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Diversity: Don't Innovate Without It

Diversity: Don't Innovate Without It

G. Michael Maddock and Raphael Louis Vitn / Business Week

December 02, 2008

A white guy, a white guy, and a white guy walk into a bar. Did we lose you yet?

Thought so. Nothing interesting was going to come from that joke. Humor works when you have an unexpected, compelling outcome. So does the innovation process. In fact, that’s the goal, and it’s often achieved by adding diversity — getting the ideas of people of different ages, genders, races, and ethnic backgrounds; people with varying perspectives, personalities, experiences, mindsets, etc.

But when most think about the topic of diversity, it is invariably in terms of “inclusion,” “multicultural acceptance,” and “global integration.” All of those have tremendous merit, but why the heck, when you hear the word “diversity,” are you suddenly thinking like someone who has Equal Employment Opportunity responsibilities? Yes, your company does, but you are responsible for hardcore growth results: marketing, and new product development.

Sustainable Competitive Advantage

So start thinking about diversity that way. And if you do, you will elevate the value of diversity far beyond the words in the employee handbook. In fact, you are bound to come up with: Diversity, Sustainable, Competitive, Advantage (This, of course, is the Holy Grail).

Don’t take our word for it. Some of the best, and most innovative, companies (Booz Allen Hamilton, Deutsche Bank, DuPont, Pfizer, and Raytheon) believe diversity to be one of the invaluable ingredients that leads to sustainable competitive advantage.

The argument breaks into three parts:

1. Understanding. If your workforce mirrors the diverse demographics and cultural aspects of your customers, you are bound to have a better understanding of your audience. (Providing you encourage all those unique voices to contribute. If all you are doing is counting heads, “let’s see we employ 53% women, 11% blacks, 16% Hispanics yep, we’re covered; now let’s have the same old people at the top make all the decisions as they always have in the same old ways”, you have not gained a thing.)

2. Credibility. If your workforce looks like the people you are trying to reach, you increase the odds of closing the sale. Let’s use a simple example to make the point. From whom would 22-year-old guys want to buy their $85 athletic shoes? A 63-year-old grandmother or a 22-year-old guy?

3. Connectedness. And if your workforce is the same as the people you are trying to reach, you are bound to be closer to them at all times, which give you a leg up on the competition.

Poll: How do you feel about crying at work?

Poll: How do you feel about crying at work?