Let me start with this: Diversity is the morally right thing to do. Nothing I say in this article should be interpreted as suggesting anything else, overtly, subtly, by inference, or in code.
Moral imperatives and regulatory compliance aside, I have seen in the past that the strongest motivation to engage with diversity issues was the avoidance of the PR disaster which the converse would generate. This attitude misses so many of the benefits of having a diverse workforce; happily in recent years the recognition has grown that diversity has inherent value. An organisation acting entirely in its own self-interest has a reason to value diversity.
Instant and ongoing benefits
Here are some of the simple, inherent benefits to team and organisation diversity. My focus is on Change Leadership, so I’ve made some specific references to that as well.
Recruiting with prejudice restricts your pool of possible hires to a limited subset of those available. This runs a strong risk that you will remove from your possible outcomes hiring a very effective member of the team, gifting that competitive advantage to another organisation. For pushing a change into an organisation you need to be able to draw on all the talents you can muster. Having a blinkered set of views about what the people with those talents will look like (talk like, who they are intimately engaged with, what they believe in, or any other thing that is nothing to do with their job) can jeopardise your ability to deliver the Change you are tasked with bringing about.
A striation of different levels of experience and maturity can make the most of available experience without the cost and difficulty of obtaining only already-experienced people. Giving people opportunities for knowledge transfer can help to crystalise knowledge and change the way the more experienced staff think about what they do; offer a chance to render explicit knowledge which is otherwise tacit; and transform a lower-cost individual to be more effective than their cost would indicate, without having to go through the expensive and time consuming process of making the mistakes themselves. In addition, in a change environment, it can be especially useful to have access to both people who have learned, and who have taught, particular aspects of the work undergoing change; this improves stakeholder communication, knowledge transfer planning, and clarity around what processes or activities need to be changed.
Having a varied range of people available for any given task makes it more likely that there is someone with both skill and inclination for a given task; working in the Change Leadership space means that while many things are predictable, repeated tasks (even if in a variegated context), there will always be new things cropping up which need to be handled, and having a range of people to call on to handle any given problem grants the best chance of finding someone whose natural inclination (and therefore motivation) match a particular task well.
Understanding the perspective of the customer is a critical business insight – needed whether your customers are external, internal, or any other variation – and unless you can restrict your customer pool, the best chance of having that insight is to reflect the diversity of your customer base – not to mirror it completely necessarily; that’s both impossible in terms of size/scale for most organisations, and needlessly slavish – but from a risk management perspective, reducing the probability of the risk that you fail to address an important customer is an effective mitigation. Certainly you miss key insights into what is required if you have no relevant experience on which to draw. This doesn’t mean you can’t have insight into someone who is different from you, but it’s a whole lot easier when similar. A substantial part of making a success of many changes is to foster adoption. There are different ways of communicating with different target audiences, and one of the ways that can be made more effective is in the selection of the right person to carry the message. More diversity in your team gives you more options about the messenger, more insights to draw on for crafting the message, and importantly: more credibility.
Diversity in the workforce also encourages people to try doing things a different way – a natural consequence of all the different attitudes. This can result in discoveries of a radical improvement, but more often just incremental improvements. A little incremental improvement goes a long way, if repeated often enough. The richest ground for sowing any kind of process improvement project is a workforce which has practice in doing these kinds of things on a small scale, benefitting organised changes by making it easier to land the changes.
The risk of monoculture
In my view, the greatest benefit of diversity in the workforce is the same as diversity in any system (organisation, ecosystem or organism). A diverse workforce has a strength inherent in its diversity just as a diverse investment portfolio does, a diverse breeding population within a species on the edge of extinction does, rotation of plants in a field does, or even something as simple a break from a long concentration task to think about something different. This strength is above, beyond, and different from the specific and predictable results referred to above.
“… diversity will always be more resilient than monoculture …” – Jonathan Watts, Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China
Without diversity we have monoculture. Monocultures are brittle. Even if each individual is very resilient to some of the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, if all individuals are the same (or very similar), they all have the same vulnerabilities. This applies to thought processes, organisations, decision making bodies (commercial or political), populations, the cells in our body, and more. If all individuals are very resilient, but in the same way, a single unexpected threat may arrive which will in one fell swoop incapacitate all of them. This applies equally to commercial organisations as it does to biological ones.
“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” – Donald Rumsfeld, Feb 2002 US Department of Defense briefing.
Our Daily Bread
Every organisation faces the daily tasks which it needs to complete to keep running. The Bread-and-butter – the known knowns. We provision our technology resources to keep up with what we expect to do on a daily basis. We have enough people to do the daily jobs in the roles that do the daily jobs (or we try to). We have an office more-or-less big enough, if that’s the kind of work we do. Preparing for these is operational management in its most ordinary, basic form. This doesn’t mean that it is easy, only that it is a relatively ubiquitous activity. Even in Change, we have these routine tasks – status reporting being the most ubiquitous example.
What lurks in the shadows
Every organisation also faces risks which, while uncertain, are at least identified. In technology, we build physical servers for resilience (dual power supplies, dual network cards); we float software servers across multiple physical servers within a single data centre; we have geographic resilience with a variety of distributed computing options and non-geographical master data. In team resources, for key functions, we engineer out single points of failure by having an excess of capacity or multiskilled people who can drop lower-priority tasks to pick up higher-priority tasks. We also avoid the risk of waste by predicting that only 80% of the team will be in the office on a given day, and use flexible desk strategies to avoid having too many empty (wasted) desks. Business Continuity planning finds ways to deal with rarer but significant risks to our ability to do business, sometimes with useful spinoffs – the extensive capability in some organisations to work remotely, often directly linked to resilience actions in organisational risk management, also allows greater choice in where to be when working, and often therefore also when to work. In these ways we plan for the known unknowns – we don’t know when there will be a challenge to face, but we know what the challenge looks like. This is routine organisational risk management, and the stimulus for a very large proportion of Changes in a technology provision within a commercial organisation.
Hidden gems of knowledge
There’s a whole discipline, still seemingly in its early days, which addresses the “unknown knowns”, which Mr Rumsfeld did not mention. Time permitting, I’ll write another article about this as it’s a fascinating area of research and a useful risk mitigation approach. As a teaser, I’ll mention a potentially familiar concept from a different domain: passive vocabulary.
The Great Unknown
The final category is “unknown unknowns”. Sometimes referred to as “black swan” events, these are the things which happen which “no one could have predicted”. How can we prepare for them? Logically, if we don’t know what may come, it is impossible to prepare a targeted response. This sometimes translates into a belief that it is impossible to prepare any response – but this is not the case. This is where inherent diversity in the work place has unexpected benefits.
The question is sometimes asked “what is the value of pure research?” Things which are researched but which have no current obvious value or use are dismissed by some in business as a waste of time, effort, resources, and money. While we cannot always define what the use of pure research will be, the only way we can act against a future problem we cannot even describe is by exploring things for which we cannot currently see a use. That costs resources and time, and is a dilution of focus, so it’s unpopular, and often disregarded.
Within an organisation, a diversity of mental makeup (attitude, skill, experience, outlook, education, intelligence, imagination, flexibility, detail-level, and more) is an investment in resilience against the black swan events. Flexibility isn’t just enshrined in the ability of some individuals to adapt and learn, but in an organisation’s ability to do the same – and a part of that is made easier if there are some people within the organisation who already think in the new way.
A parting thought
Diversity in your organisation is a great investment. It’s an investment in the now, but it’s also a very sensible safeguard against an uncertain future. It’s a virtuous combination: the morally right thing to do is also a rewarding thing to do.