Excerpted from You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along and Get Stuff Done by Liane Davey. Copyright 2014 by Liane Davey. Reprinted with permission of Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions, a Wiley imprint.
Over the past few years, the need to reduce systemic barriers to women, people of different races or cultural groups, and people with disabilities has brought tremendous attention to the topic of diversity.
Unfortunately, it’s made us think very superficially about what diversity is. People of different genders or skin colors don’t always think differently. I live in the world’s most multicultural city. I have the good fortune to work with people from all over the globe. I’ve often found that a Harvard MBA-trained investment banker who is brown and was raised in India thinks a lot like a Harvard MBA-trained investment banker who is white and was raised in Connecticut.
Gender and cultural diversity will increase your chances of having diversity of thought–but you can’t assume it’s enough.
Your team needs diversity in the sense of different perspectives and points of view.
Diverse perspectives serve many important functions. We all tend to see the world through our own particular frame. It’s like you look at the world through your office window and what you can see from there is all that exists. Everybody has their windows. If you have always worked in the United States, your view of the customer, of the market, and of employees will be constrained. If you are an accountant, that will influence how you see a situation. Your contribution will be limited by the frame you’re looking through.
Seeing opportunity. Depending on your frame, you will see different opportunities for your business. The narrower your frame, the fewer opportunities you will see. For example, teams trying to build a better portable music player through better hardware couldn’t compete with the Apple team, who saw the opportunity through the frame of hardware, software, licensing, and more.
Likewise, bankers were limited by thinking of a bank branch as a place to conduct efficient private transactions. They needed the inspiration of retail experts who could see the opportunity to convert branches into stores. Instead of walled-off offices that leave financial products a mystery to most of us, they saw the potential to open up the space and let customers see and touch the whole line of products.
This helped banks convert more banking customers into investment clients or insurance policyholders.
There is no way to have all these broad perspectives in one person. But when your team brings together a more complete view of the world, the opportunities are endless.
Spotting threats. Diversity also helps your team see threats in the environment. You are probably hypersensitive to the types of risks that have affected you in the past–humans are pretty darn good at learning from things that went disastrously wrong. Unfortunately, you’re probably pretty bad at anticipating problems that haven’t happened yet. I am very fond of the old military adage that “generals are always preparing for the last war.”
Because people from different industries, backgrounds, or disciplines pay attention to different factors in the environment, when you bring their perspectives into your team, you can cover more ground when scanning for concerns.
Leveraging strengths. Our industrial folklore is full of stories about teams of people seeing possibility in things that others thought were useless. Legendary among them is the story of the origin of 3M’s Post-it Note, from chemist Dr. Spencer Silver’s failed attempt at superglue combined with Art Fry’s need for something to keep his bookmarks from falling out of his hymnbook. The result was a repositionable, tacky paper that transformed the value of a notepad.
Interestingly, 3M had the glue for nine years before a person with a different perspective saw a way to use it. This story is also a good reminder of a lesson from Chapter 10: that activities outside of work (in this case, singing in the church choir) can help you add your full value.
Mitigating weaknesses. It’s great when diversity on a team helps you capitalize on strengths, but sometimes you need diverse points of view to compensate for your weaknesses. One of history’s most famous examples of this is the team at NASA Mission Control that found a way to repair the Apollo 13 spaceship well enough for it to hobble back to Earth. Any team that needs to accomplish stretch goals with few resources should take an afternoon to watch the movie about that harrowing event. The resourcefulness and creative thinking of the Mission Control team who cobbled together an adapter that gave the crew enough oxygen to make the trip home safely is truly inspiring.
To be strong, innovative, and protected from risk, your team needs to be able to see the world from different angles: from inside the box, outside the box, above the box, below the box. You especially need people who don’t even see the box! If your team doesn’t have that kind of diversity, you are at a serious disadvantage.
Here’s the challenge: Diversity of thought slows you down. At least, it feels like it slows you down. In reality, without diversity you might rocket through decision making only to grind to a halt during implementation. When you slow down to incorporate different perspectives early on, you actually come out ahead in the end.
But most teams feel such a compulsion to move fast, to get somewhere even if that somewhere doesn’t make sense, that they ignore or shut down any voice that slows them down.