Different Does It

I see innovation everywhere. Recent executive titles I’ve encountered include chief innovation officer, vice president of innovation, and my personal favorite, head innovator. With so much innovation going around, you’d expect better titles!

I’m often asked: What is the secret to innovation? Is it an Ivy League degree? Nope. How about purple hair and funky glasses? Nope. What about an office covered in whiteboards? Not even close. The real secret to innovation is diversity of thought. In fact, innovation is grounded in thinking differently. In other words, too many yes-men equal a big “no” for success.

So why is innovation difficult if all we need is diversity? Because too often those seeking to innovate naturally surround themselves with people who think the same way they do. That’s like trying to solve a problem with a single approach and wondering why you keep getting the same answer (which is how my mom defines insanity). This is also known as banging your head against a whiteboard-covered wall.

I know you’ve seen this firsthand. A new leader at your company boldly proclaims, “Our new innovation will drive growth!” The leader cites new data, shows a funny YouTube video and then slaps a new logo on an old idea. Energy leaves the room. People roll their eyes and your colleagues’ thought bubbles announce, “Another old thing that’s back as a new thing.”

With innovation being crucial for success while difficult to achieve, what is the secret? The answer: Intentionally embrace diversity on your team. But before we go there, consider your own definition of the word diversity. Does diversity mean race, ethnicity or something else?

From my work with leaders around the world, I view diversity to also include gender, age, geography and more. By its very nature, diversity means adding what is different, even opposite, from what is normal wherever you are. In some fields, that means adding more men or millennials. In others, adding women or people from the Midwest.

When you add diversity and make it safe to be different, a new perspective and skill set instantly join your team—not to mention a new wardrobe (yellow bellbottoms, anyone?). The result: new solutions, new opportunities and an increase in value in the original team members. That’s right. People often think diversity makes only those who are “diverse” more valuable. Not true. Diversity makes everyone more valuable, whether sporting a nose ring or a business suit.

I’ve seen the following steps help companies embrace diversity of thought so they can grow:

Be inclusive rather than exclusive. Expand your definition of diversity to include more than race and ethnicity. Diversity could also include age, gender, education and more.

Schedule a challenge lunch every month. This is one of my favorite strategies: Book a lunch every month with someone who sees the world differently from you. Rather than debate about who is right, pick a topic and ask questions to try to understand the other person’s viewpoint.

Make diversity a core business strategy. Intentionally create and lead diverse teams. This smorgasbord of thought leads to the insights that will solve tough problems and create new opportunities.

Now is the time to make diversity part of what makes you different. The results will speak for themselves… in multiple languages.


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