Diversity is innovative potential.
To activate this potential, leaders must understand the underlying process through which diversity leads to innovation. One early requirement is to loosen traditional views of leadership based in command and control. This creates mental space to consider an organization as an ecology of innovation. An ecology is a system of difference. Innovation emerges as people with diverse thinking interact with each other in an accommodating environment.
This reframed view of leadership starts you on the path to realizing the innovative potential and adaptability that is embedded in your organization today.
Leaders Set the Climate for Innovation
Leaders support innovation by setting the conditions for innovation to emerge. Innovative potential applies equally to new ideas for products and services, business processes, organization design, or any other type of useful innovation. Broadly speaking, the factors that influence a system’s ability to generate emergent innovation can be understood through a framework comprised of container, diversity, and exchange, referred to in some circles as the CDE model.
- Container – A container is a boundary. It is a force that is both constraining and cohesive which holds ideas, perspectives, experiences, interest, and the like, together for enough time such that new ideas can emerge. A container can take the form of a physical space, a timeframe, a workshop, a work group, an organization, a compelling idea, etc.
- Diversity – Diversity is difference. It is frequently viewed through the narrow lens of gender and race. Diversity also takes the form of differences of opinion or perspective, industry experience, education, job boundary, age, country of citizenship…the sources of difference are virtually endless.
- Exchange – Exchange is the flow of information and meaning among members of a system. It is the quantity, quality, and duration of interaction that occurs between members of an organization. At a most basic level, exchange is effective dialogue.
Dialogue Is the Flow of Meaning
Creating real, face-to-face dialogue in your organization is a critical leadership objective if you are to realize the potential of diversity. Dialogue is the ability to think together in ways that allow differences to emerge in service of common interests. This creates the potential for ideas, perspectives, and experiences to combine in ways that can lead to new awareness and experimentation. This newness can be small, incremental change or it can be a strike-of-the-eye realization that leads to discontinuous, transformative change in products, markets, or strategic capability.
An important enabler of effective dialogue is shifting habitual thinking and ways of interacting. Most of us have become highly skilled at a phrase called “thinking alone”, a term coined in Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together, written by William Isaac, one of the founders of MIT’s Organizational Learning Center.
These thinking flaws take several forms: fragmentation and losing awareness of the whole; rigidly holding onto one’s views; and imposing one’s views onto others. These patterns suppress the innovative possibility of dialogue. Until we’re able to create psychologically safe space to share our reality, we’re working in a state of fragmentation and under-leveraging the potential of diversity.