When we recruit people from the same colleges, with the same majors and similar career paths, why are we so frustrated when the ideas they produce aren't exactly revolutionary? Hiring a more diverse talent pool - featuring more women, people of color, LGBTQ+ etc. - can be a great first step any company can take towards supporting creative collisions.
This bears out in the research. According to a McKinsey report, companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. While correlation does not equal causation, it certainly indicates that companies committed to diversity are more successful.
But true diversity and the value it brings goes much deeper. Apple have coined the term 'think different', which is exactly what outliers do and where a lot of true innovation comes from. It’s time to get much better at finding and supporting outliers; those with very different skills, experiences, ways of problem solving, and indeed, different ways of thinking.
To better understand the benefits of hiring a more diverse talent pool, we spoke with Laura Ann Edwards, Founder of Data Oasis and NASA Datanaut:
How do you prepare for disruption?
I think the prime ways to prepare for disruption is to 'act as if.' By that I mean some combination of long term scenario planning and frequent 'what if’ drills – where there’s a low risk environment to float ideas, reframe the big questions, roleplay and prototype. Much like stressful situations in nature or emergency protocols; nothing totally prepares you, but the more variety of situations you’ve experienced, even as thought puzzles, the more likely you are to snap out of paralysis and into nimble adaptation. So study, experiment, prototype together and remain cognizant of the changing landscape outside your bubble.
How can companies encourage more inclusive hiring practices?
Start by looking for people who are curious.
Lifelong learners are going to be more amenable to new ideas, to reframing challenges, to the hard work of research and to experimentation. Look for people who are, frankly, more interesting than their CV might suggest. Hobbies? Passions? What do they read? Where do they go on vacation? Homogeneity isn’t just gender/age/skin color/orientation…it’s schools, it’s majors and it’s even consultancy doctrines. These things lead to group think and predictable institutional politics (avoiding risk or lionizing themselves) …all of which are the death of innovation.
How do you encourage a culture of innovation?
Walk your talk.
Take some risks – on hires, on strategies, and even on products. Much of this can be thought experiments and rough prototypes but there’s a reason great painters often sketch first. They play, they dream, they experiment to refine concepts and spark new ones. They also effectively pre-viz, and that simple exercise of believing it can happen has huge impact on the degree of follow through and execution.
Do you have any tips on how companies can create and maintain a more innovative mindset?
Hire more thoughtfully: diversity in many dimensions, curiosity, and if need be, pay for solid research for the landscape your biz is in.
Practice, practice, practice. Roll your sleeves up, make rough and tumble reframing challenges, prototyping and role playing something the company does a lot, in a bunch of different ways v.s. limiting those activities to timeframes when consultants blow in (though we as a group can be fantastic facilitators to teach tools and loosen teams up,) or only when the company is in crisis.
Loosen up. Find ways to insert facilitated, intentional, low risk opportunities for your staff to learn improv and presentation skills - the caveat here is to design these modalities so as to be equally fun and beneficial to introverts as extroverts. Do these things A LOT so there’s less and less performance or results pressure and more flow of ideas and generosity amongst colleagues.
How important is workplace diversity to innovation?
At the end of the day, innovation comes from thinking differently and then executing. While hiring women, people with disabilities and people of different ages and ethnicities is a HUGE first step for adding new perspectives and richness to the mix – the next step is encouraging different ways of problem solving, via truly different ways of thinking. We are too quick to leap to short term feel good moves like 'bring in the creative types,' or worse, 'let’s all brainstorm.' There’s a place for both of course, but in my opinion, long term sustainable innovation happens when there is a combination of stress factors and incentives paired with a truly diverse set of people who provide crucial collisions of ideas and opportunities for synergy or individual inspiration.
Are companies having to innovate faster than they have had to before? If so, what tools are helping them do this?
Yes! There’s no doubt that both the consumer and the software is moving faster than the traditional concept to product to retention cycles we’ve been accustomed to. There’s also no denying that our workforce is changing dramatically every few years. To utilize and support them, entirely new systems are required - be it the Gen Z and Millennials or the huge group of people coming back into the workforce, often in new fields. How they think, what they offer, and how they play well with each other is a brand new opportunity for innovation – but also a massive challenge.
Today’s business leaders have unprecedented access to data, and to a treasure trove of academic and business content exploring innovation to share best practices. The analytics we have at our disposal now are leading us ironically to being more and more people-centric in our efforts to have sustainable productive and innovative work environments.
How is the nature of innovation and organizations’ approaches to it set to evolve over the next five years?
I think the social science and generational transformation into more affinity for working in cooperative groups and functioning in networks will find it’s way into the realm of creative problem solving and ultimately innovation processes and culture building. I also think we will see a much more data driven approach with more feedback loops that will help us as leaders be better facilitators and astute recruiters, able to curate our teams for better outcomes based on exponentially more information than we have at our disposal now.
Hear Laura's presentation 'Outliers have always been innovators, so why don’t we hire them?' at our Chief Innovation Officer summit in San Francisco, May 7 & 8.