It has become customary to assume that diversity increases creativity. But Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London and a faculty member at Columbia University, says the link is not as simple as we think.
Yes, teams with a diverse composition generate a wider range of original and useful ideas. But experimental studies suggest those benefits disappear when the team turns its attention to implementation, deciding which ideas to select and act upon, presumably because diversity hinders consensus.
He writes in Harvard Business Review that an analysis of 108 studies and more than 10,000 teams "indicated that the creativity gains produced by higher team diversity are disrupted by the inherent social conflict and decision-making deficits that less homogeneous teams create. It would therefore make sense for organizations to increase diversity in teams that are focused on exploration or idea generation, and use more-homogeneous teams to curate and implement those ideas."
He adds that for all the talk about the importance of creativity, the critical activity is innovation – implementing creative ideas. "Most organizations have a surplus of creative ideas that are never implemented, and more diversity is not going to solve this problem," he says.
Other factors to consider:
- Good leadership helps. It can assist a team in overcoming the conflicts flowing from diversity. A key is to help members understand other people’s perspectives rather than fixating on their own individual agendas.
Too much diversity is problematic. We might assume that the relationship between creativity and diversity is linear. But that appears to not be true and a moderate degree of diversity is more beneficial than a higher dose.
- Psychology outweighs demography: While we tend to focus on gender, age and racial diversity, the most interesting and influential aspects are the psychological elements of diversity, such as personality, values and abilities. Those are the powerful factors to be alert to.
- Knowledge sharing is key. For diversity to enhance creativity, a culture of sharing knowledge should be in place. “Studies mapping the social networks of organizations have found higher levels of creativity in groups that are more interconnected, particularly when creative and intrapreneurial individuals are a central node in those networks,” he writes.
- Cynics are persuadable. He says diversity training is actually most effective with individuals who are skeptical of it. Of course, the challenge is to get them on board for training.
- Other factors than diversity are more powerful in boosting creativity. He says analysis has found that vision, task orientation, support for innovation and external communication are the strongest determinants of creativity and innovation. Team composition and structure have much less impact.
- Certainly diversity is nice for organizations to have. But he insists that if your actual goal is to enhance creativity, there are simpler, more effective solutions than boosting diversity.
2. Tips for building better teams
Whether your team is diverse or not, you always face a challenge in bringing members together into a cohesive unit working toward the same ends.
"From the teachings of Vince Lombardi to modern Navy SEAL training and psychology, it's been proven that the more pressure and challenge your employees embrace and surmount together, the more cohesive and expert your teams will be as they work together going forward," consultant Baron Christopher Hanson notes on SmartBrief.com.
Here is a framework of escalating challenges that can help build an engaged, cohesive team:
- Watch a challenging, team-oriented film together: A movie night is easy to plan and only takes up a few hours. He suggests making a list of films, documentaries or keynote industry speeches your teams would benefit from watching together within the next few weeks.
- Read a challenging book together: In a turnaround situation, he has the entire executive team read and discuss a relevant book or perhaps two or three such works, such as Blue Ocean Strategy, Good to Great and The Medici Effect. As well as discussions once or twice a week, to keep everyone on pace, he requires a three-page summation of the book by each leader, articulating how their future work will be affected by the concepts in the book. And if you don’t join in, you’re off the team.
- Write and produce a challenging article, blog post, speech or video presentation together: This is more difficult but can pay extra dividends by exposing you to top customers, industry peers, academic leaders in your field and various media sources. He works with companies that have run into the ditch and finds “advancing an analytical, academic presentation – perhaps at your next industry conference or university recruiting opportunity – is something most companies and organizations in trouble have never even dreamed of doing.”
- Host an exciting event that involves serving food to a larger group: Cooking or catering for a group of people beyond your team can be a humbling experience bringing everyone together. The event will also showcase your organization and team to those you invite.
- Attend a conference together: Work hard and play hard together, attending a top conference or making a recruiting trip to a university campus.
He stresses that some workplaces will frown on aspects of those activities that extend beyond work hours, so you must be sensitive to standard employment agreements and compensate accordingly. But too often employees suffer from numbingly boring workplaces that lack a culture of innovation. They crave challenges. These ideas could build energy and engagement.
3. Measuring operational elegance
Companies that want to accelerate growth and maximize profitability are like figure skaters. They need to be technically sound as well as artistically graceful and flexible, according to Toronto consultant Andrew Miller. On his blog, he identifies the technical and artistic elements to score yourself on, according to a one to five scale:
- We focus on one priority – the single fastest and most effective way to achieve our ideal future state.
- We replicate internal best practices across the organization.
- We practise optimal speed, knowing when to speed up and when to slow down to maximize results.
- We identify and maximize impact from our best ideas.
- We practice operational transparency, sharing information so employees understand decision-making and customers are more empowered.
- We measure outcome, not activity level.
- We know who our ideal customers are.
- We have a clearly communicated ideal future state and ensure everything we do aligns to it.
- We know who our best and next best employees are and focus on their development and retention.
- We have processes that focus on efficiently achieving the right outcomes.
- We communicate the expected behaviours for peak employee performance.
- We hire for where we are going, not where we are.
- We encourage healthy debate and productive failure.
- We don’t tolerate poor performance.
A perfect score would be 70. How did you fare?
4. Quick Hits
- Smartphones dumb you down, says informational overload expert Nathan Zeldes. Two of his Tel Aviv Academic College students tested one group of students who kept their phone off during classes and another that had them fully functional on their desks. The average grade of students with phones off was 14 points higher out of 100.
- Consultant Laurie Ruettimann is high on The Light Phone, which has the same phone number as your regular smartphone and is linked to it but is designed to be used as little as possible, essentially for emergencies.
- Before your next meeting or conversation begins, consultant Scott Eblin recommends taking a deep breath and asking yourself two questions: What am I trying to do in this meeting and how do I need to show up to make those outcomes likely?
- Next time you receive a complaint, blogger Ron Edmondson advises asking yourself: Is this complaint individual, just one person’s issue, or representative of multiple people with the same problem?
- The firing of New York Knicks president Phil Jackson is a reminder that leaders who are great in one context can stink in another, says HR blogger Tim Sackett. Mr. Jackson was deft in handling the talented players of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers – many coaches would have failed at managing those personalities and egos – but he wasn’t as good at building a team from nothing, with no stars.