Innovation has become the Holy Grail for companies, leaders, and individuals. And with good reason. We live in a time of extraordinary change coming at a staggering pace. Whether this change becomes an asset or a liability largely depends on the ability innovate.

There are hundreds of books on innovation, all with excellent studies, models, and approaches. However, few—if any—connect diversity and inclusivity with ability to innovate. Let’s look at these often-used (and misused) terms and see how diversity and inclusivity lead to innovation.

First, let’s look at the definitions—

Innovation: Making change to deliver incremental value, such as in new ideas, products, or businesses.

Diversity: Having different types of people, e.g., different genders, races, cultures, backgrounds, beliefs, etc. in a group or organization.

Inclusivity: Intentionally including different kinds of people, particularly those who might otherwise be excluded.

How companies miss the boat on innovation

Why are some companies such successful innovators, while others fail at it completely? And perhaps even more interestingly, why do some companies initially build dominance through innovation, but later become stagnant, perhaps with innovation right under their nose?

For example, why did Kodak fail to understand the threat that digital photography posed to its photographic film business? More to the point, how did Kodak overlook the tremendous opportunity offered by digital photography, given that they invented the core technology used in digital cameras?

Why did Blockbuster—once a home entertainment giant with more than 60,000 employees and 9,000 retail stores—fall into bankruptcy because it didn’t anticipate the impact of the internet and streaming media?

Why did Columbia House—the mail-order entertainment giant that enjoyed almost 50 years of growth through multiple evolutions in entertainment technology—actively resist market shifts to online ordering (a la Amazon and iTunes) rather than take advantage of its industry leadership position?

The answer

Leadership in these companies couldn’t imagine a world that worked very differently from the one they were accustomed to, and had been highly successful in. In a very real sense, their thinking was trapped in the box they had created through past success. And the ability to think outside of that kind of box is perhaps the most important skill for today’s rapidly changing world.

The ability to think outside of the box

This is at the core of all major theories on innovation. Innovation requires access to new and different information, the willingness to challenge one’s own ideas, and the ability to connect different ideas. But these things are counter to human nature. We want the comfort of replicating past success, and to avoid the discomfort and uncertainty of the unfamiliar. Giving in to this impulse keeps us in that comfortable box, a place that is, in fact, very risky in today’s business world.

How diversity and inclusivity change the picture

A wealth of literature has been written about diversity, and most major corporations invest in diversity training. The problem is that many see diversity as just a feel good/social responsibility thing, or a way to avoid legal risk.  Also, we are biologically programed to seek out people who look like us, sound like us, share out beliefs, and think like us. These limited perspectives overlook the much bigger opportunity for innovation that comes from diversity.

The key to leveraging the innovative value in diversity is to understand it from a strategic perspective, and then combine it with the separate concept of inclusivity. Specifically, not only seeking to have different types of people present (people who are likely to think differently) but also to recognize, embrace, and value the benefits those differences bring to the business environment and problem solving.

Examples of missed opportunity

I worked at Columbia House many years ago when the internet was just taking root. I had a colleague who was interested in exploring the business opportunities of the internet; however, senior leadership had no interest in her ideas. They’d spent most of their careers at the company, they were almost exclusively male, and they were much older. It was seemingly impossible for them to imagine that this “internet thing” would ever be meaningful, or that a business that had been successful for so many years could be headed for radical change.

Perhaps more importantly, they weren’t accustomed to accepting new ideas from someone so different from themselves. She was a woman in a heavily male-dominated culture, she was young and just out of business school, she was from outside of the industry—she simply didn’t fit the mold. She was also able to see things from new and innovative perspective, one that proved to be a prophecy for thing to come.

Get out of the box! Innovative thinking

One of the best ways to get out of the box and promote innovative thinking is to build teams with people from many different perspectives—from different backgrounds, of different ethnicities, of different beliefs, of different nationalities, of different ages, and who lead different lifestyles—and drive a culture of inclusivity where the differences are not just present, but are seen as a source of competitive advantage. In addition to bringing new ideas to the table, research shows that just functioning in more diverse environment triggers an increase in creativity. Some believe that the reason major urban areas tend to be hotbeds of creativity is the stimulation of being near many different types of people and ideas.

5 Steps to Drive Innovation with Diversity & Inclusivity

  1. Expand your circle and challenge your thinking. Commit to a diverse and inclusive work environment. This requires everyone to expand their circles, to entertain new ideas, and often to challenge their beliefs. Not only might the person who looks, sounds, or thinks differently have an innovative idea, the cognitive skills the larger organization builds by learning to interact within a diverse environment will increase creativity and innovation.
  2. Don’t tolerate differences, value them. Diversity alone isn’t enough. In order to reap the benefit of a diverse environment, leaders must value (not just accommodate) differences—e.g., foster inclusivity. Leaders must model behavior and set a tone of interest in learning from those who are different and may have different ideas.
  3. Be curious. I often tell clients that curiosity is one of their greatest assets. The best way to engage in a diverse culture is to be as genuinely curious as possible. When facing a difficult decision, seek input and perspective from someone who is different from you. Understand what they think, and why. You don’t need to agree, but just understanding with genuine curiosity will improve your own thinking.
  4. It’s a process not a destination. Many see diversity as something to “check the box” on, another fallacy of diversity training. The truth is that we should always be seeking out people who are different from us and learning from them.  And, there will always be more differences to explore. This is not a task to complete, but an endless journey leading to always deeper and richer understanding.
  5. Be courageous. Diversity remains a sensitive topic on many fronts, and pursuing a culture of diversity and inclusivity requires a certain level of courage. However, I believe this is just one of the many types of courage required for long-term success in today’s business environment.

The bottom line

We live in a world that is quickly becoming more interconnected, and therefore broad diversity will quickly become the new normal.  This interconnection will further increase the pace of innovation.  How will you turn diversity into an innovation advantage for yourself, your team, and your company?

I invite you to join the discussion, or to contact me directly if you want to discuss more specifically.