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Diversity in innovation – expand your thinking and your team!

Below is a great article from HBR by Sylvia Ann Hewlett , Melinda Marshall and Laura Sherbin on diversity in innovation that poses some interesting points and data to support that a diverse workforce drives innovation and business results.  In the article they discuss two types of diversity, inherent (your background, ethnicity, upbringing, gender), and acquired (working in another country, experience selling to a particular audience).  In the article, the authors state that companies with leaders who have both of these traits (2-D Diversity) outperform companies that do not.

All too often it is easy to assume that our thinking includes an audience who are different from us.  It’s extremely important to bring in and incorporate different backgrounds, ethnicities, points of view, leadership styles, genders and thinking into your business.  After all, can you really say you understand an audience if no one on your team represents that audience?

So, what does this mean for you and your innovation team?  Here are a few thoughts on how to incorporate more diversity:

Actively seek diversity in hiring – this feels obvious, but if the business imperative is to get broader and more diverse thinking to drive innovation and results, create goals around how you want your team to be built.

Diverse advisory councils – if your team isn’t quite as diverse as you’d like, in the short term create a more diverse advisory council or task force to help screen innovation ideas.  Start within your company, and go and get these diverse viewpoints and ask for their help.  

Don’t assume you understand what an audience or employee needs if you are different from them – for example, on teams in the past I worked hard to ensure we had 50% or more female members, and that those women had access to female mentors who could give more applicable career advice than I could.  Of course we would have discussions about professional development, but at the end of the day I just don't have the same experience of being a woman in the workplace.

Listen more – This is a core tenet of any innovation, sales, or leadership behavior.  It gets back to assuming you understand.  You don’t!  I worked with an agency and internal director when targeting Hispanic customers in the past for food items.  This agency and director always explained to my team, you don’t always have to create something specific just for Hispanics with mango in it or spice – Hispanics like hamburgers and coffee and breakfast sandwiches (as product people we always defaulted to flavor as the way to reach an ethnic audience).  You just need to speak to that customer in a way they want to be spoken to and meet them where they are.  This was great for our understanding.  You may still choose to create or tweak products for a particular audience but now you do it with a better overall view.

Create an environment where ideas can flourish – One of my R&D teams held monthly innovation sessions where we would ask the team to share new ideas that were not part of their normal project portfolio. These ideas could be near in or far out, and were presented to the entire innovation team.  Everyone loved and looked forward to “innovation day”.  It’s a common practice in innovation to allocate time for your team to do this and work on passions that are not yet products.  Encourage all of these ideas to move to their logical next step even if you don’t quite think they will work – remember you may not be the audience!  In doing so you may find that powerful ideas bubble up and evolve into something special.

Enjoy the HBR article and I look forward to hearing more from you about how you incorporate diversity into your teams!


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