Don’t Panic – Diversity Does Not Drive Innovation

It seems to be the catch-cry of many corporations lately- it goes like this “diversity drives innovation.” My thoughts lately have brought me to the point where I’d like to challenge that catch-cry. Diversity does not drive innovation, but don’t panic, we know what does. The catch-cry is half right. Diversity can be a driver of innovation but it requires a key- inclusion is that key.

Another favorite is “diversity of thought drives innovation,” but here too we are only partly right. An organisation can have all of the diversity in the world, can have all of those people thinking about things in a different way, through a different cultural lens, allowing those thoughts to be shaped by diverse lived experience. But if nobody is listening, of what use are those thoughts to the organisation? Of what use is that diversity?

Diversity of human lived experience allows a wide spectrum of thought shaped by and informed by factors that may be out of reach to others. Where inclusion is optimal those thoughts are given an equal voice, allowing them an equal chance of influencing decision making and an equal chance of shaping organisational culture. Achieving optimal inclusion is a marathon effort that is difficult to acheive- perhaps this is why innovation is so elusive.

Organisations, particularly those that have made great inroads into inclusion, often hold their culture to be sacred- after all, considerable organisational cultural change is required to acheive every small goal on the road to inclusion. But the importance attached to this culture can lead to issues of exclusion. Many organisations only hire people that are perceived to be a perfect fit to the organisational culture, but does this allow for innovation? Would it not be better to sometimes employ people who, while being respectful of an organisation’s culture, are willing to challenge that culture in ways that lead to change?

If inclusion is the key that allows diversity to drive change, then cultural change is the modus operandi that creates innovation. In order to demonstrate this point, let’s step out of organisation culture for the moment and examine the history of Australian gastronomy. If you were an international visitor seeking a meal in Australia in the 1940s and 1950s, you may have found yourself rather dismayed at the lack of diversity on the menu. Shaped predominantly by an Anglo Celtic population, with some local influences, a steak and three veg or mutton and three veg was probably the best you could find. A visitor to Australia in 2017, faced with such exciting menu choices as now exist, may be surprised to learn that was the case. Australian chefs now produce innovative menus that are a fusion of many regions of the globe. The Australian population is now as diverse as any, but it is not just that diversity that has allowed this change to happen. It is the process of inclusion, Australians trying new tastes, meeting immigrant families, being invited to share meals, sampling different menus and allowing these new tastes a “voice,” thus allowing these influences to drive a cultural change. That such a rigidly worshiped inflexible food culture could change so rapidly is a testament to gastronomic inclusion.

A recent article regarding a woman who left the mining industry also served to reinforce the importance of inclusion but also the key role that culture plays. We all welcome that women are being employed in roles that are traditionally associated with men (such as field geologist) but that diversity has little chance of impacting innovation if the woman feels as uncomfortable with the on-site culture as the woman in the article did. It also highlights that improvements in inclusion in the top organisations in our capital cities is not enough. Not only does this inclusion have to spread to these more remote operations, but social change has to also occur. This is why in my view it is important for corporations to be involved in social change- let’s not ask Alan Joyce to go back to his knitting.

That diversity alone is insufficient to drive innovation, also points to the deficiencies of targets and quotas as a solution. They may well be an important first step but unless that diversity is given opportunity to be heard and to influence, we’re just counting numbers and patting ourselves on the back, for no real gain.

In my view, organisations can acheive innovation by recognising the three important contributors. Diversity can drive innovation if inclusion is allowed to affect cultural change.