Why Diversity & Inclusion Means Conflict, Innovation & Growth

The question of diversity has always fascinated me. Indeed, when I did some soul searching a few years ago trying to document my core values as part of a leadership development programme the “D” word was high up on the list of values which have become core to my leadership philosophy.

I guess this comes from having worked across 11 different countries and cultures, always having strong female role models in both my personal and professional life and for a period of my life suffering from a condition that some would call a physical handicap, epilepsy.

So long before the “Diversity” word became the poster child of every boardroom, in light of recent events, I have tried to use it as a key ingredient of growth in the teams I lead.

Over recent years I have had the privilege to lead many parts of the Mynewsdesk organisation, a SaaS company that has grown from a scrappy startup to a European market leader of communications and PR technology.

Productive conflict, innovation and growth have all been at the heart of our success story and I wanted to use this post to share some concrete tips for those of you wondering how to implement diversity and inclusion initiatives in your organisation.

Mynewsdesk have recently completed a leadership development programme in Diversity & Inclusion lead by the team at Mitt Liv where over 40 managers were introduced to the topic as part of a major investment in this area.

Here are their reflections in a word cloud following the end of the course.

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Linking Diversity & Inclusion to Strategy & Tactics

Whilst the awareness of diversity and inclusion (D&I) is an achievement in itself many organisations struggle to implement successful initiatives.

This is where McKinsey’s latest work “Delivering through Diversity”, not only takes you through their latest data about how you are more likely to be a top performing company you have a diverse workforce but also offers a framework of implementation.

The model is a little too top down in my opinion but what is clear is you do need buy in at the most senior level in an organisation for D&I to be embraced and succeed.

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Where there is another significant challenge is in stage 4 “tailor for impact”. If you exist in a multinational corporation views and attitudes to diversity are very much shaped by your national culture.

Powerpoints on strategy and highlighted initiatives are easy to create but true understanding of your local organisation’s culture and the gap that exist’s between often HR departments at your HQ location are often one of the biggest challenges in successful achievement of D&I goals. Remember local adaption is key.

Creating a Willing Community

Probably the best thinking around diversity I have seen comes not from D&I experts but from the impressive work of Professor Linda Hill from Harvard Business School who specialises in leadership within innovation.

Linda and her team have spent years studying the world’s most innovative companies and their leaders and in their 2014 book “Collective Genius” uncovered what I beleive to be some of the secrets of both innovation and diversity and inclusion.

It all starts not with some top down cascade as McKinsey might lead you to believe but by companies and their leaders creating a community who are willing and committed to innovation.

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Linda A. Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, Kent Lineback (Collective Genius / HBR 2014)

This willing community does not build itself though. It needs leaders to define and communicate the purpose and values of their organisations. And more importantly clearly think about and communicate the “rules of engagement” or in other words, how the company and its employees should interact with each other and think about problems.

Conflict & The Three Abilities

Once a sense of community has been established, three vital skills need to be developed by your team. This is where conflict or Linda Hill’s softer phrase “creative abrasion” comes into play.

As diversity grows in your organisation, so will conflict but that’s a source of competitive advantage. Most leaders understand this on a theoretical level but if they have been educated and live and work in cultures and societies where conflict is seen as a negative attribute then it is difficult for them to generate productive conflict in their teams.

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Linda A. Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, Kent Lineback (Collective Genius / HBR 2014)

With this conflict or “abrasion” through discourse and debate your teams also need the ability to be creatively agile and experiment with ideas rapidly to put their hypothesis to the test. Even in the most opinionated organisation, in the end data will tell you if you are on the right track or not.

The final skill is the ability to make integrated decisions that combine different and even at times opposing ideas. This is easy to say but so hard to achieve. A good starting point is to develop and communicate an explicit decision-making process for your organisation. If you are running any type of organisation at scale and are still two guys in a room making decisions your company is not on the path to innovative success.

6 Paradoxes of Leading Innovation

The final piece of advice from Professor Hill comes from her work on leading creativity and the paradoxes this presents. She suggests that all leaders of creativity and innovation are always balancing six different paradoxes.

Wherever you are on these scales at any point in time will be determined by the specific organisational context but as a leader you need to know where your team is and how you can both unleash and harness the positive impact of all factors.

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Linda A. Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, Kent Lineback (Collective Genius / HBR 2014)

Increasing diversity in your team will put these paradoxes to the test and change where you are on some of these scales, but on a positive note it will help you become a much more innovative and in the longterm competitive organisation.

Understanding, truly committing to and succeeding with diversity and inclusion is not easy. However, if you are responsible for sustaining your organisation’s competitive advantage you have no choice.

You must embrace the benefits of diversity and inclusion and the ingredients of innovation that it provides. I hope some of these models and thoughts are a help in that journey.

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