diversityA couple of months ago, I spoke to 75 human resource professionals on the topic of innovation and how it can be leveraged through the diversity of thought. As a former diversity practitioner, this topic is one of my personal favorites.

Innovation is every employee’s responsibility

Business success depends on many things — one of the most important is the ability of employees to contribute in a meaningful way. Innovation, whether looking for the next best product or the most efficient and effective means of collecting, analyzing and reporting data, is every employee’s responsibility. Companies that leverage the collective knowledge, skills and experiences of their employee base have the advantage.

The challenge? How does one innovate from the diversity of thought?

Here’s a hint: No matter how diverse an organization is, without inclusion, the benefit is lost.

  • loss of the full potential of the individual
  • loss of the full participation in a team environment
  • loss of the ability to leveraging diversity of thought to create a working culture of innovation and flexible business success

It’s one thing to have a fantastically diverse employee base, it’s something quite different to actively engage this group to work with each other and off of each other to evoke individual and collective excellence.

In 2012 IBM published the CEO study, “Leading Through Connections.” In that study, 75 percent of the more than 1,700 CEOs and senior public-sector leaders from around the globe said that leveraging diversity through collaboration is critical to organizational success.

Clearly, business leaders believe that companies with the ability to leverage the collective knowledge, skills, and experiences of their employee base have the advantage.

No expertise required

I remember reading a Wall Street Journal article a decade ago about open innovation and how recognition and prizes were being offered for solutions to global problems. I was specifically riveted by the fact that many of the solutions recognized and rewarded were made by individuals who had no previous experience in the specific field of work from which the problem stemmed.

Reading this study had a profound impact on me. I was thrilled at the thought that I didn’t have to be an expert to make a difference in the world. It was as if reading the results of that study gave me permission to contribute to any and everything going on around me if that body of work resonated with me. As strange as it may sound, this shifted my perspective. It ignited my passion for innovation and the diversity of thought.

What was unique about the open innovation experiment was how the challenges were framed. They were not overly specific which allowed contributors to offer solutions from their respective points of view, experiences, ideas, and opinions.

Framing the question

The power in framing ensures that perspective is not restricted; in other words, that we are not alienating one kind of thinker/doer by speaking specifically to another. There are systems oriented thinkers/doers and micro-detailed thinkers/doers and everything in between. When creating an innovative and inclusive culture, we want to toss a wide net to capture the greatest amount of perspective.

Dr. Tina Seelig, Executive Director for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program and Director of the National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation, is recognized as one of the leaders in innovation. In her article, How Reframing a Problem Leads to Innovation, she gives the perfect example to show why extra thought should be given to framing a question.

One could ask, “What is the sum of 5 plus 5?”

Or, one could ask, “What two numbers add up to 10?”

The first question has only one right answer. However, the second question has an infinite number of solutions, including negative numbers and fractions.

This one consideration — framing a question in a way that elicits multiple options that meet the need — can make all the difference in driving innovative thinking.

Practical next steps

1) Like any business objective, you need to know that the execs are on board. Leaders need to commit to creating a culture of “more than one way” and recognize and reward employees who think outside the box. If your CEO is open to change and flexible in his or her willingness to take risks, then there exists a great opportunity to introduce or beef up existing innovation initiatives. That might look like the internal version of open sourcing, where all employees are invited to contribute to business challenges (and be recognized for working solutions). Or it could be a strategic group approach where innovation teams are assembled with members who are deliberately sought for the differing backgrounds, skills and problem-solving methods and then facilitated through a problem-solving scenario.

2) Look at survey data. Do employees feel safe sharing unsolicited thoughts and ideas? Do they trust that management will sincerely hear their input? In her article titled Diversity of thought should trump racial-ethnic approach, Teresa Taylor, former chief operating officer of Qwest Communications, states that in order to leverage the diversity of thought an organization must ready itself. “You must first evaluate whether your organization is constrained by traditions and resistant to alternative ways of doing things. Second, you must ask yourselves, what behaviors are encouraged, supported, rewarded and valued?”

3) Establish an ongoing system to collect, nurture and harvest an innovative environment. That means recognizing the effort employees make to provide input; it means “telling the story” about the best ideas and how they came to be. Providing incentive to management who are willing to deal with increased ambiguity and uncertainty is also important. It would be easy to incorporate innovation into existing recognition programs but depending on how serious you are about leveraging diversity of thought, you may want to create a new awards program that specifically recognizes progress in this area and the impact it has across your business.

4) Communicate! You will need a communication plan to support a business strategy for innovation. Some tactical elements of that plan might include:

  • Seminars that offer tools to help employee leaders deal with issues that arise from cultural diversity.
  • Innovation facilitators — employees trained to effectively facilitate dialogue from divergent perspectives, through forming, storming and norming, into a coherent, cohesive proposal or recommendation.
  • Employee-led innovation groups where the senior representative acts as a sponsor instead of a leader. In teams where hierarchy is invisible, members are more willing to be themselves and share more freely.
  • Storytelling about success — and don’t sugar coat them. Success may start out messy before you experience real progress and that’s where the real power of the story rests.
  • Benchmark against other companies and freely share your wins.

Final thoughts

Leveraging innovation through diversity of thought first requires you to surround yourself with individuals who don’t think like you. That’s hard to do because our natural tendency is to be with people who share our views. We’ve been trained to assemble teams and produce results yesterday. That means we’re always looking for synergies of thought for the purpose of efficiency. As efficient as that strategy may sound it is not innovative; nor does it produce lasting value add.

If your company culture supports — truly supports — the notion of innovation and you have set the proper framework to build a diverse culture of trust and calculated risk-taking, then you’ll begin to get the best of your employees — all of them, both individually and in groups. Isn’t that where you really want to be?

Listen to the full presentation. (50 minutes)

Photo found here. 


Sheila Callaham is an author, speaker, and success coach. She was an inclusion and diversity practitioner for more than a decade before resigning her corporate role to advocate through her writing, speaking and facilitation. Her first book, Truth Runs Deep, is a work of crime fiction dealing with issues of religious and sexual bigotry.

Sheila has a Master of Arts in International Studies from Old Dominion University and a Bachelor of Science in Government and Politics from the University of Maryland, Europe. She holds certificates in Management, Organizational Development, and Coaching.

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