One of the keys to fostering creativity, innovation and a healthy paranoia in a business is to avoid becoming a homogenous group of people and talent. Diversity and divergent perspectives are essential to a flourishing team, but they are not created all on their own. We humans tend to surround ourselves with people who look like us, think like us and operate like us.
Psychologist Irving Janis argues that the lack of diversity in a group insulates it from outside opinion and convinces members over time that the group’s judgment on important issues must be right. These kinds of groups, Janis suggests, share “an illusion of invulnerability and a willingness to rationalize away possible counter-arguments to the group’s position.” Put simply, the last thing homogenous groups tend to be is healthily paranoid.
In his book Why Good Companies Go Bad, Donald Sull argues that conformity in leadership played a key role in the woes of companies such as Firestone Tires, Compaq and failed automaker Daewoo. Prior to these companies’ falls from greatness, he suggests that their respective leadership teams had become ‘like clones’, each executive tending to reinforce a collegial point of view. In the case of Daewoo in particular, 6 in 10 of the company’s senior management graduated from the same university, and almost a third graduated from the same high school.
Sull suggests that organizations, particularly those with longevity and success behind them, do a ‘clone test’ in an effort to combat such in-breeding. He encourages management teams to do a quick survey of those in leadership and ponder questions like:
- What is the executive team’s gender breakdown?
- What is its average age?
- How many leaders rose from within the organization?
- How many dress in similar ways?
- How many look physically similar?
- How many come from a similar background?
- How many share a common alma mater?
- How many socialize outside work hours?
Bill Bernbach credits much of the extraordinary growth and success of ad agency DDB to his strategy of hiring outside the recognized talent pool of the period. While most other ad agencies were predominantly white and male, Bernbach bucked the trend and attracted a far more diverse and creative cohort.
Further underscoring the importance of diversity, a McKinsey & Co study of 366 public companies worldwide found a statistically significant relationship between companies with women and minorities in their upper ranks and better financial performance. Businesses with the most gender-diverse leadership were 15% more likely to report financial returns above their industry average and an even more striking link was found between business success and ethnic diversity.
When diverse perspectives are poured into the same melting pot, there is sure to be dissent in some form. However, the role of this dissent is important in itself. After all, what is the point of having diverse perspectives if people don’t feel empowered to speak up and point out threats and opportunities that others in the group have missed?
While every leader should aim to build a cohesive culture in their team or organisation, something dangerous occurs when a culture goes from being cohesive to being conformist. Team alignment is a wonderful thing but perfect alignment forbids divergent thinking.
Peter Drucker went so far as to say that good decisions are always a function of dissenting views being encouraged and heard. “The first rule in decision-making,” he suggested, “is that one does not make a decision unless there is disagreement.”
Naturally, for such an approach to work, a culture has to be created where junior members of staff feel safe and encouraged to ‘speak truth to power.’ Leaders must ensure that those who hold radically different views or bear confronting news are encouraged rather than ignored, shunned or persecuted.
There is little doubt that homogeneity in an organization or team can be convenient and expedient. After all, it facilitates communication, makes cohesion and unity a less nuanced process and speeds up decision making. However, the trade-off is enormous. A lack of diversity leaves any team highly vulnerable, limiting the ability to adapt, innovate and change. However, when your team is full of odd ones out, its success in creativity, innovation and growth is almost guaranteed.
Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.
He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 8 books. To order Michael's latest book "The Case for Character", click here.
Surowiecki, J. 2004, The Wisdom of Crowds, Anchor Books, New York, pp. 36-37
 Sull, D. 2003, Why Good Companies Go Bad, Harvard Business School, pp. 44-57
 Ibid, pp. 44-57
 Collister, P. 2017, How to Use Innovation and Creativity in the Workplace, Pan Macmillan, London, p. 95
 Lublin, J. 2015, ‘Study Links Diverse Leadership With Firms’ Financial Gains’, The Wall Street Journal, 20
 Ibid, p. 233
 Ibid, p. 236
 Hamel, G. 2012, What Matters Now, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, p. 123