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Diversity makes all the difference ?? !!!

We hear a lot about diversity, the value and importance of it. Especially in the context of innovation - and I could nto agree more! I often quote Walter Lippmann, American writer, reporter, and political commentator who once said, "If everyone thinks alike, no one thinks very much." Quite.

However, talking to those who have worked in highly diverse context there is often a lot of frustration, and the complaint that such projects under- rather than over perform. What happens is that participants settle on the lowest common demoninator rather than truly combining their skill and knoweldge sets to create something new ...

Since diversity has been a key corner stone in my thinking around what truly enables and facilitates innovation, I have thought a lot about it, and what might help realise the full potential of diversity.

My first step was to develop a tool that would help elicit differences - in understanding, perception, expectation - at the outset: Totem Cards (building on the work of my docural supervisor, Dr Angela Dumas). It is a deck of 84 cards with visuals. Why visuals? For me there are 3 reasons:

  1. It elicits tacit knowledge and things we assume When using words we tend to assume shared meaning - which is often not the case, particularly when we are working in groups of diverse functional or professional backgrounds. With images it is more obvious that they can be interpreted in a number of different ways; this means that someone needs to elaborate and explain in more depth why s/he has chosen a particular picture, and what it means to him /her. By explaining the reasons and motivation behind their choice individuals offer up much more of their thinking, their implicit assumption and their tacit knowledge then they would using words alone. This leads to a better understanding of individuals’ starting point, position and reasoning. The process works similarly well for the creation of a shared vision or understanding of a particular situation, be it a challenge or solution, be it the status quo or a desired scenario.

  2. It encourage an open and honest exchange without becoming personal In most cultures we shy away from expressing things directly that might be perceived as critique. However, without bringing these issue into the open they easily take a life of their own, undermining successful collaboration. Using visuals to express experiences, feelings, positions helps to externalise the issue, making discussions less personal, thereby preserving a greater openness and honesty in the discussion.

  3. It enables people to keep an open mind Using the cards tends to introduce an element of fun and laughter into discussions - which is a good thing as laughter (a) releases tension, (b) keeps the mind open and facilitates connections between different parts of our brain and (c) makes the discussion of difficult or controversial topics easier. There is a further aspect to visuals supporting an ‘open mind’: as pictures are open to many different interpretations, the interpretation of others can be a surprise to us, giving us a new or different perspective, creating the effect of ‘lateral thinking’.


More recently I realise that it is not quite enough, we might be aware of our differences - and still not work well together. So what else?

This is when I devided that we need more AART = Awareness (of the differences), Appreciation (of the contributions and the value inherent in the difference) Respect (towards those who are different) and Trust (that each and everyone is trying to do their best).

In my view the problem is that there is diverse teams are thrown together because everyone talks about the value of diversity - and then they are left to their own devices, not aware of the language differences (same words having different meaning), might be full of prejudices, and are under pressure to deliver and get into production mode, fast. unless there are some highly AARTful people around, things are likely to disintegrate quickly, everyone doing their thing, no combination of knowledge and learning takes place, so the end result is 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 1 rather than 15! Spending time at the outset to elicit the differences, create an awareness and appreciation of their value, do stuff to build trust and respect would be critical if we are really to see the benefits.

So, want to benefit from diversity? Use visuals and AART!

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