As the saying goes, a good idea doesn’t care where it comes from. But what if the people with whom you surround yourself come from similar backgrounds? Nearby towns and states. Regional universities with commonly matriculated degrees. Similar life circumstances, political leanings, reading lists and viewing preferences. Good ideas can come from anywhere, that’s true, but you raise the odds of unique, “wow, I never thought of that before” moments when you make the effort to bring together people from all walks of life.
It does take effort. Studies have shown that when hiring, people tend to choose candidates they’re comfortable with—and they’re more comfortable with people like themselves. Think about the team you work with. Is it as diverse as it could be? As it should be? We’re not talking simply race, sex, age and ethnicity, though those are an essential part of the mix. We’re talking about what makes people tick—what they’re good at, what intrigues and excites them and, equally important, what bores and frustrates them. A roomful (or Zoomful, as the case may be) of people with different abilities, experiences and points of view makes for livelier discussions, broader debates and more thought-provoking conversations. In the end, it makes for better products, services and financial outcomes.
Ideas are the genesis of strategy. When strategy creation is limited to a handful of people (for instance, the strategy department or the leadership team), a company may find itself implementing a linear approach that ends up marching projects through departments without much interaction between the teams along the way. While this does move projects toward the finish line, ask yourself—are the projects being executed to the best of your collective team’s ability if they don’t spend time collaborating and bringing new ideas to the table along the way? Is siloed thinking best for your company and your clients? The most effective strategies embrace the collective wisdom of a group of people with a common goal. This approach also lessens the probability of “you don’t know what you don’t know” incidents, which can be quite costly.
Putting together a diverse team is more art than science, and it’s one that can be learned. It starts with asking good questions and listening, listening, listening. You can find tons of advice online about which questions to ask in an interview, and your interviewees can find an equal number of sources that tell them how to answer those questions. But is that what you want? Rehearsed answers only get you so far. When you’re looking for the right mix of people, you have to go beyond questions about whether or not they’re competent enough to do the job. Even the “good cultural fit” questions can be deceiving—if they’re a good fit for your current culture and you’ve defined that too narrowly, you’re going to end up with more of the same. Homogeneity kills creativity.
When you’re building a team, you need to open yourself up to discomfort. It’s the rare individual for whom that comes naturally. The flip side of discomfort, though, can be exhilarating. A contrarian in the mix fosters different ways of thinking. So does adding a more creative, free-spirited individual to a team of practical, process-oriented people. Diversity opens eyes, minds and hearts.
To generate new ideas with clients, we employ an innovation process based on design thinking that puts diversity and collaboration front and center. Notice I said, “with our clients,” not “for our clients.” That’s an important distinction. During one stage of the process, we make a concerted effort to bring together people who come at challenges from different angles. For example, we worked with a client looking for ways to differentiate a common product—windshield wiper blades—from their competitors in a saturated market. We brought people from our agency and the client’s company together with mechanics, auto parts store employees, quick-draw artists and automobile owners like you and me for a two-day workshop aimed at generating a diversity of ideas from many points of view. By the end of the session, we’d captured—complete with product sketches—more than 150 viable product concepts (from 300+ ideas) the client could then explore, assess, validate and bring to market. You can apply this type of design thinking to strategy creation, too.
Diverse teams unleash a diversity of ideas. A diversity of ideas ensures that the strategies you implement are well thought out, consider all the angles and are as effective as your company’s collective wisdom can make them. It really is that simple. Everyone is creative in their own way, and collaboration amongst creative individuals leads to better problem-solving. That is, after all, what business strategy is all about—finding ways to get from where you are today to where you want to be tomorrow.