Innovation needs diversity

Most creative ideas do not come from ‘great thinkers’ toiling alone but from diverse teams. Some months back, I had an interaction with a partner at a Toronto mid-sized firm that went something like this...

Most creative ideas do not come from ‘great thinkers’ toiling alone but from diverse teams.

Some months back, I had an interaction with a partner at a Toronto mid-sized firm that went something like this:
Partner: “Hey, you’re that guy who works on diversity with the lawyers.”

Naveen: “Yes. Nice to meet you. Diversity, inclusion and strategic organizational change management. I’m Naveen Mehta. You are?”

Partner:    “[. . .], great to meet you. Listen, nothing against diversity, but that additional layer would add unnecessary operational costs to our firm, our size. It’s unnecessary. We just look for the best lawyers we can find who fit and support them. The stuff about diversity being important to innovation is a nice thought, but it’s unproven in the legal world.”

With that exchange, I was gifted with the inspiration for this article. While our profession has been having the conversation about diversity among our ranks, we have moved too slowly at acknowledging, much less embracing, the multitude of obvious and nuanced benefits that diverse decision-makers and staff bring to inclusive workplaces. Prominent among these benefits is that diversity is an indispensable key to unlocking organizational creativity and innovation.

Innovation is often defined as “the generation and introduction of new ideas, which lead to the development of new products and services, processes and systems in all areas of activity.”
We know with great certainty that diverse and inclusive organizations have higher financial returns. However, how can we know that innovation germinates more readily in diverse and inclusive workplaces?

As my friend seems to be articulating in our chat a few months back,  if you support your staff, somehow the spark of creativity will be ignited on its own. While I certainly agree that a supportive workplace culture allows people to grow and prosper, it does little toward sparking creativity and innovation. People who are like-minded from similar backgrounds and experiences often develop similar and narrow solutions. This type of “groupthink” insulates the organization from outside opinions and, as a result, can easily hinder the growth of a crucial element in innovation — new ideas. This is precisely what Walter Lippmann was referring to when he said: “When all think alike, then no one is thinking.”

In the modern era, people inherently crave a diversity of ideas and experiences, particularly those innovators among us. While sameness is comfortable, we know through social media, and its countless opinions on every topic, that we want to know different, new and alternative modes of doing things. It sparks that creative fire inside of us.

The relationship between diversity and innovation has been the subject of a vast amount of research. Broadly speaking, diverse teams and organizations, particularly those at the decision-making level, surpass homogenous workplaces. In addition to the persuasive research in this area, as lawyers, we know this intrinsically. By increasing the number of diverse perspectives around the table from individuals with substantially varied lived experiences, teams can develop better and more effective solutions.

In a 2013 European Union research paper entitled “Diversity and Innovation: A Business Opportunity for All,” a literature review cited a number of ways in which diversity supports innovation:

1. Flexibility, creativity and the ability to innovate are enhanced by the existence of dissimilar mindsets; that is to say that like-minded people make like-minded decisions, limiting the breadth and depth of innovative and creative thinking (Ozbilgin 2008).

2. While situations where individuals and groups find their existing mindsets, beliefs and knowledge sets challenged will produce effective learning, this is more likely to happen when there is a diverse mix of participants and an environment in which all individuals feel their views are valued.

3. Diversity can contribute to more effective decision-making and problem-solving capability by providing a diverse range of perspectives, a broader spectrum of expertise and more robust critical evaluation (Bassett-Jones, 2005).

4. Teams characterized by diversity have the capability to access broader networks of relationships, cultural capital and bicultural competence and bring these assets into the innovation process. Increased productivity, innovation and creativity are about making effective use of this capacity.

Academia has also produced research showing that gender diversity improves innovation. For instance, a 2010 study in the journal Science entitled “Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups” compared two groups that were asked to complete a set of cognitive tasks concerning “puzzles, brainstorming, making collective judgments and negotiating over limited resources” (doesn’t that sound like the work of lawyers in a firm?). Some groups were able to perform the initial tasks with ease and move on to other, more progressively complicated tasks. Other groups had difficulty completing the initial cognitive tasks. The researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University repeated these tests using almost 700 individuals in small groups and found patterns as to which groups struggled while others progressed.

What differentiated the groups that moved forward compared to the groups that were stuck on the easier initial tasks? The researchers found that the groups that succeeded had greater “collective intelligence” in that they (1) were more socially sensitive in their ability to read tacit social cues, (2) were more likely to allow all members of the group to speak and voice opinions and (3) included women. This is consistent with the fact that women scored higher in the social sensitivity test.

This research supports not only the view that gender diversity propels organizational performance due to the varying experiences and knowledge but that gender diversity helps enhance group performance through better interpersonal dynamics such as security, self-confidence, respect, safety and the freedom to experiment.

It is not surprising that a variety of studies on ethnocultural and racial diversity among decision-makers and teams have reached similar conclusions, finding higher levels of innovation and creativity. The greater the number of people in an organization who have different lived experiences, the greater the number and quality of different ideas and solutions. In the words of Nobel laureate Dr. Linus Pauling, described as “one of the 20 greatest scientists of all time” by New Scientist magazine, the “best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” Why was this difficult to grasp for my colleague who inspired this commentary?

Innovation and lawyers
While innovation is occurring at the most rapid pace it ever has, for most of human history, change has come at a relatively glacial speed. Often in business when large-scale innovation woke from its slumber, it was only tended to as one would tend a finely pruned bonsai tree. It was carefully curated, contemplated and digested before the idea was available to the masses through the market.

Some revolutionary changes were likely stumbled upon (fire comes to mind) while others resulted from great individual thinkers pondering and contemplating over weeks, months and years (C.V. Raman, Hedy Lamarr, Tagore, Plato). From our earliest days, we are nudged toward this “great thinker” model of innovation and creativity. People are bombarded with historical notions of “lone wolves” striking brilliance by themselves over a manuscript by candlelight or soldering circuit boards in their parent’s garage. On its own, the rationale behind the “great thinker” model is problematic and often antithetical to how new ideas, approaches and services come to be. It is no wonder that we don’t seem to inherently equate innovation as a collaborative effort among many with differing ideas, opinions and backgrounds.

As lawyers, we often think of ourselves as functioning in such a vacuum despite the fact that we often work with many associates, partners and support staff or in-house in legal teams. Our profession sometimes relies on this romanticized view of professional individuality to rationalize how we think the legal world operates and should operate.

Diversity + inclusion = innovation
An essential, and often overlooked, component is that a diversity of voices from a variety of experiences and backgrounds can only be harnessed if those voices are given value, are heard and included in decision-making. When people from historically oppressed groups attempt to share their thoughts and solutions, there must be an authentic readiness to unreservedly hear, listen and engage those thoughts. If a workplace culture discriminates and fails to be respectful and inclusive, substantial barriers to the communication of ideas often render the organizational diversity ineffective. By sustaining diversity efforts, on the one hand, and diminishing inclusion on the other, your workplace will shift only negligibly closer toward being an innovation powerhouse. As such, the seeds of creativity only germinate and prosper in the soil, water and sunlight of inclusive and diverse workplace cultures.

Naveen Mehta is general counsel to UFCW Canada and a member of Legal Leaders for Diversity and Inclusiveness. He is also a Keynote Speaker, Educator and Principle at Plan | Motion Growth Strategies.

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