Think Diversity Is Always Good? Think Again.

brandenburg gate

In my last blog post I wrote about how hierarchy has an impact on the happiness and stress levels of baboons.

As happiness is directly linked to innovative power, I wanted to investigate a bit further on how to make teamwork more innovative.

Here’s what I found.

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1. Diversity is good for generating ideas, but harms decision-making

I’ve never talked with anyone who said: “Less diversity is good for innovation.” Now, I came across research by Flat 1996 (1), which was new to me. Their thesis is: Heterogeneous group compositions work very well for lower and middle hierarchies to generate many ideas and concepts. The rationale of the researchers is: Ethnical diversity helps to be closer to specific market requirements; professional diversity helps to connect knowledge interdisciplinary. So far, so well known. For the execution and selection of the generated concepts, however, the executive board and group of decision makers shall be rather homogeneous. The given reason is that diversity has a negative influence on the harmony of a group and thus their ability to make decisions. If you transfer this to the hierarchical setup of a corporation, you’d have homogeneous, nondiverse people on the top and a very diverse bunch in the middle and at the bottom of the triangle.

While I think this should be taken with a grain of salt, I agree that making a decision in very diverse teams is hard. You need some focus, which – apparently – particularly a homogenous group of execs can deliver.

2. T-shaped teams drive innovation better than others

Let’s say you follow the approach above and want to assemble a diverse team to be the creative engine of your company. How do you do that? There is an approach, particularly used in Design Thinking, to assemble a set of T-shaped people. These people possess a basic literacy in a broad domain of topics, and a very specialized skill set in their particular profession. Now, when assembling a team you want different specialized skills to work in orchestration. The basic literacy of the people is the common denominator, which allows them to coordinate and make use of their special skills. When visualizing this kind of team, you get many T’s next to each other and make their horizontal bars overlap. With a little phantasy, it looks like a gate – hence I call it “Brandenburg Gate”-shaped teams. But that’s maybe just because I’m a Berliner.

In my experience this type of team-setup has proven utterly powerful. When you spice it with some cultural diversity you get an amazing team spirit because everybody feels that you don’t only have the right ideas, but really know how to make things happen.

(1) Flatt, S., “Developing innovative strategies: How top management teams bring creativity and implementation to the firm,” paper presented at the 16th Annual Strategic Management Society, Phoenix, Arizona, 1996.

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