How Much Team Diversity is Optimal for Innovation?

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DiversityI used to think that the purpose of creating diversity on a team was simply to give people of various races and orientations equal opportunities. When I create a team, my main concern is achieving the business goal, not being a do-gooder in society, so I never cared too much about intentionally creating diversity on a team. That was before I understood that diversity is a key requirement for a team to reach the heights of innovation and agility.

Diversity in beliefs and approaches are just the ticket for creating the capacity for agility and handling greater complexity, both of which are needed to innovate. A good example of this is when I was on a team that produced applications to run warehouses, and we were experiencing lots of system outages that were frustrating our customers. We had outsourced our data center to a vendor I’ll call “Acme Infrastructure Services (AIS)”. To put it bluntly, the vendor wasn’t performing, and our team was ready to pounce on them.

We were planning a meeting in which we were going to angrily throw our service level agreements in their face and invoke penalties. Then one person on the team, Barbara, said quietly “I think we should embrace AIS as a partner.” My first thought was “Don’t be such a wimp! We need to show them who the boss is!” But our team culture was that everyone got their say, so I kept quiet, and we patiently let Barbara explain her point of view. She said “If we show AIS how improving their service will help us gain customers and use more of their services, I think they’ll turn around.” As we listened to Barbara, the light went on for all of us. It made sense. Engaging them as a partner made a lot more sense than being adversarial.

It worked. AIS bought in and made investments (at no cost to us) in additional training for their technicians and in some failover equipment. They improved their service to us, and we improved our service to our customers. We gained more customers and used more of AIS’s services. It was a win-win, and we could have never achieved such optimal results with the old school method of beating them up.

Diversity of thought is crucial, yet it’s only beneficial when the interpersonal relationships within the team are secure. If Barbara hadn’t been sure that we’d listen, she wouldn’t have had the courage to speak up. Team dynamics that honor the different thoughts and experiences of each member and then link them together not only provide broader perspective, they also literally rewire the brains of each team member. As our team listened to Barbara and it “clicked” for us that there was a better approach, this activated and stimulated the growth of neurons in our brains. It literally rewired the neuronal fibers in our nervous system and provided expanded brainpower to help us deal with this and other complex situations.

Diversity of thought is vital to a team’s success, yet it’s important that all team members are uniformly “on the same wavelength”. Research at the Institute of HeartMath shows that a subtle yet influential electromagnetic communication system operates just below our conscious awareness. We have proof that this communication exists because the electromagnetic pattern broadcasted from one person’s heart can be scientifically measured in another person’s brainwaves when two people are in close proximity. It seems we are always transferring non-verbal information that reflects our emotional disposition. The most innovative teams are those that share a basic emotional resonance, which helps them connect at a deep level and operate in a more coherent state that facilitates creative thinking. So ideally teams possess diversity of thought and uniformity of resonance.

As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of emotions in teams, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a thought leader sharing ideas on how to create a more just and peaceful world. She is also a CIO, and in this role she has led large organizations with hundreds of employees through challenging times and major transformations.
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  1. Gisele Pilling  July 7, 2013

    Trust and diversity in thinking is truly a gateway for teams to create and innovate!! Being one and working with Expats, diversity is a gift, not a challenge. Your article is very timely Jackie and I’ll be sharing with some new clients – thank you!!

  2. Tammie  July 7, 2013

    Love the article ! Diversity of thoughts, interpersonal relationships within the team are secure, and electromagnetic pattern – Well said! There is so much more to diversity, I hope others read this as well! Thank you for sharing this with all of us!

  3. Dave  July 9, 2013

    I beleive that divesity is a key driver to ensure that you are exploring the situation from a variety of perspectives. Our earliest initiative with innovation was to begin to change the culture at the grass-roots level. What we discovered was the power of diversity along two different vectors … Vertical diversity throughout the entire organization level from Management team members to manufacturing plant operations staff, the key being that Management not take the lead to enforce their opinion on the group, and … Horizontal diversity across all functions of the organization from Sales to Marketing to Finance to Administration to Supply Chain to Plant Operations, etc. All of these functions will have a differing valuable perspective to bring to the problem solution!

  4. George Swan  July 15, 2013

    This article is well worth reading, and once on Jackie’s blog, some excellent articles about jacking up energy of teams, and pointing to what looks like will be an outstanding book, her ‘Primal Teams’. Jackie, a couple of things: First, when there’s a conflict between business goals and doing good in society, we need to raise our sights and adjust our business goals to the highest good (“everyone in, no one left out”). Second, the emotional resonance between people has been proven by David Bohm to be inherent in the ‘holographic conversation’. The connection between people arises from ‘the whole is contained in each of its parts’.

  5. James Dobbins  July 19, 2013

    I am not convinced that innovative thinking is a function of “diversity” however you choose to define it. I think it is a function of how well you can think outside the box and how much the team is willing to consider new ideas. Just because I have a group of mixed gender and race working together does not mean I will get an iota of innovative thinking from any of them. Innovative thinking is color blind and gender neutral. Respect for the thoughts of others is essential to innovation, as is the ability and willingness to think down different paths. The old saying about insanity meaning you keep doing the same thing and expect the outcome to be different is appropriate. Another seldom discussed aspect is the willingness to have your team members challenge your ideas. This is not just a negative kind of thing, but something that can actually be used to strengthen your suggestions or ideas. Years ago, at a university in Germany, shortly before the Second World War, a group of 5 physics professors would meet after classes to discuss an idea one of them was working on. The work was presented and the others would questions the presenter. Why did you do it that way? Why did you not go this way or that? What led you to that conclusion? And so on. It all strengthened the idea, or caused a needed change. When the war broke out, they all left for safe climates since some were Jewish. Eventually, all 5 won the Nobel Prize. They each said that if it had not been for those sessions of the team all helping each other, probably none would have won the Nobel. One of them was Einstein. There was hardly a lick of diversity anywhere in the group, but they all loved physics and were all pushed and prodded by the others into original and innovative thinking.

  6. Jackie Barretta  July 19, 2013

    James, the main point I’m making is that diversity of thought is important for innovation. That can exist in a team of people who all look similar, but may be more likely to come from people who look different. In your words, it helps them “think outside the box”.

    I agree with challenging each others’ ideas, to a degree and depending on the people. I’ve seen some teams with a policy that if someone proposes an idea, the very next thing said must be in support of the idea. This is to encourage each other to come up with ideas and not shut them down prematurely.

  7. Wayne Hall  July 19, 2013

    What a wonderful insight. I am truely amazed how much information flows below the surface and impacts our decision making. And I like the reminder that our differences can add so much to our perception and ability to see with depth.

  8. Stephen Willis  July 19, 2013

    In my book “Power through Collaboration: When to Collaborate, Negotiate, or Dominate!” I contrast Collaboration, Negotiation, and Domination as methods of achieving goals and getting results.

    Your article provides a starkly contrasting example of how Collaboration works much better than Domination, even when habit, instinct, and circumstances pull us to resort to Domination. Thanks Jackie for sharing it.

  9. Asad Shah  July 21, 2013

    It is increasingly being realized that an integrated and holistic approach to problem solving and innovation is needed to achieve optimum results. This can only be done by putting together a team of professionals with diverse backgrounds. Such a team is able to analyze the issues within a much broader perspective. The kind of diversity of professional mix required would differ according to the issue being addressed. In this the role of the management and team leader would be important. Creating and managing high performance teams is itself a very broad issue for debate.


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