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Professor Christopher May
Professor of Political Economy, Lancaster University
Professor Christopher May

With diversity comes innovation

Authors: Professor Christopher May Professor Chris May

20 March 2014

Next week I am delivering a session at a conference for The Work Foundation with the CIPD in Milton Keynes on innovation and diversity. This has prompted me to reflect on how diversity might relate to innovation. I would like to return to three statements I made in a previous post  which demonstrate why diversity might be vital for innovation:

'Innovation challenges the status quo by questioning assumptions; innovation will often be a challenge to those who do not ‘see’ the need.'

As we know diversity is often a challenge; when people who do look like us, talk like us or share our cultural background suggest things, we can offer respond that they ‘don’t quite understand how things are done here’. Indeed, we may think that their ability to offer something different is not an advantage but rather something to be resolved – perhaps by a little bit of training.

To be open to innovation is not to assume that the ways things are done (now) is the way things have to be done. Indeed, the very lack of familiarity with ‘standard operating procedures’ may look like a challenge but actually be an opportunity to allow a fresh set of eyes to appraise the way we do things. Of course, we have all seen fresh ideas being dismissed – ‘we’ve done that before and it didn’t work’, ‘that will never work here’ – but actually it’s always worth reflecting on these unexpected (and perhaps even unwelcome) interventions.

'Innovation is a way of doing things differently, including new ways or methods  using existing resources, levering new (or previously unrecognised) resources, and/or responding to limited or declining resources. It may be that open- sharing and  co-creation are important innovative ways of innovating, allowing  novel links   to be expanded through open and free knowledge exchange.'

Thus, what diversity brings to any situation is a range of different ways of thinking and indeed that may well be where innovation will spring from – we know innovation is often not new, but rather just new to you! People with different life experiences may well see the route out of a challenge very differently, and these different routes may be exactly what is required to side-step the problem. Therefore, embracing a diverse team allows a range of explicit and tacit knowledge and experience to be utilised where the ‘normal’ approaches have failed or under-performed.

'Innovation must be everyone’s responsibility and needs to be embedded into organisational culture and practice through capacity building for innovation; this requires leadership and an attack on complacency, but also needs trust within teams; successful organisations find ways of making innovation ‘business as usual’.

When teams are diverse then trust and leadership are the key drivers of successful innovation; each person’s commitment to meeting a challenge needs to be recognised, valued and supported; leaders must recognise when the status quo is not working and help those with different backgrounds and experiences contribute in a positive and constructive manner to the exploration of innovative suggestions for resolving the issue at hand.

So it seems to me that without valuing and supporting diversity in our teams and organisations we are doomed to limit the range of implicit and explicit, tacit and formalised options from which potential solutions might be drawn. I’ll be helping our audience explore some of these issues when I ask them to indentify barriers to innovation in their own organisations In an age when 2013 was the first year a women conducted the last night of the Proms in London, and we have never had a female Chancellor of the Exchequer, we all know that issues of diversity are still very clearly evident across our business, political and cultural lives.

This blog is part of a series of blogs written by Chris May on innovation for The Work Foundation. Read more here

Comments in Chronological Order (Total 1 Comments)

Dr. Jane Blanchard

10 Jun 2014 7:54AM

Very informative article - In addition, when employees work together, it creates unity, raises productivity and improves the bottom line. In order to achieve these results, organizations need to develop a more diversity-friendly culture. It’s important for employers to provide their employees with the tools needed through training to help understand, accept, and value differences of diversity.