Diversity: the key to innovation

Diversity: the key to innovation

October 10, 2019

Some years ago, when I was working in an Argentine EPC company, diverse work teams were promoted. Diverse in the broadest sense of the word. At the time it seemed like a necessary speech, fun, even marketing, but perhaps because of the youth, or not having gone through concrete experiences that corroborated it, I didn’t get to see the importance of that definition that the company had.

Years later, working in an Oil & Gas operator, where innovating processes became a determining factor for the fulfillment of the company’s objectives, I began to comprehend that the lack of this condiment led us to poor results, and with a small addition of this and good leadership, the results were outstanding. It is common in recruitment interviews that we tend to incorporate into our teams people who think, and even look similar to us. This would seem at first glance xenophobic, is a natural bias of people, not to leave the comfort zone hiring people with similar perspectives and beliefs.

Great advantages

In some cases, homogeneity can be a great advantage, who would not want to have in a basketball team high players who speak the same language? You just want the best players.

When it comes to more complex intellectual tasks, especially where innovation requires a great flow of different ideas, the visions and perspectives of people of different gender, social class, education, height, etc., come to strongly enrich this process.

I remember in a brain storming of innovation, with a homogeneous group, trying to find innovative mechanisms to obtain data from multiple remote points without access to data, in oil fields distributed all over the country. We always came to the same conclusions, to extend the current wireless data network to those locations. A project that, due to its complexity and cost, would take several years, that would not resist the analysis of a business case in the balance investment vs. value of the information of those points. However, when we added new actors to the team (with a lot of diversity, difficult to mention), simple, extraordinary conclusions were reached, quickly to implement, quickly validated in a business case. This is because the new players were able to see innovative alternatives hidden from others.

Hidden points

Simply because of the social conditions they had experienced during their childhood, they were able to find solutions similar to the ones they intelligently found in their homes to solve everyday problems. Of course not only diversity was key to the success of the innovation process, but also the space and interactions between people, and the leadership that contribute to success or conclude in an innovative solution.

When a problem is complex, or we need to find new answers, every person has their hidden points in their thinking that can be attributed to their gender, their culture, their education, etc. And in other people, those hidden points are simply visible. If everyone in the team has the same hidden points, they are likely to get even more hidden, and everyone in the homogeneous team will tend to avoid them. We will filter those points so they will not bother us.

Source of problems

However, not everything is advantageous in diverse groups (at least in order to innovate), diversity can also be a source of problems. People in the team may have different values, identify less with the work group or more discomfort when leaving the comfort zone, or shame to feel criticized by those who are not equal, greater difficulty in the team in reaching a shared vision etc.. It is difficult from my experience to know the psychological or sociological backgrounds that diversity can bring as advantages or disadvantages for the innovation process, but probably anthropologically we are designed to remain under the umbrella of what is known, what is similar, and away from what is different. In the experiences I had from diverse groups, I could see that, in order to take greater advantage of the advantages of diversity for innovation, there must be strong leadership work, where negative points can be neutralized or even used in favor.

The romantic thinking I had about diversity in my youth, I corroborated with the years that it has enormous potential. And not only that, sometimes I think that even in basketball or other activities that would seem to require greater homegeity, diversity would be a source of enormous wealth.

From “Day of the Race” to “Día de la Diversidad Cultural Americana”

October 12 commemorates the day Christopher Columbus arrived in America. Previously this day was known as the “Day of the Race”. In 2010, the name of “Día de la Raza” was changed to “Día de la Diversidad Cultural Americana” (American Cultural Diversity Day). It is now a date used in Argentina to promote historical reflection and intercultural dialogue about the rights of indigenous peoples. This eliminates the word race, which lacks scientific validity, being an erroneous and pejorative political-social conception, which favors racist attitudes.

With “American Cultural Diversity Day”, we promote permanent reflection on history, cultural diversity, the promotion of Human Rights of our native communities, and mainly the equality of people. It is a parameter from which to generate change, to put ourselves in the place of those who feel displaced, promote equal conditions and respect for others.

This shows that we are maturing as a society, even though there is still a long way to go and I personally feel that I mature as an individual with every aspect of this type that I contemplate and internalize.



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