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.
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.
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.