How Great Companies Fuel Innovation Through Diversity

The Power of Diversity

I’m a passionate believer in diverse teams. Throughout my life and career, I have seen the benefits from multiple perspectives examining a problem together. If everyone thinks exactly the same way, with the same background, you end up with a narrow solution. A lack of diversity increases the likelihood of strategic blind spots.



That’s why I read with great interest David Livermore’s new book, Driven by Difference: How Great Companies Fuel Innovation Through Diversity. David Livermore has written ten books on global leadership and cultural intelligence. He is president of the Cultural Intelligence Center and a visiting scholar at Nanyang Business School in Singapore.



The Goal of Diversity is Not Enough

In your book, you argue that diversity, as a goal, is not good enough. Would you elaborate on this?

I applaud any effort to hire a more diverse workforce. But if that’s all you do, you set everyone up for failure. “Different” perspectives, values, and strategies for getting work done easily lead to misunderstanding, frustration, and gridlock. Diversity needs to be managed with a culturally intelligent strategy for how to effectively use the diverse perspectives to drive innovation and improve employee engagement.



The Link Between Innovation and Diversity

You say that diversity by itself does not ensure innovation, but it does when combined with high CQ. What is CQ? What’s the link between innovation and diversity? 

Driven by DifferenceCQ, or cultural intelligence, is the capability to work effectively with people from different cultural backgrounds. It’s measured using a CQ Assessment, which predicts how effectively one will work in situations characterized by cultural diversity.

Our research finds that diverse teams comprised of individuals with low CQ underperform homogenous teams with low CQ. However, diverse teams comprised of individuals with high CQ outperform homogenous teams on several measurements including innovation.

Therefore, CQ becomes the moderating link between diversity and innovation. With higher levels of cultural intelligence, team members can effectively retain and use the differences among them that enhance creativity while minimizing the differences that create interference.



Prevent Diversity Fatigue

What’s diversity fatigue and how do companies prevent it?

Diversity fatigue is how I refer to the growing weariness felt by many staff when they hear they have to go through diversity training. Even individuals from underrepresented groups often place little hope or interest in diversity initiatives in the workplace. Research recently cited in the Harvard Business Review found that diversity programs did little to convince ethnic minorities that companies would treat them any more fairly than companies without the programs.



There are a variety of factors that contribute to diversity fatigue, several of which I explore more fully at the beginning of Driven by Difference. But the key to addressing this is for companies to take a more strategic approach to diversity. They need to address diversity the way they address other business opportunities and challenges—assess the situation, create a strategy, and form metrics for measuring accountability. If profits are slipping, companies don’t plan a “Profits Slipping Awareness Day” and then hope the awareness translates into better returns. It’s all hands on deck with everyone accountable. And then managers and teams need to be equipped with the skills to effectively use their differences to drive innovation.



In one chapter, you talk about focus and how the more personalities and cultures you have working together, the easier it is to lose focus. What’s the best way to experience the benefits of diverse thinking while also keeping focus?

It comes from clearly defining the goal (a key to retaining focus) while asking your diverse colleagues how they understand the goal. The goal may seem straightforward, such as reducing costs or improving efficiencies. However, the assumptions about how to most effectively reduce cost may be strongly influenced by one’s cultural values and assumptions. Focus comes from not quickly moving beyond the seemingly basic task of clarifying expectations and instead, using a diversity of expectations to more successfully achieve more innovative outcomes.



How to Build Trust With Diverse Colleagues

Trust is a critical element for any group to achieve anything of significance. You say it is a nonnegotiable. How do you build trust with diverse colleagues?

As with many of these issues, it starts with not assuming that what builds trust for you is what builds trust for others. For some individuals and cultures, follow-through and reliability are the most important factors for building trust. For others, it’s your reputation or whom you know that others know. Take the time to ask individuals what is most important to them for building trust. Driven by Difference also includes five trust factors that can be used to help you build trust with diverse colleagues.



Let’s talk about brainstorming sessions. What do leaders need to be aware of when brainstorming with a diverse group?David Livermore

Brainstorming is one of the ways many leaders get teams to come up with creative ideas. But brainstorming is built from the assumption that individuals will contribute ideas—even if those ideas seem ridiculous. This has a built-in bias for individualist cultures where students are taught in school to participate, even if they aren’t sure of an answer. Whereas most of the world is collectivist where students are taught to only speak up when invited to do so, and even then, they should defer to the more senior people in the group. Brainstorming with a diverse team can still be effective. Like all of this, it simply requires a more deliberate approach where the facilitator keeps the most dominant, vocal participants quiet at first and prepares the less dominant, collectivist participants beforehand by asking them to come with ideas to share.

Getting diverse teams to effectively work together and come up with innovative solutions doesn’t have to be difficult. But it does require an intentional effort and strategy to benefit from the diverse perspectives represented in the group and to use those to provide breakthroughs that truly make a global impact.







Driven by Difference: How Great Companies Fuel Innovation Through Diversity


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