Why innovation needs diverse teams

In my two most recent newsletters, I talked about the characteristics of efficient teams and closed with the following statement: ‘In order to bring an efficient team to life, you must confer accountability to the team. A team needs support, above all in strengthening its ability to manage conflicts. Because exaggerated harmony and uniformity has never led to innovation!’

Today, I would like to bring up again the issues of uniformity and exaggerated harmony.

I regularly hold multi-day training courses on the Design Thinking method. As part of these training courses, several teams are established that concurrently address the same design challenge (issue), which means that all teams set out from the same starting position. In the end, the solutions of the different teams are always significantly different from one another. This is something we would expect. I find it intriguing that I have become able, in the meantime, to predict which of the teams will come up with the more extraordinary or more innovative solution.

It all depends on how diverse the team is! 

The team with the greatest diversity, which

  • consists of people from various areas (departments),
  • consists of men and women (including any other gender),
  • includes both people with professional experience and young talent,
  • combines people from various academic or training backgrounds,
  • consists of various characters (not a group of friends which often have large overlaps in terms of their attitudes and values),
  • features a large variety of passions and aptitudes, 
  • features various ways of life, and
  • combines different cultures

almost always comes up with the most exciting idea for a solution.

This is also linked to the requirement that the team which we expect will deliver innovative creative solutions should have a critical size, otherwise, the necessary level of diversity cannot be achieved at all. My experience shows that an optimum team size would be 4 to 6 people.

That said, I am well aware of the fact that, in order to launch new products on the market, optimize internal workflows and solve other challenging issues, we do not only need creativity, but also judgment, implementation skills, technical expertise, etc. 

However, my plea for enabling creativity through diverse teams is as follows: Only when the first step – i.e. really understanding the problem, by analyzing it from various perspectives and designing tailor-made creative solutions – is implemented exceptionally well, then it makes sense to focus on optimizing the implementation process. Otherwise, you would be making the second step before the first, and the result would fall far short of what is possible.

The importance of diversity for a creative environment was explored in detail by German psychologist Prof. Peter Kruse, who died in 2015 (see YouTube video). He describes companies and organizations as complex dynamic systems. He explains that you create tension internally if you increase the variety within a system. This, in turn, leads to an unstable phase, and instability paves the way to new patterns. New patterns are what we call creativity. This primarily refers to creativity of a team, not that of an individual. If a team, in doing so, succeeds in changing process patterns, the team creates a supra-summative intelligence of the system.

Another experience I made is that diversity also improves personal learning and makes it more effective. 
I am currently doing a coaching training at the ISB (Institute for Systemic Professionalism and Consulting), and due to the pandemic, the first learning modules in 2021 had to be held online. Learning in this course is very much based on group exercises so that often we were randomly split into different learning groups. I was slightly irritated the first few times. In a classroom setting, the groups would have assembled through eye contact based on similarities (I, too, had already singled out a few buddies I would have liked to work with), but the random generator had other plans. After all, I was forced to work with people who had a different educational background, followed other values, and had different behavioral patterns. This, in turn, helped me reflect myself and my approaches to solutions. My co-participants contributed very different perspectives to my personal learning process. As a result, internal tension was created within myself and thus internal unstable phases which, in turn, allowed me to find a bridge to new thinking patterns.

In a nutshell: We should rein in our natural urge to have people around us who think and act in exactly the same way as we do. At least when we want to develop ourselves and others. 
If the teams with or in which we work are meant to deliver more than just mediocre results, people should gather together in such teams who are both different from me and different from each other. Because we need to have internal tension and the related change in process patterns generated by these circumstances in order to meet the challenges of our time.

Addendum on Design Thinking: The Design Thinking method requires a diverse team that together understands the problem to be solved as far as reasonably possible and then designs a suitable solution for this problem. Design Thinking is done in a 6-step iterative process which puts the user (i.e. the customer) into the core of the review in each phase. Learning cycles and loopbacks into earlier stages of the process are permitted and desired at any time; this means that this is not a straight-line process. Design Thinking facilitates the generation of new, tailor-made solutions for the specific problem of the user. Creativity is a key component of this process.

This text first appeared in my newsletter 'Innovation on Wednesday'. It is published every other Wednesday. For subscription click here

Further reading and watching:

Andrea SchmittInnovationstrainerinAm Mittelpfad 24aD 65520 Bad Camberg+49 64 34-905 997+49 175 5196446

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