By Ernest Gundling, Managing Partner/co-Founder and Karen Cvitkovich, Senior Consultant, Aperian Global
Leveraging diversity to innovate and to grow the business is the ultimate goal for most leaders who strive to be inclusive. Diversity in a global workforce appears in many forms (see Figure 1 for examples), and a great deal of lip service is paid to celebrating diversity and its contributions to innovation. Often, however, this kind of rhetoric is not backed up by real innovation leadership and positive business results.
How, specifically, can diversity be leveraged to achieve more effective performance, and where can it be an obstacle as well as an opportunity?
Figure 1: Types of Diversity
Cultural diversity, for example, appears to have both positive and negative effects on team performance. Research suggests that teams comprised of members from different national cultures more frequently experience miscommunication, misunderstanding, and mistrust than homogeneous teams, and find it more difficult to reach an agreement. On the other hand, these culturally diverse teams tend to excel at looking at problems from multiple perspectives, expanding options, and generating creative ideas. Inclusive leaders must therefore both tap the potential of diverse team members for productive “divergence,” and also ensure ultimate “convergence” on a shared direction and set of steps for implementation. Homogeneous teams may actually perform more smoothly when doing routine or repetitive work. But for difficult tasks that require innovative solutions, and particularly for global innovation in emerging markets, tapping the potential of diverse team members can lead to vital breakthroughs.
We often work with team leaders and participants who are struggling to integrate contributions from team members who represent different forms of diversity. We have found it best to establish a process that taps the aspects of diversity that are most relevant to the topic at hand while moving through three stages (see Figure 2) that traverse the path from divergence to convergence: Generate, Plan, Implement.
Figure 2: Innovation Stages
Step One: GENERATE
During the idea generation stage of an innovation effort, diverse teams have the potential to perform in their full glory. They can tap the many perspectives that team members offer, and draw in even more when needed. At this stage, a specific practice we recommend is to have team members consider who their normal “Go-To” people are when they approach a problem likely to require an innovative solution (see Figure 3). Once they have mapped the individuals to whom they turn most often, we then ask them to analyze these contacts to consider how broad or narrow their reach might be.
Many high tech firms contain major functional gaps between technical and non-technical functions, for example, so it may be important for software programmers to seek out perspectives from marketing and sales, or vice versa. Such exchanges typically drive a deeper understanding and mutual appreciation of the contributions that each organizational function can make. Similarly, product planning teams may do well to tap the perspectives of different ethnic communities, age groups, or genders if they seek to build a product with broad appeal. When systematic gaps are identified, it can also be useful to consider larger scale team interventions to improve collaboration.
At a West Coast-based IT firm, employees confirmed about the bias that existed between technical employees in IT or engineering functions and non-technical functions such as sales and marketing, finance, or human resources. Many technical employees were originally from other countries, adding a further dimension of complexity. Fifty employees came together in a room, and those who self-identified as technical employees were asked for adjectives they would use to describe nontechnical colleagues. They used words like illogical, fuzzy, uniformed, uneducated, Ignorant, and useless. Similarly, self-identified non-technical employees described their technical peers with terms like socially inept, passive-aggressive, self-absorbed, arrogant, territorial, and black-and-white thinkers.
The starkly negative perceptions each group held of the other highlighted the importance of exploring this functional dimension of diversity within the organization. Functional differences were clearly linked with an unhealthy dynamic that was impeding collaboration between different parts of the company. Surfacing negative stereotypes sparked intense and constructive discussion about how to improve collaboration while using ideas based on different perspectives to foster more deliberate cross-functional innovation.
Figure 3: Analyzing Your “Go-To” People
Companies that seek to expand their business in other geographies also need to consider the most desirable ways to support key growth markets by tapping the views of local employees and customers. Kohler’s leader for building new manufacturing facilities around the world, for instance, found that his team’s standard practice of laying out 80 percent of the new facility design and then soliciting local input provoked local resistance and led to sub-optimal outcomes such as the use of construction materials that were sub-optimal for local sites. Instead, it turned out to be far more productive to create a 20 percent design and initiate the consultation process at a much earlier stage, enabling greater local input and sense of ownership.
Step Two: PLAN
Once creative ideas have been generated, most teams need to go through a planning process that involves setting priorities and formulating a strategic plan. Edward de Bono became famous for his “Six Thinking Hats” approach to probing and testing ideas. He suggested that team members recognize the cognitive stance that they would normally take – blue sky dreamer (blue hat), passionate advocate (red hat), data-driven analyst (white hat), habitual critic (black hat), etc. – and learn to wear these hats purposefully and in a collaborative manner.
Beyond this useful step of applying such different cognitive styles to test an idea, there are other useful filters. We suggest applying the “lenses” that different dimensions of diversity provide (see Figure 4). For example, the automotive industry has become increasingly focused on the changing attitudes of a younger generation of consumers in the U.S. and Europe. In contrast to older drivers who took their driving test on the first possible date and for whom car ownership was a significant life milestone, younger consumers tend to be more indifferent about car ownership, nervous about learning to drive, and more concerned than their elders about the dangers posed by other distracted drivers. Automakers have unexpectedly discovered that certain autonomous vehicle features that it is testing – autonomous parking, lane control, blind spot sensors, automatic braking – can become attractive current selling features to these younger buyers who are accustomed to deploying high-tech fixes in other aspects of their lives. This fresh generational perspective has led automotive research & development and marketing teams to prioritize such features and to plan how to leverage their appeal to younger drivers.
Figure 4: Diversity Lenses
Diverse teams often flounder when it becomes time to hammer out a strategic plan and get things done. Would-be inclusive leaders often feel a gravitational pull back towards more complexity, ambiguity, and confusion that is the natural outcome of having many different working styles and points of view. We recommend that they carefully set the stage for planning discussions. In particular, they need to consider three questions:
- What information is examined?
- Who is involved in creating strategy?
- How is the process structured?
Using a disciplined process such as this one enables a team to continue to leverage its diverse resources but not be distracted by forces that will require it to go back to the beginning and start over. Even the classic Deming Cycle of “Plan—Do—Check—Act” can go astray if it does not address these three questions. It is vital to define the breadth of information the team requires (What) and the right people to engage in the planning process (Who). Then, when the right people are together in the same room or virtual meeting, it is just as important to have a process in place (How) that enables everyone to express a point of view. We have seen meetings where a few vocal individuals dominate the discussion while unintentionally excluding others, often non-native speakers and less direct communicators, who have valuable contributions to make that will not be tapped without effective facilitation. Likewise, the team must have a clearly defined decision-making process – whether this is democratic, consultative, or directive – that enables it to move toward closure.
Step Three: IMPLEMENT
Tom Kelley of the renowned design firm Ideo wrote a book called The Ten Faces of Innovation in which he describes different roles people can take to move a project toward completion: Experimenter, Hurdler, Collaborator, Director.(i) Inclusive leaders can also tap diverse team members for their particular skill set or working style in the execution process. Members with particular functional skills can obviously contribute their specialized expertise in areas such as engineering, finance, or marketing.
In a business environment where companies are vying for global innovation leadership, it is also worth considering, for instance, how the cultural profiles of different individuals can be utilized in roles that benefit the team as a whole. We use the GlobeSmart ProfileSM with many of our clients to raise awareness as to where cultural profiles are drastically different or very similar (see Figure 5).
For instance, a team member who is more status-oriented may have unique insights into customer expectations in a hierarchical society such as China or India and could be designated as the master of Customer Insight. Or to evaluate the pros and cons of product rollout timing options in different global markets, it might be useful to pair a more risk-oriented individual with a person who is more certainty-oriented. A relationship-oriented person from a culture where building amicable and trusting relationships is an art form could be designated as the Team Shepherd, while a task-focused team member could be assigned to some of the most time-sensitive deliverables as The Enforcer. Such labels can be playful, intentional, and practically useful at the same time. They also help to keep diverse team members focused on implementation rather than reverting back to idea generation, which comes more easily.
Figure 5: Cultural Profiles
The potential of a diverse workforce will only be fully unleashed when it is tapped to innovate and grow the business. This means far more than a rich brainstorming session which generates attractive ideas that then falter or fall flat when it comes to implementation. Managing global innovation requires leveraging diversity from every possible angle to drive the innovation process all the way from inception to execution. This is easier said than done, but the steps outlined here provide a partial roadmap. Leaders who adopt these practices or invent their own methods for eliciting contributions from diverse team members will have even greater reasons to celebrate diversity.
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Leading Across New Borders: How to Succeed as the Center Shifts, co-authored by Ernest Gundling & Karen Cvitkovich is available through all major outlets. Get your copy!
(i) Kelley, Tom, The Ten Faces of Innovation. New York: Doubleday, 2005.
About The Authors
Ernest Gundling, PhD is a co-Founder of Aperian Global & currently serves as Managing Partner. Ernest works with clients to develop strategic global approaches to leadership, organization development, and relationships with key business partners. He’s a frequent contributor to many industry publications and has authored several books including the recently published, Leading Across New Borders: How to Succeed as the Center Shifts.
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