November 6, 2020

How Diversity Leads to Innovation

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” We broadly accept this assertion, even if it turns out that Einstein never actually said it! 

But it’s equally insane to think we can continually gather a group of “like-minded” people and produce a different idea. In fact, the opposite is true. When we need a new approach to a business imperative, homogeneity does not serve us well. 

Innovation requires diversity. 

In a popular Hidden Brain episode, NPR journalist Shankar Vedantam investigates cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s SilkRoad Ensemble, a global musical group formed to explore radical cultural collaboration. Ma’s vision was born in the scientific idea of “the edge effect,” or “the point in which two ecosystems meet, like the forest and the savannah. And apparently, in ecology, this edge effect is where the most new life-forms are created.” 

New ideas develop where different experiences collide. Social psychologist Adam Galinsky explores the human side of this idea, focusing his studies on how interpersonal diversity affects creativity. He found that business school students who dated someone from another country became more innovative in their work. Even thinking about a deep relationship with a person from another country, he found, results in a spike in creativity. 

We see this every day in Reflection Point (formerly Books@Work). The collision of diverse perspectives paves the way for creativity – and the effects spill over into the workplace. One participant at a large tech company explained this particularly well: “After the session, I would leave and say ‘You know what? This guy said something interesting, and I haven’t thought about it this way. At times it was mentally challenging, in a good way, because you force yourself to think differently.”

Think differently 

It’s about just that - thinking differently. Being introduced to another way of thinking sparked by someone else’s interpretation or experience. Reflecting on a common story expands the possibilities for divergent thinking. “It was like an explosion of ideas and perspectives,” shared a leader in a large manufacturer.  “[It’]s great for helping us realize that everybody is different. It doesn’t always have to be my way or my thinking.” 

In effect, Reflection Point provides the “edge,” the space and context for the collision of ideas, perspectives and diverse backgrounds. Stories take us to new places, and with skilled facilitation, invite different interpretations. But the groundbreaking a-ha moments and bursts of creative energy come about in the human exchange of ideas, when we see each other and the world with new eyes. 

Reflection gives us an edge

New ideas emerge at the edges - of old ideas, perspectives, backgrounds. Our colleagues often possess an often untapped wealth of knowledge and experience. Wider diversity only enriches the possibilities. When we invest the time to learn from and with them – who they are, where they’re from, what they know, why they behave the way they do – we replace old habits and modes of thought with something fresh and innovative. 

Diversity doesn’t just help innovation, it drives innovation. Whether you’re a musician performing with other musicians, or a nurse who is exposed to a different style of nursing, or an engineer who encounters a fresh way of thinking. Creative sparks fly when diverse perspectives collide.

Image Credit:
Martin Weller
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