By Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj
Innovation is one of the biggest buzzwords for companies in 2019, irrespective of size or sector. For many CEOs innovation presents significant opportunities; not least the potential to unlock $3.7 trillion in economic value revenue by 2025—as estimated by the World Economic Forum publication, the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Start a management degree at American Public University.
We are in a time when innovative thinking has never been higher. One of the best ways to illustrate this is the exponential growth in new titles published each year—in 2009 one million new book titles were published. According to McKinsey principal Nathan Marston this number trebled by 2014.
Despite the growth in innovative thinking, it is still tricky to embed effectively. Research from Oracle highlights the paradox; while 85% of companies experiencing growth invest in innovation, the barriers to innovation create challenges. Innovation in organizations creates new thinking in terms of products; processes, and business models. Each of these areas produces new sources of revenue and help companies navigate their way through disruptive markets. Innovation happens when different thinking challenges the status quo by asking essential questions and bringing alternative ways of thinking.
Innovation and diversity are natural partners, but in reality, companies struggle to reap the rewards of their diversity efforts.
In many companies, diversity starts and finishes with the apparent differences; gender, ethnicity, age are the most common areas of attention, but the genuine value emerges when we pay attention to cognitive diversity. Cognitive diversity occurs when we bring together people who think differently due to their life experiences, their education, socialization, disciplines of thinking. Cognitive diversity comes into its own when groups with different thinkers are sufficiently connected so that they have space and respect to challenge group-think, question norms and encourage colleagues to become more conscious about the decisions they are making.
In many companies, diversity starts and finishes with the apparent differences; gender, ethnicity, age are the most common areas of attention, but the genuine value emerges when we pay attention to cognitive diversity. Cognitive diversity occurs when we create a pluralistic team; bringing together people who think differently due to their life experiences, their education, socialization, disciplines of thinking. Cognitive diversity comes into its own when groups with different thinkers are sufficiently connected so that they have space and respect to challenge group-think, question norms and encourage colleagues to become more conscious about the decisions they are making.
For companies to reap the rewards of diversity programs, there is a greater onus on team leads and managers to get to know their teams well, to build robust cultures of trust and openness and create permission for members to question “how we do things around here.” Innovation drives engagement; people are more likely to bond over a shared experience of solving problems. Innovative teams that are also gender diverse have been found to create a 30% uplift revenue compared to 14-19% among gender-diverse groups that are not engaged according to Gallup.
Creating innovation through cognitive diversity requires leaders to embed change in the DNA of their team, department, or organization. Achieving this is not an easy task as companies are required to respond quickly, and often, there is little tolerance for failure. There are things leaders can do to achieve wins and build an appetite for innovation.
1. Get to know your team. everyone brings cognitive diversity to a discussion, even the most nuanced perspective can challenge a long-held assumption. In reality, most people don’t know what they bring to the table, so create ways for team members to get to know each other. Find opportunities beyond work-based roles for people to share their strengths, approaches to thinking, their values, their vulnerabilities—this comes most effectively by people recognizing each other as humans and connecting rather than relying on psychometric tests.
2. Let your team get to know you. As a leader breaking down, barriers start with your willingness to jump in play; to be open and genuine. The openness doesn’t come at the expense of your authority, but it demonstrates your desire to connect and signals to your team; you are walking the talk.
3. Be explicit about your expectations to nurture an innovative culture. As a leader, you may be regarded as a successful innovator, but your mindset won’t transfer to your team by osmosis. Giving your team members permission to ask and challenge norms is a great start, and empowering them to normalize this during group discussions.
4. Normalize innovation across your team. Rather than creating an elite group known for innovation, nurture, and build capacity for innovation across the group, identify innovation champions who can support the wider team.
5. Be selective about which projects you focus. Creating innovation demands more energy and attention, and so initially, it pays to be careful about which areas you want to focus on and where you can create measurable outputs. What gets measured gets done, and once teams see the benefits of innovation, they are more open to taking risks through engagement.
Building an innovation mindset within a team is similar to building a muscle; it needs practice and more practice.
These tips show this approach is not about creating a frenetic approach to generating ideas but taking a more considered approach to creating different ways to address the problem. The current fragmented approach to diversity means that the diversity and inclusion agenda is at risk of being viewed as a “feel-good” activity with a limited shelf-life. If innovation at the heart of engagement and diversity gets channeled into a more valuable resource for innovation, companies will invest even greater attention and resource in this area. “Visual diversity” is no longer enough, “cognitive diversity” is the game-changer for high performing organizations.