Does Innovation Require Diversity?

Does Innovation Require Diversity?

By Orin Davis

by: Orin C. Davis, Ph.D.

Since I’m a diversity consultant, people usually expect me to support the stance that innovation requires diversity.

Not going to happen, because “diversity” has too many implications.

Before I can even touch the question of whether diversity is a sine qua non of innovation, we need to get on the same page about what “diversity” means.

Most of the time, people think diversity implies “a bunch of people who collectively tick all of the demographic checkboxes.” I have lost track of the number of times I have been asked to consult on a “we need to hire more [of a specified demographic]” case (usually because the current personnel fit a rather uniform demographic). That’s not diversity; that’s demographism! It means hiring people on the basis of a given demographic, and that is illegal. In those situations, the first thing I need to do is get my clients thinking in legal directions, and then look at the recruitment and hiring processes to see if and how a broader range of demographics can be incorporated into the company without engaging in demographism.

In other cases, people think diversity implies “a bunch of people from a variety of fields.” This is closer to the heart of the construct, but still misses the fact people from different fields can still be relatively uniform in their backgrounds outside of their areas of expertise. Alternately, people from different areas can end up talking past each other because they have no shared language with which to express their ideas, and may have a hard time reaching consensus. That’s not diversity; that’s the Tower of Babel!

The best definition I have encountered, however, refers to diversity as “a bunch of people with a wide range of experiences that can be comfortably shared openly and clearly.” You’re probably thinking: That’s not diversity; that’s respect!

That it is!

And, it is respect that is required in innovation more than any conception of diversity you can create. You can put one thousand different demographics in a room, but if there is no respect, they will not get along. The possibilities of interdisciplinary discovery are endless, but a lack of respect means people will not listen to one another long enough to build shared ideas. Human experiences are rich in their potential to give perspective to a problem and incite others to see solutions. But, without respect for the people involved and what they can bring to the table, the only agreement will be the presence of an impasse.

Thus, when companies find themselves looking for diversity, especially to fuel innovation, what they really seek is to build a culture of respect (and that’s what we diversity consultants really do!). After all, if there is a culture of respect within a company, then there will very likely be a wide range of demographics — there is no shortage of talent in any of them, and thus any demographic can find a fit with the company. Moreover, even those who may be in a demographic minority will still feel comfortable staying with the company anyway because they feel valued and identified for the contributions that they are able to make. In a respectful company, there is probably a wide range of areas of expertise and of life experiences, because what will matter is whether people can make their expertise/experiences relevant to the value proposition of the company. Notably, this has nothing to do with college major, alma mater, or GPA, and everything to do with alignment of the meaning employees find in their work, their ability to perform the work (correlates with job major…sometimes), and the mission of the firm. In all cases, this means that the company will attract and retain a wide range of talented individuals who are able to contribute uniquely to the firm’s mission.

To return to the original question, innovation does not require “diversity.” What innovation requires is respect, because when the respect is there, whatever diversity is needed for a particular endeavor will already be readily available. If your company can get that far, then anything is possible!

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