The power of diversity in teams

The power of diversity in teams

When you face a challenge in your organisation, you shouldn’t always stick with the same peer group, or even the same peer group + direct reports, to address it.

It’s best to use a diverse pool of people from across the organisation, and maybe from outside the organisation. This will help challenge the prevailing understanding, mindset and beliefs, and is likely to result in increased creativity.

This idea is different from the traditional company suggestion scheme, because the team will be working on real company challenges. A diverse pool of individuals could come together to solve problems and be structured in a number of ways, such as:

  • A shadow board to support the main board
  • Sub-team within your leadership team
  • A project team, assigned to, or tasked solely with focusing on, a particular project
  • Product design team

There’s a famous proverb:

“Necessity is the mother of invention”

It means that companies often transform or reinvent themselves when they have to. Covid is a case in point. The way we work is so different now. We may not have realised this was even possible before lockdown and it’s opened up many more possibilities for how we work and on what.

Benefits to you

The bigger the challenge you’re facing, the more that creative thinking will be beneficial.

When you are facing business problems, you can crowdsource ideas. Invite a diverse group along, present the problem to them and request their ideas to resolve it. You’ll have insights that they won’t have, but you’ll end up with ideas that you wouldn’t have thought of. It could even give your business the opportunity to become the industry disruptor or leader!

Challenged by AirBnB, the Accorhotels group invited some millennials to help them generate new ideas. They identified that under 25s need somewhere to stay while travelling or hunting for a permanent residence. (I know this is true – my son and his friends are finding it really hard to find somewhere to live in the current dire UK rental market.) As a result, Accor launched the JO&JOE brand which provides city centre locations that blend private rental, hostel and hotel formats – ‘urban shelters’.

If you are trying to come up with a product that will appeal to people who are different to yourself (maybe younger people or those from a different cultural background), it makes sense to get some of those people involved in the process. Don’t just consult them, but get them to work on it alongside you.

Yvonne was training a marketing team who produced catalogues for stamp collectors. She asked them to select the face of their ‘typical customer’ – they chose the face of an old man. She asked them to look around the room and ‘spot the difference’ – they laughed, because they were all young women. She had collected quotes from some of the company’s customers and written them on cards. She had also written some made-up quotes, based on things the marketing team said. They had to identify which were actual customer quotes and which were not. It was a revealing exercise to help the team get into their customers’ mindset and use the same language that they did.

In addition to changing the mix of people involved, you can also change the environment and the process. Rather than talking to a group of people sitting around a desk and capturing their suggestions on a flipchart, you can ideate in a coffee shop or during a walk in the fresh air. We’re increasingly used to this hybrid way of working!

Similarly, you might be a senior leader who mentors a more junior employee. You can help that person with, say navigating internal politics, while they can help you in return to, say, navigate a new computer system or understand how younger generations view work and their career. People from different demographics bring different benefits to the party.

Benefits to team members

Presenting a wide range of employees with the opportunity to work on sticky business challenges is exciting for them because they will gain:

  • Visibility
  • Skills
  • Impact to be proud of
  • Career opportunities
  • Mentoring from senior people (if that’s part of the deal)

You’ll need to put some thought into how you select volunteers, especially if a lot of people want to take part.

Before you start

For this to work, you need an open culture where participants feel they can speak up even against ‘sacred cows’, with no fear of reprisals.

Ensure there is sponsorship from senior management who will give ‘air cover’ to this team (in case of nay-sayers who feel their power is being threatened).

How much freedom to think and act are you prepared to give them? Scope out exactly what you want them to do and explain it to them upfront. Within that, give them as much freedom to think as possible (otherwise, what’s the point?).

To ensure people don’t have different expectations, create a document or template that covers the guiding principles. Include the exit strategy so there are no nasty surprises for anyone when the team comes to an end. As part of the exit strategy, determine how you will review the end, e.g. what was learnt, what can we take forward, what do we leave behind but still honour/appreciate?

During the process

Challenge your own assumptions. Often, we base our opinions on the past and conclude that something will or won’t work based on what has or hasn’t worked before. When deciding whether or not something is possible, put all cultural constraints aside (“how things are done around here”).

Someone might have an idea they’re passionate about but that is not feasible for legal or budgetary reasons. Even if you think something is unworkable at first glance, keep your mind open to exploring it as there might be a way.

Take those blinkers off, imagine that anything is possible, and see what you can do to hold your mind open for longer.

Related reading

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Next month

How to stop people-pleasing.