What is it, and why is it gaining so much traction?
For many years, technology company SAP has practiced diversity and inclusion through an active D&I program. Recently, the company realized that with employees representing more than 90 nationalities, the business-as-usual D&I practices were not enough.
Instead, SAP has begun embracing a trend in the D&I field—diversity of thought—in which innovative ideas come from dissimilar teams.
For Anka Wittenberg, SAP chief D&I officer, diversity of thought is more than just a trending idea. It is emerging as a powerful new way to align business goals with diversity initiatives.
“Some of our best teams combine Millennials with older employees, people who speak different languages, have different backgrounds and education,” says Wittenberg. “We have found that this drives both innovation and employee engagement.”
What Is Diversity of Thought?
The idea that our thinking is shaped by our culture, background, experiences, and personalities is core to the concept of diverse thought. Companies that bring together people who think differently from one another—for example, analytical types with creative ones, “big-picture” folks with the detail-oriented ones—can create conversations that stimulate new ideas and drive efficiency.
“Diversity of thought goes beyond the affirmation of equality—simply recognizing differences and responding to them,” states a 2013 study by Deloitte Consulting. “Instead, the focus is on realizing the full potential of people, and in turn the organization, by acknowledging and appreciating the potential promise of each person’s unique perspective and different way of thinking.”
Leaders and organizations must accept that there’s not just one right way to get things done. To be truly innovative—and inclusive—companies must focus on harnessing employees’ different viewpoints and opinions.
“Too many organizations try to engage employees around their commonalities, but instead they should focus on what differences each employee is able to contribute to a common mission at work,” says Carmen Medina, a specialist leader with Deloitte Consulting and a key leader on the report. Through her research, Medina found that combining two or more things not normally related to each other often drives innovation. “An organization needs to have people with broad experiences and exposure to different ideas,” she posits.
“Diversity of thought yields a kind of positive friction from varying approaches, training, and mind-sets,” agrees Selena Rezvani, corporate diversity consultant and author of Pushback: How Smart Women Ask—and Stand Up—for What They Want. “That very friction or rub, made up of the disagreement—and often lengthier processing time—of different team members, is what makes diverse teams higher performing, collectively, compared to homogeneous ones.”
One of Rezvani’s clients, a major pharmaceutical company, was attempting to bring a new drug to market. The multi-billion dollar investment involved internal stakeholders including research and development teams and external teams of physicians and patients. “My client overemphasized the importance of the internal marketing team to the process when the drug was brought to the FDA for approval,” she says. “But in reality, there needed to be more input from a diverse range of doctors and patients too.”
The lesson learned by placing too much emphasis on the expertise of one team? The company’s major drug was not approved by the FDA. “The company suffered from tunnel vision in an expensive way. But it’s an easy mistake that could apply to any industry.”
With Rezvani’s help, the company identified key stakeholders and gathered input from a diverse set of leaders. Despite the longer process time, the drug was approved the second time around.
Driving Two-Dimensional Innovation
A study by the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) reached similar conclusions as the Deloitte research. It scrutinized two types of diversity: inherent and acquired.
Inherent diversity refers to traits you are born with, such as gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Acquired diversity centers on traits you gain from experience; for example, how working in another country can help you appreciate cultural differences. Companies that have leaders with three or more inherent diversity traits and three acquired diversity traits are characterized as having two-dimensional diversity.
The CTI study found that by correlating diversity in leadership with market outcomes, companies with two-dimensional diversity out-innovate and outperform others. Employees were 45 percent likelier to report that their firm’s market share grew over the previous year, and 70 percent were likelier to report that their firm captured a new market.
“Two-dimensional diversity unlocks innovation by creating an environment where ‘outside the box’ ideas are heard,” CTI’s CEO Sylvia Ann Hewlett wrote in a Harvard Business Review blog post. “When minorities form a critical mass and leaders value differences, all employees can find senior people to go to bat for compelling ideas and can persuade those in charge of budgets to deploy resources to develop those ideas.”
Guarding Against Groupthink
Because the fundamental premise of diversity of thought rests on bringing together different ideas, it can also help guard organizations from groupthink.
Some of the world’s most innovative companies have relied on creative disagreement to foster growth. Take the famous example of Alfred Sloan, General Motors CEO from 1923 to 1946. Sloan closed a senior executive meeting by saying, “Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here.” Everyone nodded. So he continued, “Then, I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until the next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement, and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”
Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.com, is also known to dislike “social cohesion” and prefers that employees disagree openly in meetings. “Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit: Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting,” states a leadership principle on the company’s website.
The role of the manager or leader is key in fostering creative debate. “The trick about safeguarding against groupthink is also training managers to be expert facilitators, not controllers,” says Deloitte’s Medina. “You need an objective manager to combat groupthink, one who listens to different points of view and always asks ‘What did I miss?’ not ‘Who agrees with what I just said?’”
“If everyone on my team is constantly agreeing with me, I’ve made a terrible series of hiring mistakes,” says Stacy-Marie Ishmael, editor, news apps, Buzzfeed News. “As a leader or a manager, you need to create an environment that encourages alternative viewpoints, while making it clear what will not be tolerated—racism, sexism, various phobias shouldn’t be given a pass in the name of ‘playing devil’s advocate.’” Ishmael has built and managed various teams at organizations including The Financial Times and Percolate, a technology startup based in New York.
Testing the New Limit of Diversity at SAP
SAP deployed the diverse thought strategy in an unexpected way—by recruiting employees with autism.
“About two years ago, SAP started to work with people with autism in India,” says Wittenberg. “We now have 50 full-time global employees with autism. The program has had early successes, and SAP plans to roll it out into new markets this year. The positive impact on our teams has been remarkable. Instead of focusing on what people are not good at, we looked at bringing the unique talents of these individuals to tackle business challenges at SAP.”
SAP’s goal is to have 1 percent of its workforce made up of employees with autism by 2020.
Wittenberg says this program, combined with other diversity initiatives, has driven high employee engagement. Initiatives like these encourage more employees to bring their authentic selves to work. As she says, “Organizations must be open to letting their people bring the authenticity and uniqueness they have to work.” DW
Activate Diversity of Thought in Your Organization
How can organizations successfully undertake a strategy that actually works? The Deloitte report makes three recommendations.
Hire differently. When writing a job description and interviewing candidates, ensure that the process is designed to identify a cognitively diverse organization. Be prepared to shake up the status quo by recruiting opinionated candidates.
Selena Rezvani, corporate diversity consultant, suggests asking candidates unconventional questions like, “How would you assimilate into our culture and at the same time not blindly conform?”
“Companies need to set the stage before employees join the organization that diversity of thought is welcomed and expected,” she says. She also recommends using technology, like GapJumpers, that allows recruiters to screen for problem-solving abilities to a hypothetical case and only later to see a candidate’s training, background, and résumé. “Many recruiters learn from this that educational background is less important than they originally thought,” she adds.
Manage differently. Rather than seeking consensus, managers should encourage task-focused conflict that is designed to push teams to scale new heights of creativity. The aim is to foster an environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing their views and their authentic selves.
“Make one of your corporate values that ‘we challenge norms, especially our own,’ and encourage ‘hero stories’ and success stories that involve people consciously staffing teams for diversity of thought and their positive outcomes,” says Rezvani.
It’s also important to assess the different types of diversity across your organization. “Does your company have a representative mix of social and economic backgrounds?” poses Buzzfeed’s Stacy-Marie Ishmael. “What about generational mixing? Don’t just roll your eyes at the Millennials, and don’t create an environment that is implicitly hostile to boomers. Do you have immigrants on your team? I don’t just mean expats with an army of lawyers at their disposal.”
Promote differently. Deloitte recommends moving to a team-based performance evaluation. This fosters a culture of inclusion that empowers employees and inspires collaboration and innovation.
“I recommend sessions on implicit bias, to help ensure people are aware where their strongly or loosely held convictions might be coming from,” says Ishmael.
Does hiring people who readily shake up the status quo bring challenges? Absolutely! Wittenberg cautions organizations to be prepared to travel the harder path when embarking on this journey. “It’s always easier to hire and promote someone who brings more of your value system to the table,” she says. “But you really need someone who is comfortable challenging existing systems to innovate.”
Once the practice of hiring and advancing diverse employees becomes entrenched in the culture, the business impact is often quickly noticeable. The long-term benefits are just too large to ignore.—R.T.
Ruchika Tulshyan is a Seattle-based journalist and content strategist.