Diversity’s Central Paradox

Diversity’s Central Paradox

LET’S NOT MINCE WORDS about workplace diversity. It’s tough to get it right. On the one hand, your greatest chance to create a successful, productive team TISI +1.41% today involves a diverse membership. On the other hand, the more diverse that membership becomes, the worse the odds are that the team will survive long enough to produce those results. That’s diversity’s paradox and challenge.

After exploring diversity for our forthcoming book, Team Genius, my coauthor, Mike Malone, researcher, Faaiza Rashid, and I believe that most companies are blind to the big picture and make a common mistake: They view ethnic and gender diversity as simple, legal boxes to check off. That’s fine as far as it goes. But ethnicity and gender balance shouldn’t be the end point of your diversity campaign. They should be the starting point. Most of your gains–and your chance to soar in the global economy–will come from taking a larger view of diversity.

Let’s consider three more kinds of diversity.

–Cognitive diversity. People think differently from one another. We all know that. But few of us give it much consideration–sometimes to our regret–when we assemble teams. As a result, ethnic and gender diversity can look good on paper, especially when everyone gets along well. Yet in action, your team still doesn’t work. Why not? Because it’s not enough for talents and personalities to match. In fact, making sure they match may be the worst thing you can do. Given the choice between a team that’s a rainbow of races and cultures but whose members all went to the same Ivy League university, and a team composed entirely of African-American women (or, say, Asian men) of different ages, classes, educations and personality types, you’re more likely to have success with the latter. Cognitive diversity–how people think–is all.

Example: Is your goal to assemble a highly creative team to build a new product and pursue a new market? Then staff it with creative people and rebels, right? Not so fast. You’d do better with a mix of creative rebels, conformists and people who are focused on the details of operation. A mix of about 50%, 30% and 20% is good for a creative team. Conformists and detail-minded people shouldn’t form the majority. But they are necessary ingredients for keeping the creative rebels honest and on time.

–Age/experience diversity. Experienced people are the backbone of successful companies–except when they fall into the habit of saying “been there, done that” to every new idea. Conversely, the young and inexperienced have no boundaries. Which balance is right for you? Highly regulated businesses will seek a greater mix of experienced people. Business-to-business companies will want a mix closer to a 50-50 balance. Consumer and fashion companies will lean toward youth. Every successful company has the right mix of age and experience. Loser companies are often lopsided with one or the other.

–Proximity diversity. In this age of global work teams and remote collaboration, proximity is no longer supposed to matter. Except that it stubbornly does. Physical proximity of teams, in fact, is an important predictor of success.

What does this mean in light of modern telecommunications, international teams and the global marketplace? A virtual work team of people living on four different continents and handing off their work across 24 time zones is almost the embodiment of the lack of proximity. So the challenge in such a case is to replace traditional physical proximity with something else: regular online meetings, enhanced communications tools (such as Cisco’s TelePresence and Skype-like technology), team rituals, nonwork activities and, whenever possible, actually getting the team physically together in a single place.

Then there’s the opposite challenge–that of corporate headquarters’ immune systems killing good ideas from remote offices. To build its first fighter jet during WWII and catch up with Nazi Germany’s Messerschmitt ME 262, Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson installed a rebel team in a tent next to a smelly plastics factory. They delivered the P-80 Shooting Star in six months. When IBM IBM +2.91% was developing the personal computer, it put the team 1,100 miles away, in Florida. That way, the corporate headquarters in Armonk, N.Y. couldn’t kill the idea. Apple AAPL +2.4% did the same thing with the Macintosh and later with the Apple Store. It put those development projects off-site.

True diversity is hard work. The best managers will use ethnic and gender diversity as a starting point to get to a larger–and more effective–way of running a business.


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