Uncharted Waters

Dec 9 2014   12:33PM GMT

You Keep Saying Diversity, Does it Mean What You Think it Means?

Michael Larsen Michael Larsen Profile: Michael Larsen

During the latter part of November, I had the pleasure of attending EuroSTAR 2014 in Dublin, Ireland. Many of the talks delivered at this conference focused on diversity in the workplace. I think it is imperative we endeavor to engage the the creative talents of as many people as possible, and that we do so without regard to gender, ethnic background, sexual orientation, or factors related to physical mobility and information processing. These are areas frequently used to describe diversity. They are the most visible, and therefore, should rightly be considered examples of “external diversity”. That’s important, but it’s only part of the story.

five chairs with a rainbow

Let’s make sure we look at the whole picture when it comes to diversity.

Internal Diversity Matters, Too

Another level of diversity is also critical, but more difficult to manage. It should rightly be called “internal diversity”. This is diversity of experience, of thought, of conscience, of opinion, of belief, and of interaction. Over the past decade, I’ve noticed a tremendous amount of pride in companies for hiring an externally diverse team, but when we get everyone together, there’s still a “sameness”. Externally, the slots and checkboxes are met, but the internal diversity, if it is there, is well hidden.

In small organizations, similarities in experience and background can be very helpful. People working on a particular problem can count on the fact that their teammates are well equipped to tackle that challenge. If the goal is clear, and the desired outcome is fully agreed upon, this “sameness” is helpful, more efficient, and perhaps even orders of magnitude more effective.

When “Sameness” Is a Disadvantage

This “sameness” falls short when the team wants to innovate in an entirely different way. If we are content to copy what others have done, to provide only incremental improvements, then this is acceptable. If our desire is to make something new, something boldly different, something that has “never been done before”, a team lacking in “internal diversity” will struggle.

By contrast, a team that genuinely embraces differences in experience (think Linux vs. Windows, atheist vs. religious, extrovert vs. introvert, country vs. opera, etc.), and takes the time to leverage that breadth of experience (and actually embrace it), that team has potential for breakthroughs. It may not always be comfortable, but here is where having a clear view of which diversity matters (and which sameness matters) really becomes important. If a sameness needs to exist, it should be the sameness of purpose, the sameness of the desire to meet the goal.

Ten unique pencil colors. One pencil has a blue lead but a pink casing.

What you see is what you get… or is it?

Think Different, For Real

As Albert Einstein famously stated: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them”. Likewise, its unlikely we will develop new ways of thinking and interacting if we haven’t had practice actually challenging the ways we think and interact. External diversity is very important, but internal diversity is even more so. Genuinely encourage the internal diversity of your teams. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the new insights that develop.

2  Comments on this Post

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  • Ben Rubenstein
    Interesting post, Michael. I'd agree that diversity of experience and philosophy is important in the workplace. How do you think this should be addressed? Is it about how job descriptions are put together, how screenings/interviews happen, etc.? In other words, who's responsible for driving this change?
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  • Michael Larsen
    I think a lot of it needs to come down to people being genuinely willing to be open to people who don't "think like they do". Let's face it, we all tend to hang out with people who are "like us" in some fundamental way. It doesn't have to be in all ways, but when too many people with too many similarities come together, even with outward diversity, there is a sameness to the group. Look a little further afield, be willing to talk to people that might not immediately fit your world view, and yes, this is tough. In short, be willing to ask questions of people you hope to hire in ways that will go beyond what you want to hear. The canned responses lead to sameness, ask questions that will avoid or go beyond the canned responses, and then ask if the variations will enhance the team or hinder it. All technical chops being equal, if they are motivated, and want to help the organization succeed, look to expand on what you are naturally comfortable with.
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