Diverse Perspectives are Key to Successful Innovation
When I talk about diversity in innovation it is in every aspect of diversity possible. Clearly it is about gender, race, and ethnicity. But diversity is about so much more, including purposefully accepting divergent perspectives. It includes gathering details from others like life experiences, where you live, where you went to college, if you went to college, your tastes, preferences, your expertise, what department you represent, how you think, creative bias, process bias — the list is almost without limit.
We’re in an age when each person is a segment of one and the world is connected. Innovating in this broad and varied context demands recognition not only of the need gaps we’re trying to solve, but also of the internal and external contexts that frame our ideas and work. Innovation can not be an insular concept or process. In this modern reality, it’s more dangerous to decide not to bring a multitude of voices, values, thought mechanisms, needs, and belief systems to the innovation gallery than it is to support divergent perspectives.
While diversity may be difficult to assemble and demand more time be added to the innovation cycle, the resilience of the outcomes depends on it. That’s because innovation, fundamentally, is a creative solution to a human need. At corporate and community levels, real leadership is happening where diverse voices and ideas are colliding.
Diversity is the Most Fundamental State of Humanity
Make no mistake, diversity is about more than demographics. While age, gender, and culture are essential, we all know that diversity is much broader. Divergent perspectives fueling real, lasting, productive ideas are coming from the voices of people from urban and rural areas, thinking styles, cultural backgrounds, educational levels, and even more distinct characterizations. And it’s a wonderful, powerful thing that is shaping a better future for our startups, corporations, nonprofits, and our communities.
Meeting the needs of consumers and constituents starts with creating an environment in which those many perspectives can be shared and harnessed.
This is not to say that innovation can’t be attempted in a vacuum. It can. It will just fail or not be sustainable. Lasting ideas solve human needs — and that means they originated by listening to the customer, representing the constituency, and productively serving the public.
In our current experience economy, the voice of the customer is fueling innovation and changing industries almost overnight. We are seeing it in the media (Disney Plus, anyone?), transportation (calling Uber!), logistics (hello, Roadie), consumer goods (check out Bevel). These disruptors are succeeding because they’ve shaped innovation to the desired behavior of the consumer.
Anything less than creating an environment where every voice can be heard creates risk for the organization — not just of being tone-deaf, but also of limiting the potential for the innovation. Ultimately, the only real way to challenge a central idea and broaden viewpoints is to ask for a multitude of voices and perspectives to challenge it. While that very reasonable approach may seem courageous, we’ve seen that it’s a formula for protecting the organization against being tone-deaf and for sparking new thinking.
The collision of multiple ideas and responses creates healthy debate and friction that put the sustainability of ideas to the test, ultimately making them more resilient.
And there are amazing examples of this process happening with different leaders
Mailchimp is an innovative company that embraces creative thinking and the collision of divergent perspectives. In fact, when I was talking to CEO Ben Chestnut at the Disruptor Studio, he talked about his “superpower” being the ability to synthesize information from different people and turn it into action (or as he calls it, getting the “turd on the table.”)
Atlanta United in Major League Soccer has an inspiring and successful business model that embraces its incredibly diverse fan base. It is no surprise that club president, Darren Eales, prioritized getting diverse perspectives on the senior management team, including hiring a business leader that did not come from the soccer business.
These examples challenge us to make shifts — whether subtle or significant — to broaden the spectrum of individuality, thinking, and ideas. The question they raise is less why we need to do it. Rather, they make us consider how. Even as we accept that diverse voices will test and verify the sustainability of ideas and target innovations to a multitude of consumers, we have to question how to embrace what is hard about this process — specifically, being challenged. It means taking more time to debate and think more broadly. It means building humility and a real ability to listen and respect the voices of others who may be very different from the leadership to which we’re accustomed.
Being innovative requires understanding and accepting divergent perspectives. It requires courage. But bringing different backgrounds, thinking styles and experiences together yields the kinds of insights that can truly challenge the status quo and create lasting, high-value innovation and progress.