Encouraging innovation through diversity

New Thinking 2 February 2016 Nicole McCallum

Business today is fast-paced and constantly changing, so it’s crucial for organisations to continually develop cutting-edge strategies to remain effective and efficient and ultimately achieve success. This is achieved through innovation.

But what is ‘innovation’? It’s a word which can take on a different nuance depending on the context in which it’s used. Innovation has been described as “a new method, idea, product, etc.” or “the process of translating an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value or for which customers will pay”. However, what innovation really boils down to is solving a problem in an efficient and effective, often novel way, to make things better.

Innovation is most effective as a collaborative process. Through sharing ideas and approaching problems from different angles, greater innovation can happen.

“Software innovation, like almost every other kind of innovation, requires the ability to collaborate and share ideas with other people, and to sit down and talk with customers and get their feedback and understand their needs.” Bill Gates

Innovation is enhanced, not only through fostering a collaborative environment, but also a diverse one. A like-minded group is less likely to improve in great leaps because they cannot think outside their own box.

Daniel Goleman, Psychologist and Author of Emotional Intelligence and Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, writes about ‘Group IQ’. The concept is essentially that a team with a wider range of backgrounds and abilities has a higher Group IQ. Goleman describes the effect of this as the “sum total of the best talent of every person on the team contributed at full force”. Where a company mainly operates through team structures, it becomes important to factor in Group IQ, rather than purely focusing on the individual IQ. When searching for solutions, a group of ordinary yet diverse people tends to trump a group of like-minded experts. Why is this? Scott Page, the author of The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies outlines the following aspects of diversity which contribute to a higher group cognitive ability:

  • Diverse Interpretations: people classify and categorise things in certain ways. There are different interpretations of the world
  • Diverse Perspectives: people have differing ways of representing a situation or problem
  • Diverse Heuristics: people have different ways of finding solutions to problems
  • Diverse Predictive Models: some people analyse the situation, whereas others may look for the story

A varied team will result in improved productivity by allowing each person to complement one another’s weaker points. When faced with a problem, an individual uses their unique set of knowledge to search for a solution – a person’s background and experience will influence their perceptions. If every individual within the group has a differing perspective on a problem and they share and critique one another in an open environment, then it is more likely a new and possibly better solution will be found. The benefit of collaboration between diverse individuals is that each person can continually add improvements to the other's ideas. This is how innovation happens.

Diversity is a two-dimensional concept. The first dimension is ‘inherent diversity’ and the second dimension is ‘acquired diversity’. Inherent diversity includes those traits one is born with, e.g. gender and ethnicity. Acquired diversity encapsulates those traits gained from experience.

Innovation is at its best when both types of diversity are present.

In other words, 2D diversity is the key to unlocking innovation.

Having participated in Assurity’s Graduate Programme, I’ve seen the advantages of being in a 2D diverse team. Within my intake, we had a high degree of inherent diversity with people of all ages, ethnicities and a roughly equal proportion of males and females. We also had a high degree of acquired diversity, with various educational backgrounds such as Information Science, Genetics, Law, Computer Engineering and Commerce.

Faced with a challenge, it soon became obvious how beneficial it was to have a team made up of diverse individuals. What at first seemed like an overwhelmingly impossible task was made manageable simply because each person added values different from the others.

This team environment enabled each individual to be more efficient and creative in the work produced. We would listen and improve on each other’s ideas until we found the ultimate solution. It allowed us, as a collective, to truly think outside the box and therefore be more effective than the sum of our parts.

Many companies are coming to realise the relationship between diversity and innovation, bringing diversity to the forefront of business strategies.

“...[Employing] people from different backgrounds and who have various skills, viewpoints and personalities will help you to spot opportunities, anticipate problems and come up with original solutions before your competitors do.” Richard Branson on diversity

But diversity in the technology industry has been slow to eventuate – and this has been highlighted as a problem. Recent statistics gathered from top tech companies such as Google, Yahoo, LinkedIn and Facebook disclosed very low levels of ethnic and gender diversity. Results show these tech companies are predominantly made up of White or Asian males. The stats are similar across most tech companies where around 60% are White, 30% are Asian and 70% are male. In Silicon Valley, male employees outnumber female employees two to one. The gender imbalance is even worse in New Zealand, where only 20% of ICT professionals are women.

In light of these statistics, many of these large tech organisations have made public commitments to increasing levels of diversity. Google has invested $50 million in a campaign to close the tech gender gap. The initiative includes exposing girls to technology from a young age to build up their interest and confidence in coding. Pinterest has set itself the goal of increasing hiring rates for full-time engineering roles to 30% female and 8% under-represented ethnic backgrounds.

It has been suggested that one possible cause is a pipeline issue; there are not enough girls studying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) electives. In New Zealand, one in five tertiary IT students is female. Furthermore, many young people are not aware of the variety of roles and opportunities the technology industry offers and this subsequently limits those who are interested in enrolling into technology studies.

However, many initiatives have started in New Zealand with the aim of encouraging a more diverse group of people into the technology industry. Groups such as Code Club, Gather Workshops, High Tech Youth and Mind Lab (to name a few) offer programmes aimed at inspiring children of all ages, cultures, backgrounds and genders to code. There are also initiatives such as STEAM and Rails Girls which are aimed specifically towards encouraging women into technology. These initiatives hope to dispel the preconceived ideas of the culture that perpetuates gender inequality in IT.

Assurity supports this initiative and is currently involved in starting up and supplying volunteers for Code Clubs in various locations. As a Code Club volunteer myself, I’ve seen kids of all ages getting excited over code – so much so that many work on their own projects at home and show us eagerly the following week. It’s awesome to see how enthusiastic the girls are and to see all of the children helping each other out when they are stuck on a tricky bit of code.

If innovation is high on your priority list, diversity should be too. Fostering 2D diversity will encourage an open and inclusive culture, one which is conducive to innovation. Diversity is about building a quality team with varied perspectives from the individual participants and, in doing so, creating dynamics to achieve outcomes. Acknowledging the correlation between diversity and innovation is crucial if organisations wish to prosper.

So, how diverse is your team or company? How might you benefit from increasing your 2D diversity?