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Category: Behavioral Economics, Innovation

How is Diversity Important for Innovation?

When you give people the task to invent alternative uses for an old car tire, or listing all things that one could do with a brick, they for sure come up with some ideas. But if you tell them beforehand to imagine themselves as a seven-year-old child, they not only scored far higher on the creative tasks, but came up with twice as many ideas. This study used priming to manipulate the test subjects to become more creative.

What changed is that the test subjects had put themselves into the place of others and had looked at the world from a different perspective. Homogeneous groups often lack those diverging viewpoints and have a narrower set of solutions. This may be an advantage for proven paths and incremental innovation. Homogeneous groups can also come faster to such solutions or spread information faster. They also can create harmony better, as the same values are being perpetrated in these groups.

But when creative and fresh solutions are required, then this is limited. Japan has seen a decline due to its cultural homogeneity. Several effects are coming into place that make homogeneity a disadvantage. One is the Galapagos Syndrom, where the solutions work well in the group, but not at all outside the group. If you are a company operating in a homogeneous society you may have troubles rolling your solutions out on a global scale, or just to a different demographics.

Diverse groups can outperform homogeneous groups, as studies have shown. Both groups may be equally able and skilled, but by having more and diverse ideas disruptive solutions may be more likely to be discovered. The status quo and certain practices may not be questioned, as we have seen with the delegation from the furniture industry.

Another effect with homogeneous groups comes up that scientists call the common knowledge effect. A group tends to value that knowledge and information higher that a larger number of members have. Peripheral knowledge that only a small number of members have is then often deemed less important for the solution finding and decision process. Well working groups know how to make use of peripheral knowledge.

I experienced that myself at a workshop a couple of years ago in Karlsruhe. Our team of four male and one female member was tasked to find a gamified solution for a project management system. We really struggled, when the only woman in the team suggested the board game Snakes & Ladders. Now you have to know one more piece of information: the female group member was from New Zealand, while the four males were from Germany and Austria. None of us had ever heard of that game. But in the end that game provided the solution, because we listened to the peripheral knowledge and could create a unique and innovative solution.

As humans we tend to prefer group members that are like us. That’s why we often try to find common ground when we interview a job candidate. In fact we should hire candidates that are not like us, who make us a bit uncomfortable, who come from different backgrounds, who have different networks, but where we still feel that we can work together and have a functioning work relationship.

Unfortunately, diversity in most companies is less common than you might hope. A revealing display in the lack of gender diversity was recently demonstrated with this interactive list of German boardrooms. And in Japan you have the feeling that they have just given up on that, given that they cut down their already low levels of ambition in increasing the number of female managers.

In order to reinvent the wheel, or the tire and brick, make sure to have some seven-year-old in the team. Or at least, let them imagine to be.