How to Embrace Diversity
and Actually Innovate the Future
A diverse team is inclusive and welcoming of all, despite one’s background and ethnicity. It’s a team where members have varying sets of experiences, ideas, and passions. Find out how you can embrace diversity and innovate the future.
by Raya Bidshahri
In an increasingly globalized and connected world, more pioneering leaders highlight the importance of diversity in innovation. Intuitively, many of us will define diverse teams as those that include members from different genders, ethnicities, and races. Yet, there is a far more powerful implication of diversity. The scope of the term goes beyond inclusion and also encompasses innovation. Yes, a diverse team is inclusive and welcoming of all, despite one’s background and ethnicity. A diverse team is also one where its members have varying sets of experiences, ideas, and passions.
More Creativity, More Innovation
Every innovator has a unique story and set of personal and professional experiences that define them. Each of us has a personal vision for the world and a way of tackling problems. These unique perspectives can offer a valuable tool to disrupt the norm and foster innovation.
Diverse teams are argued to be more creative. As an in Iranian-born, Dubai-raised female student here in the US with a background in both STEM and business, I can vouch for that. The most exciting teams to work with often happen to be those where each individual brings a unique perspective—where everyone thinks differently. A scientist may approach a problem differently compared to an economist. An artist will approach a project differently compared to a writer. A citizen from Thailand will analyze a global issue differently than some from let’s say, The United States. All of these different perspectives in a team are valuable.
“Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above national industry medians.”
As explored in a Forbes report, Fostering Innovation Through Diversity, “Multiple voices lead to new ideas, new services, new products, and encourage out-of-the-box thinking.” Creativity, in combination with cultural intelligence and freedom of thought, are factors that contribute to more innovative ideas. After all, it is no coincidence that creativity is described as the mother of innovation.
This further translates into increased financial returns. Among businesses, empirical research has proven over and over again that diversity stimulates not only innovation but also market growth. McKinsey & Co. reports in Diversity Matters, companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above national industry medians. Furthermore, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns greater than national industry medians.
Diversity in STEM
We must also not underestimate the importance of diversity in scientific research and technological innovation. Collaboration has always been a crucial factor in advancing STEM. And we already know that diverse teams increase the chances of finding the best game-changing idea.
One example of how diversity of background can advance scientific innovation is seen with the fascinating research team of Norberto Grzywacz at Georgetown University. Grzywacz’s team is advancing the field of neuroesthetics, which looks at the way the brain processes beauty and art. The diverse research team serves to solve the problem of blindness through a collaboration of both artists and scientists. According to Grzywacz, artists and scientists use terms like “balance” and “composition” in different ways. Bridging this communication gap will contribute to scientific innovation. Interdisciplinary solutions are often some of the most innovative ones, and diverse teams allow for more of them.
“If the end goal is excellence, diversity is an essential ingredient.”
As a planetary geologist and Science Program Manager at NASA Headquarters, Adriana Ocampo believes many of her scientific accomplishments, such as the discovery of the Chixculub crater, can be credited to her diverse background. Adriana likes to point out that the role immigrants play in American culture is the key to innovation. “This is why I always love telling everybody at NASA that I am an immigrant,” she says. “That has been my role, to bring a different perspective that is essential for innovation.”
Fred Guterl, writes in Scientific American, “Diversity is beneficial for teams precisely because we react differently to people who are different from us. If the end goal is excellence, diversity is an essential ingredient.” Guterl points out that while empirical evidence and objective methodologies advance scientific research, personal point of view decides what questions we ask to begin with and often, how we interpret results. Factors like gender and culture can influence research at a fundamental level.
According to Margret Naele, whose research focuses on team performance and negotiation, “the worst kind of group for an organization that wants to be innovative and creative is one in which everyone is alike and gets along too well.” Naele suggests diversity across a variety of layers or “dimensions” such as expertise, education, or personality, can boost overall performance by enhancing creativity and/or problem-solving.
Challenges & Solutions
While the benefits are clear, many practical challenges remain before we accomplish the ideal diversity in the workforce. For instance, according to the Diversity Matters report, women account for an average of just 16% of executive teams in the US and continue to remain underrepresented at the top of corporations. The same trends apply globally. Many firms also find it difficult to attract diverse tech talent. According to the report, this is partially a result of many graduating engineers choosing careers in finance in addition to the fact that fewer women and minorities pursue STEM careers.
Kenneth Gibs points out in a piece for Scientific American that lack of diversity represents a loss of talent and scientific advancement relies on scientific talent. As long as such disproportionality continues to exist in the STEM community demographics, we are limiting scientific progress. Creativity and innovative problem solving have an essential role to play when it comes finding the next game-changing idea, such as finding the cure for cancer or sending a man or woman to Mars.
We’ve already seen how a team brimming with different perspectives can catalyze creativity and innovation. Hence, Diversity is essential in optimizing teams’ creative and problem-solving capabilities.
One exciting case study and solution to the lack of diversity in tech is Intel’s “Rotational Engineer Program,” which aims to bring in a “diversity of experience” to participants. Within the program, engineers at Intel move through three, six-month-long rotations. It allows them to gain deep technical knowledge from multiple areas within the company, design unique career paths, and build multiple valuable networks across the organization. They interact with professionals from different departments, see problems from different perspectives and diversify their experience.
Like any issue, there is no single solution to the diversity problem in STEM. However, there have been many exciting solutions proposed to revamp the talent pipeline in STEM fields, including: (a) improving recruitment processes, (b) training against biases, (c) leadership training, (d) providing mentorship opportunities, and (e) improving employee retention rates.
Experts advise executives and managers to develop and innovate their talent pipelines for the next generation of global leaders. McKinsey and Co reports that “Given the higher returns that diversity is expected to bring, we believe it is better to invest now, since winners will pull further ahead and laggards will fall further behind.”
As we can see, diversity is not just an issue of equal opportunity and inclusion. That is a given. In addition, it is a key catalyst for stimulating strategic growth and increasing revenue. Most importantly, diversity allows for more creative problem-solving, more game-changing ideas and more human progress. In my opinion, we perform at our best when challenged and pushed to think outside of our comfort zone. What better way to do this, than to work with people who think differently than we do.
We hope you’ve learned something about Diversity and Innovation. Let us know your thoughts. What else would you like to know?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Raya Bidshahri is a social entrepreneur & science communicator. She’s founded several international organizations including Intelligent Optimism, Cafe Scientifique Dubai and SciFest Dubai. She’s excited about exponential technologies and how they will impact our lives! She is focused on Operations and Outreach at Women@TheFrontier.
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