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Safia Boot
Managing Director, Respect at Work Limited and guest blogger for The Work Foundation
Safia Boot

The link between innovation and diversity

Authors: Safia Boot Founder of Respect at Work Ltd

30 May 2014

The business case for diversity has been exhaustively made. However, the link with innovation can’t be emphasised enough. Inclusion recognises and values different backgrounds and diversity of thought acts as catalyst to create innovative solutions.  It brings us closer to people different from ourselves and the communities and customers we serve. Innovation is any ‘crazy’ idea until it works and sometimes our stereotyping of the person proposing the idea stops us from listening to the idea or perspective.  We only have to look at history for examples of this: the late Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Tim Berners-Lee and many others who have given us great gifts of vision and shared their talents and ideas to lasting effect.

True acceptance of diversity is acceptance of difference in the multiple ways we are unique and different yet have common needs – to be valued, recognised, engaged and to simply belong. So we all want it to be easier to be part of the decision making processes that affect our everyday lives and the lives of our families, friends, colleagues and the multiple communities we belong to.

Diversity is contrary to conformity and homogeneity in backgrounds and thought. Innovation is more than technological, it’s also about the way we think and do and relate to each other and resolve conflicts – e.g. shifting from adversarial to collaborative joint-problem solving model.

Some of the barriers to innovation can overwhelm and chain us: such as believing someone in particular needs to be responsible for innovation and research in an organisation or at department level rather than recognise the untapped capacity within all of us, not to mention the shared responsibility.

Then there are other barriers such as: failing to measure innovation in its many guises; adopting a ‘Fixed mind set’ rather than ‘Growth mind set’; lacking in curiosity, not being prepared to ask difficult or uncomfortable questions; being risk averse – and not learning from failure so we repeat the same mistakes or continue our unproductive habits. Other barriers include; getting involved in a cycle of blame so avoiding risk taking (in a managed way); adopting short term thinking for short-term benefits (sometimes justifying this as ‘pragmatism’ or ‘commercial reality’) whilst losing sight of the purpose and long term benefits not just to us but the wider stake holders that make the world spin with excitement. 

Innovation is also about the way we work, so barriers such as hierarchical/silo working create routines and habits; slow (or sometimes too fast) decision making and ineffective diagnosis leading to the wrong ‘prescription’; the lack of empowerment, collaboration and ‘how can I do’ attitude; taking an individualist rather than team working approach (reflected in how performance is defined, objectives set and rewarded) and finally, a failure to train the mind-set for innovation to take place and recruit in an inclusive way to value the benefits of a diverse team from non-traditional routes. It’s easy to recruit someone from the same sector, education, gender, race, etc. in the belief they will fit right in quickly rather than someone who looks and sounds different from us.

Some of the Enablers to promote innovation can be blindly obvious to some yet elusive to others just because of their own mind-set and cultural context.   It helps if we can individually and jointly create time to innovate and value reflection time as productive time for example; automatically building in end of project and post-crisis reviews to consider how we can share learning across the organisation to prevent poor habits re-emerging once one fire has been put out. 
It’s amazing how often we behave in the bad times really tests our much promoted vision and values.  So rather than always chasing the holy grail of ‘best practice’ from a theoretical perspective and writing fancy policies or glossy marketing materials we can develop local solutions based on reviewing our ‘bad practices’ with a more honest eye. Sadly, fear, wilful blindness or simply believing ‘it’s not my job or place’ stops us from critiquing something constructively so we need a culture of trust to be brave to do this and thereby be free to innovate so more of those around us benefit.

Other enablers include: having effective communication channels established and constantly tweaked; taking a multi-disciplinary approach to learning rather than sticking within our functional silos; being prepared to re-think reward for ideas (financial and non-financial) – at all levels including support staff.

Then it helps to allocate innovation champions/ambassadors across an organisation to embed innovation thinking; consider conducting unconscious bias testing to raise awareness of cognitive limitations on how we really make decisions (rather than the way we want to be perceived to have made them); following up with offering coaching/feedback to help individuals identify practical solutions they can apply to new thinking to translate to changes in behaviour right down to the micro-affirmation level.  A novel idea might also include making our managerial decision making more transparent and having genuine consultation practices that involve all stake holders without feeling this is impossible when we can harness digital methods to achieve this.

There are also structural enablers, such as creating decision making processes that minimise negative effect.  This can be achieved by recruiting and retaining diverse people in teams and diversity of the decision makers; teaching problem-solving/creative thinking and conflict management and mediation skills in order to effectively work in a diverse team. Conflict is inevitable, unavoidable and sometimes necessary to give birth to a better way, but we need to know how to resolve it productively so as not to stifle innovation. Sometimes it about not waiting for legislation to make us do the right thing but doing the right thing because it’s right and decent thing to do.

We have a great opportunity to harness our use of social media internally and externally; to promote sharing of ideas and using open access tools and leaving behind our fear of competition.

We can promote positive attitudes towards diversity and innovation such as: everyone has something to contribute to diagnosing and/or solving a problem; all deserve a voice; innovation is everyone’s responsibility; more heads better than one; avoiding stereotyping such as believing older workers have exhausted their ideas or young people lack experience, ethnic minorities would not fit in a particular role/organisation or a woman will just make a bad situation worse by getting emotional.

It may sound impossible, but sometimes all it takes is one person to make the first step to imagine something being different and create a win/win rather than a win/lose outcome …..

 Safia Boot is the Founder of Respect at Work Ltd.