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Workforce Diversity And Corporate Creativity
Besides many other benefits, a diverse workforce increases the innovation potential of any organization!
Pick up almost any book on the subject of creativity - whether you find it in the Business section, Psychology, Education, Art, or Entertainment - and you will probably come across a segment on divergent thinking, a central concept in explaining what transpires in the creative process. Basically, it is as the name implies: starting with a certain task or objective as the focal point, divergent thinkers allow or push themselves to make successive lateral connections or associations. In doing this, they continually expand upon the range of ideas they are generating, even as those ideas may seem progressively less related to the original task or focus. Graphic depictions of this often resemble a fishbone diagram gone wild, or a web spun by some out-of-control spider. Divergent thinking, in other words, can be a somewhat untidy process.
However, as unruly as divergent thinking may appear, it is an essential element of creative thinking and problem-solving. As Howard Gardner notes in Creating Minds (1993):
"In contrast [to convergent thinkers], when given a stimulus or a puzzle, creative people tend to come up with many different associations, at least some of which are idiosyncratic and possibly unique. Prototypical items on a creativity test ask for as many uses as possible for a brick, a range of titles for a story, or a slew of possible interpretations of an abstract line drawing: a psychometrically creative individual can habitually issue a spectrum of divergent responses to each item, at least some of which are rarely encountered in the responses of others."
When individuals engage in divergent thinking, they put themselves in a highly exploratory mode, drawing upon more of their total life experience to help solve a particularly vexing problem or discover a new direction. For divergent thinkers, it is perfectly okay to stop concentrating directly on the task at hand, and begin searching through their internal "files" that may be only tangentially related to it. While these may not speak directly to the problem they've been grappling with, they may offer dozens of clues in the form of analogies, metaphors or other stimulus material that can connect back to the original task or objective.
A manager's childhood memory of a game played with young friends sparks a new thought about team dynamics in her department. The biology homework a software engineer has been helping his daughter with gives him a sudden inspiration about the systems architecture he's been working on. For a marketing specialist, wildlife images on the Discovery Channel bring to mind a new approach for promoting a product or service. The possibilities are endless. In fact, for the divergent thinker, this process can and often does occur so quickly and seamlessly that he/she may get a creative idea and never be consciously aware of what inspired it!
Those whom we would identify as "creative" are so because they provide themselves, through this exploratory process, with a huge array of stimulus material for sparking new ideas, drawn from their total life experience. The richer and more varied that life experience, the more stimulus material from which to make creative connections, and so the greater the chance of coming up with ideas that are fresh and qualitatively different from those that result from a more linear, conventional thought process.
Creativity on a team level
So, if this is what the creative process looks like on a purely individual level, what about on a team level, or throughout the entire organization? How does our understanding of what is going on internally in the mind of a divergent thinker translate to what teams of employees can do to creatively tackle the opportunities and challenges faced by their companies?
Our consulting experience shows that the organizational equivalent of the rich and varied personal life experiences, from which the divergent thinker gets his/her ideas, is the diversity of the organization's workforce. (One can't help noticing the similarity between the words diverge and diverse, and indeed they share common etymological roots). Those companies that have strived to achieve such diversity over the past decade or two, whether by intention or not, have created the very conditions that lend themselves to producing more creative outcomes to the problems and challenges they take on. As William Sonnenschein states in The Diversity Toolkit: How You Can Build and Benefit from a Diverse Workforce (1999):
"Diversity brings differences in styles and in ways of looking at and doing things which can help organizations do more than they ever dreamed possible. Diversity can help organizations create new and more innovative products and services, better meet the needs of customers and clients, and do more for the community the organizations are part of and serve. Diversity means differences, and differences create challenges, but differences also open avenues of opportunities."
Perhaps the first company to formally study the relationship between diversity and creativity was Synectics, Inc., founded in 1960 and still in existence today. Synectics was the first consultancy dedicated to promoting corporate creativity and innovation in its client organizations, which have included such Fortune 500 icons as Coca-Cola, Unilever, Citigroup and 3M, as well as hundreds of smaller companies and non-profits.
In their earliest work, they consistently observed that the more diverse their project teams were, the more likely they were to come up with breakthrough concepts. They were so struck by this phenomenon, they even named their company after it! The term Synectics, coined from Greek roots, means "the bringing together of diversity."
Back in 1960, of course, the term "diversity" did not have quite the same connotations as in 2005. Today, in most people's minds, the term refers to the cultural, ethnic, racial and gender diversity valued by so many organizations that wish to better reflect the global marketplace in which they compete. In 1960, diversity was more about differences in educational background, professional training and function within the company. These factors played a large role in determining how individuals might approach a particular challenge. The more varied the group, the more wide-ranging the output during idea generation.
The more diverse, the better
Yet despite these different connotations, the impact of a diverse population on the potential creative output of a work team (and taken to a higher level, the entire organization) remains the same. The more diverse the experiences, perspectives and world views of the various members of a team working on a shared objective, the greater the likelihood of getting a creative mix of ideas from which to develop an innovative solution.
Here is an example of how diversifying the mix of thinkers in an ideation session can increase the creative output of the team. Several years ago we assisted a manufacturer of operating room equipment and supplies by conducting a new product invention session. They wanted to invent a new concept for a particular apparatus used in laparoscopic surgery. For this project, they had put together a team consisting of four individuals from R&D, and four from marketing. To their credit, they also included on the team an operating room nurse to get an "insider's" perspective.
Sensing that we would need to stretch the thinking of this group beyond the typical boundaries represented by the background and training of its members, we "seeded" the group (with their permission, of course) with two new players: an interior designer and an urban "street artist" who painted commissioned murals on sidewalks and underpasses in the city of Boston. Understandably, these may seem like strange choices (as they did to some on the client team), for what could these two "outsiders" possibly add to the group's knowledge and understanding about laparoscopy or the operating room environment? The answer: not a thing. But the group didn't need any more expertise.
Mixing it up
These two individuals contributed in an entirely different way. With their input, color, shape, spatial configuration and aesthetics quickly became part of the idea mix. Instead of simply talking about the various possibilities, as they undoubtedly would have done otherwise, the group was on the floor in no time, bringing to life on poster boards the various concepts they were considering. Energy was high throughout, the creative output exceptional. By the end of the two-day session they walked away with four new product concepts to consider and possibly develop into prototypes.
Maybe you would not have a street artist readily available when you want to come up with creative ideas for a new product or service. But if your company, like so many others, has strived over the years to develop a more diverse workforce, chances are your own employee base offers all the differing perspectives you need for inventing remarkably innovative concepts. These may be related to new products, more efficient operations, improved customer service - any objective for which fresh thinking and new ideas are required.
Look for fresh perspectives
Obviously this calls for a bit of creativity in putting together the teams. For any particular project, instead of just including the usual cast of characters, think of others from the company who could add some fresh perspectives to the mix of ideas.
What would an account representative have to say about a technical challenge R&D has been grappling with? How might an engineer's unique viewpoint affect the output of a group exploring new marketing approaches? What could the shop foreman contribute to a discussion about company strategy? The fact that the individuals representing these functions may themselves come from diverse backgrounds only adds to the intrigue.
There are many ways to "shake up" the thinking in an organization simply by changing the composition of ideation teams for various projects. Creativity thrives on such diversity, and even modest-sized companies have that.
However, you can't just place them all in the same room and expect brilliant results. Idea generation sessions need to be thoughtfully planned and firmly managed. This is especially true when the teams have been deliberately selected to include greater diversity. As Sonnenshein noted, "differences create challenges." Whatever conflicts might arise in the workplace among people with differing opinions and perspectives can show up even more intensively in a meeting whose very purpose is to lower barriers so people can work creatively with one another. Ironically, what makes such a group potentially so exciting can also make it difficult to manage.
Guidelines for keeping creativity high, climate cool
What follows, then, is some advice for the executive, manager, team leader or group facilitator seeking to organize and run such meetings. Here are five guidelines for keeping the creativity high among a diverse group of thinkers while maintaining a positive climate:
1. Make it safe to share creative ideas
Creative thinking is imprecise thinking. It means taking guesses and speaking in the hypothetical. While it can show how clever you are, it can also be revealing of what you do not know. This is especially true for those you have brought in specifically for their differing perspectives on the problem you're working on; they are probably not the subject matter experts.
Therefore, group members must be made to feel safe in pushing the envelope, particularly those who are lower in the corporate hierarchy. Immediate negative responses to an idea will kill it, along with any desire to offer another. It is incumbent upon those leading the group or sponsoring the meeting to convey openness to ideas that are untested or unfamiliar to their ears.
During a major corporate-wide improvement project, for example, for a large restaurant company that owned several fast food and cafeteria-style chains in the South and Midwest, a primary focus was to look at new ways of providing exceptional customer experiences for the company's thousands of patrons. Each team during the project work sessions represented a true "diagonal" slice of the organization. A typical group might consist of an executive from corporate, a regional director, one or two store managers, and several hourly employees such as waitresses, food preparers or cashiers. In most cases, the hourly workers had never met nor even knew the names of those at the regional or corporate level. The potential for intimidation - albeit unintended - was great. Yet these were the folks who were closest to the customer, and so it was insisted by the project facilitators that they actively take part in these sessions.
Not surprisingly, some of the best ideas came from the restaurant staff, many of which were put into operation (e.g., new additions to the menu, more efficient procedures for paying the check, improvements to store interiors), and this happened only because certain "ground rules" were introduced and continually reinforced that made all participants feel that every idea offered had value.
Ultimately, what determines the success of these meetings is an attitude by company leaders that values the creativity and diversity of employees, and embraces the long-term strategic benefits of this kind of collaboration.
2. Clearly articulate the objectives, and how they fit into the larger, strategic picture
Too often, participants in creative sessions are asked to generate ideas against an objective that is nebulous at best. "What is it we're working on?" is a frequently asked question.
Divergent thinking tends to get a little messy, as it should if participants are being encouraged to use their imaginations and turn off internal censors that inhibit responses. A good sign that people have embraced the spirit of the meeting is that their ideas are "all over the map." But it must always be kept in mind that there is a serious purpose to the session, fulfilling a real need. In the business world, creativity for its own sake gets old quickly.
A well-articulated objective with a clear explanation of how it fits in the overall company strategy serves as a touchstone throughout the process. Clarity of purpose actually encourages people to be more experimental and imaginative with their ideas. So the task that the group is working on should be written up clearly and simply. For example:
"Come up with a methodology for responding to customer telephone inquiries at least 15% faster than our present rate, using existing technology and personnel."
is preferable to:
"What are some ways we can improve our customer service?"
This doesn't mean that the group cannnot and would not explore other areas during the idea generation process; in fact, it is likely they will. But a clear statement of the objective serves to continually remind them of what they are attempting to accomplish, and what the deliverable is.
3. Turn points of disagreement into new ideas
Inevitably there are areas in which people will have opposing points of view. Particularly if group members have been selected to reflect greater diversity, these points of disagreement will occur; that is what happens when people with differing perspectives get together. In a creative session, these areas of dissonance can do wonders for the mix of ideas the group produces … unless the conflicts take center stage in the group process and become the focus of discussion. When group members start feeling compelled to defend their ideas, productivity will plummet.
It is not enough for the group leader to issue the familiar exhortation, "No idea is a bad idea," or similar mantra. People feel passionate about their closely held opinions (and yes, they believe that some ideas really are bad!).
Instead, the group leader should treat every disagreement as an opportunity to solicit a new idea, and facilitate the discussion accordingly. Here is an example of how this might play out:
PARTICIPANT A: "Users keep getting into trouble with this piece of equipment because there's an inherent design flaw in it. We should just replace the current feed mechanism with a simple gravity feed."
PARTICIPANT B: "There's nothing wrong with this design. It's been tested over and over, and it works just fine! The problems are due to user error.
GROUP LEADER (to Participant B): So what is your idea on this?
PARTICIPANT B: Well, I think we should include in the software a visual demonstration of how to set up the equipment, paying special attention to the feed mechanism, which can be confusing.
GROUP LEADER (writes idea on flipchart): Okay, thank you. Any other ideas on this?
By this approach, the group leader has managed the conversation in such way that both participants get to express their opposing opinions on the cause of the problem, without lapsing into a protracted discussion of "who is right." Equally important - since getting ideas is the purpose of idea generation - he has managed to elicit an additional suggestion on how to address the problem (i.e., the visual demonstration).
Behind every disagreement with an idea is yet another idea. Points of contention, therefore, should be viewed as opportunities to increase the group's output. If you actively encourage each participant to give voice to his/her ideas, and record them alongside the others, they are usually content to move on with the meeting, despite the differences. In most cases, this has been a highly effective way to manage the group's diversity and maintain a positive climate, while harvesting a large number of ideas against the objective.
4. Take the time to explore unusual, intriguing ideas for their real world applicability
Creative idea generation can be exciting and fun, but if in the end the result is a collective "so what?" not much will have been gained. Further, if certain group members feel they have taken risks in the session (see no. 1 above), they will be less willing to participate again if nothing tangible comes out of it.
All too often there is the unrealistic hope that someone will come up with "the answer" - an idea that is at once brand new and yet so well-defined it will be immediately apparent how it would look operationally. When this does not happen (almost always), ideas that are not readily seen as rational or feasible are eliminated one by one, leaving only the most mundane and familiar. People who roll their eyes at the thought of taking part in yet another brainstorming session have probably gone through this too many times.
Instead, ideas recorded in a brainstorming session should be considered starting points - the raw material for potential, innovative working concepts - rather than finished products. At least as much time should be devoted to fleshing out some of the more intriguing ones as on the initial idea generation itself. This is part of the "99% perspiration" Edison referred to in the invention process. Ultimately the value of a creative idea is determined by its real world applicability.
At a new products session for the Open Enterprise Computing Division of a large, European technology company in the "early" days of the Internet (mid-late '90's), one of the participants, spotting some janitorial supplies in the room, wished aloud for a product that could produce a "cleaner web" for business users. At the time, neither he nor his colleagues really understood what this meant. But they were sufficiently intrigued by the notion to spend time exploring what the idea might actually look like as a product or service.
The more detail they added, the more the idea began to crystallize as a potential new product with real business possibilities. Soon after, the concept they developed was taken through the corporation's formal new business planning process, and its development costs were funded. One year later it was launched as a new company. Today it is one of the most successful Internet filter software firms in the world.
It is within these kinds of beginning ideas - not those that are "comfortable" and
familiar-sounding - that the potential for real breakthrough exists. But they cannot be taken at face value; they must be "worked."
Development of an idea into a working concept is best accomplished by a sub-team of four to six people. Even in such a small group, diversity is a plus, as each member can bring in his/her unique perspective as the idea is massaged and refined. Some key questions this sub-team needs to address are:
How would this idea actually work in the "real world?" Describe it operationally. What are the details?
How is it unique? What separates it from other ideas that have been considered or tried? What makes it innovative?
If implemented, who would benefit and how?
What are the chief obstacles to implementation and how might they be resolved?
What further actions are necessary to move this toward implementation?
Using these as a guide, your teams can take almost any idea - even those that at first glance don't make a great deal of sense - and systematically build real world applicability into them. This systematic concept development process is, in effect, what happens when a creative idea evolves into a practical innovation.
5. Conclude your session with a set of action items and accountabilities
How many times have you been excited over a new initiative developed at a meeting, only to wonder several weeks later, "Whatever happened to that idea we were working on…?"
In the life cycle of a fragile new concept, the transition from its initial appearance to those first concrete steps that breathe life into it may be its most vulnerable period. If the group has in fact come up with a potential innovation for the company, it's far too easy to lose it during this period through a failure to take the necessary immediate actions. And here too, the group will want and expect something to show for its efforts.
A creativity session should therefore end by eliciting all the steps required to take selected concepts to the next level. They need to be written into the record - as specifically as possible - along with whomever is accountable for each, and an estimated time frame for completion. Even if the next step is simply to do further research into the concept's feasibility, this should be clearly articulated with expectations and criteria for completion.
In today's complex, global marketplace, an organization's diverse workforce is one of its most important resources. It is also a key asset in its ability to compete effectively through continuous innovation. By following these guidelines, you'll find your company reaping the benefits of more - and more creative - ideas for solving its toughest problems and exploiting its most promising opportunities.
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