Lots of unpacking to do here.
What do I mean by “diversity?” To be diverse, means that the subject in question (i.e. the thing being labeled “diverse”) includes many different forms of a specific or various attributes. The “attribute” can be anything: a color, a language, an economic status, a religion, a fashion-style, a political allegiance, or a way of thinking. Diversity is highly relative. What is “diverse” for one subject, may not be considered “diverse” for another.
But enough abstraction. In this case, I’m focusing on diversity in our business organizations and our society.
When I say “diversity,” I mean that an organization or a society involves many different forms of “attributes” that influence how it interacts and progresses. Those “attributes” can be many things, but here I focus predominantly on: culture, language, philosophical ideology, political view, religious view, academic background & training, gender identification, ethnicity, and socio-economic status.
And what do I mean by “diversity is good?” I mean that it it is beneficial for the long-term success of our societies and our organizations. It is important to note the long-term, rather than the short-term. The good that I speak about is not something to dwell on within the timeframe of a few months or a single year. I mean a benefit that is realized over the course of multiple years, and in some case, decades.
So then, why is diversity good for the long-term success or our organizations and society?
Smarter people than I have confronted this question. My argument echoes existing arguments and centers on the following tenet: diversity strengthens the long-term productivity and creativity of organizations and societies.
A common argument against diversity involves short-term roadblocks and inefficiencies that can come with integrating new ways of thinking and doing things into a group. Sure, those exist. Is it easy for a homogeneous group to continue to do the things they’ve always been doing? Sure. Is it easy to work with people who think like you and do things in similar ways? Sure.
But “easy” has low correlation with “good” (i.e. long-term productivity), particularly when we think in months and years rather than in hours and days. Diversity helps our organizations and society with long-term productivity and creativity in several ways.
Another loaded term. To be brief, innovation is the process of creating new things, either by introducing something completely new or by combining existing things in novel ways. Creating new things, or doing existing actions in improved ways, is how business works. On those same lines, if societies fail to innovate over time, they become obsolete. Change is the only constant in our lives, and successful groups are ones who can innovate to meet shifting demands.
Innovation would be impossible without diversity. New products and processes require creativity, which requires willingness to try new ideas. A central aspect of diversity is how it exposes us to new ideas and ways of doing. The Scientific American how diversity encourages the search for new information and novel perspectives, which is at the root of innovation. They cite research indicating how gender and racial diversity provide access to new perspectives, and can even increase the value of companies. Diversity increases access to information and ideological connections, which drives the development of new concepts, products, and methods. New information and perspectives make us smarter individually and as a group.
In addition to new information, diversity also boosts creativity. In his book Originals, Wharton professor Adam Grant emphasizes the role that diverse voices play in the creative process. He points out how dissenting opinions are useful, even when they’re wrong. Groupthink, the bane of creativity, is also notably diminished when the group is highly heterogeneous. Creativity flourishes with criticism and diverse perspectives, and diverse groups create the best environment for that.
Underlying every effective group or society is strong communication. Diversity does not necessarily make communication easier in the short term, but doing the easy thing rarely creates sustained productivity. Diversity supports effective long-term communication by forcing groups to practice hard at communicating, and by encouraging a culture of seeking common ground.
Practice doesn’t always make perfect, but it usually does make competent. Diversity forces groups to consider their assumptions and engage in the process of searching for common ground. Finding common ground is at the heart of communication when people have different opinions on how to do something. And people always have different opinions on how to do something.
Effective communication involves an overt attempt to understand why another group believes what they do. Back to the Scientific American:
“Members of a homogeneous group rest somewhat assured that they will agree with one another; that they will understand one another’s perspectives and beliefs … But when members of a group notice that they are socially different from one another, they change their expectations. They anticipate differences of opinion and perspective. They assume they will need to work harder to come to a consensus.”
It is easy to get comfortable and complacent when a group thinks in homogeneous ways. Human beings like agreement and dislike conflict. We must actively practice disagreement to become better at communicating dissenting opinions effectively (and maturely). Diverse groups have no choice whether they practice active communication — they must do it in order to function. And in doing so, they learn to communicate more effectively than even homogeneous groups, while reaping the benefits of new ideas and creative approaches.
Speaking of creative approaches, diversity aids groups and individuals in solving problems. Diversity-prompted innovation and communication combine to produce more effective fixes to organizational and societal problems. Countless corporate and societal projects fail to solve the problems they were intended to because too few perspectives were involved in the design and implementation.
But doesn’t that sound like the problem of “too many cooks in the kitchen?” Perhaps. But the problem of “too many cooks” is not a problem with diversity. It is a problem with the structure of interactions between group members and with execution and decision-making. Involving diverse perspectives is vital in creative problem-solving.
Mentioned earlier, groupthink is the death of creativity and problem-solving. So many organizational and societal problems persist ad nauseum because the same groups try the same fixes, repeatedly. Albert Einstein is often cited with the quote, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” yet that is precisely what groupthink incentives. It’s easy to groupthink in a homogenous group.
Diversity brings in new information and forces us to practice new approaches, which keeps us out of the groupthink trap. It provokes creative thought and helps us find new ways to solve old problems. For some interesting thoughts on this, see the Systems Thinker for discussion on common challenges faced by organizations, notably the “fixes that fail” archetype.
In addition to helping us avoid groupthink, diversity better equips us with individual skills to solve problems. In the fascinating book The Second Machine Age, authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Adam McAfee talk about the critical skills workers need in an age of automation and “smart” machines. Those include: ideation, large-frame pattern-recognition, and complex communication. Navigating different ideologies and communicating in diverse environments is an excellent way to hone those skills.
Diversity is good because it helps us with innovation, communication, and problem solving. In a country as seemingly divided as ours is, diversity is as necessary as it has ever been to help us build effective organizations. Diversity does not necessarily make things easier, but most worthwhile endeavors require persistent effort.
The world is a staggeringly complex place. It is easy for us to close ourselves off and lean into sameness. But long-term success comes when we bring together new skill-sets and perspectives and learn to communicate with diverse groups. We can face the complexity of the world head-on by doing two things: embrace the idea that no group has a monopoly on good ideas and open ourselves to learning from those who are different.