turn to look and think like you do, the chance of missing something important is more likely. To play this out in a simplistic manner think of it this way: You have two teams tasked with solving a complex problem

  • Team 1 has ten girls who all grew up in the same suburb of Minneapolis, went to the same high school and college, graduated with the same major, enjoy the same TV shows, food and cultural traditions

  • Team 2 has a mix of guys and girls from multiple countries, income brackets, educational backgrounds, faiths, etc.

If presented with a complex task and asked to generate as many potential solutions as they can, who do you think would be able to generate the most? Ten people with near-identical paradigms or ten people who bring vastly different experiences to the table?

As technology performs more and more tasks in our lives, solving complex problems is likely where your organization will have to go in order to find and hold a valuable niche. InnoCentive is an organization that aspires to solve highly complex problems. It boasts a remarkable rate of PhDs’ and thought leaders in its ranks (roughly 60%) and yet the other 40% is often cited as invaluable in what the organization does. One of its most notable problems solvers is a Canadian handyman.

As you think about building or refining your team of the future I’d invite you to consider the term “distance from field”. It says the further someone is from an industry or problem, the more likely they are to ask a non-obvious question or pursue something from an angle people with "formal training" might miss. This begets an interesting question, when a firm like McKinsey boasts the high rate of MBAs it has on staff or a startup claims all of its entire team went to Stanford, “Does that act as a strength or weakness?”

No one can outthink the internet in today’s world and a team of people who think similarly stand little better chance. If you need a business case for making diversity of thought and background a priority in your organization, let’s first frame it through what you want to avoid. The Italian fashion houses of Prada and Gucci did not climb to their levels of notoriety and financial success on accident. They built brands notable for blazing the path forward. And yet both recently have fallen on PR nightmares by creating products that invoked historical stereotypes of African-Americans.

As I read the story and hung my head in dismay I wondered, "how could they miss this?” Two things likely played a role. A lack of diversity on their staff and a culture that lionizes the unimpeachable vision of its head designers. The staff either did not know it would be offensive due to a lack of diversity on their team or did not have the permission to speak up because in such a revered fashion house, it would be blasphemous to do so.

I once heard the writer Anil Dash say of Google and Facebook, “these are not bad people doing bad things. These are good people doing bad things.” Despite how insensitive and out-of-touch this product release was, I would dare to hypothesize that rather than desiring to create offensive products, diversity and cultural openness at these organizations created the problem.

This story may feel a world away from the industry in which you work but as an exercise I challenge you to reflect on the culture you have in your workplace. If your boss made a bold statement would you or someone else have permission to challenge her or make suggestions of how to tailor the idea? Do most people tend to have the same pedigrees, backgrounds and more? Either one of these could be putting you at risk. Hopefully not for something of that magnitude but still creating something without a broad enough set of inputs.

Go Forth Boldly

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