Breakthrough Innovation Through Diversity and Inclusion Leadership

Written by Simma Liberman, The Inclusionist
Creating inclusive workplaces where people love to do their best work and customers love to do business.

According to findings of the Center for Talent Innovation “The engine for serial innovation is a diverse workforce that’s managed by leaders who cherish difference, embrace disruption, and foster a speak-up culture. Inclusive leader behaviors effectively “unlock” the innovative potential of an inherently diverse workforce, enabling companies to increase their share of existing markets and lever open brand-new ones.

“By encouraging a proliferation of perspectives, leaders who foster a speak-up culture also enable companies to realize greater efficiencies and trim costs—another way that innovation drives bottom-line value.”

That means that diversity alone is not enough, you have to have an inclusion culture; one where people feel comfortable participating, failing and succeeding.

In addition, the study by CTI found that “when teams have one or more members who represent the gender, ethnicity, culture, generation, or sexual orientation of the team’s target end user, the entire team is far more likely (as much as 158% more likely) to understand that target, increasing their likelihood of innovating effectively for that end user.”

This study along with one by the European Commission should eliminate any doubts or questions people in organizations have about the viability, necessity and relationship to profit of not only diversity with a culture of inclusion.

In his article “Diversity in Tech, Dudes You’re Failing,” Kevin Berchelman makes the case for Silicon Valley and the tech industry to stop making excuses, doing feasibility studies or waiting for the right time.

In this business era of speed, competition and globalization, innovation rules all.  You never know where the next great product, process or profit builder will originate.

Good Diversity Management and Culturally Intelligent Leadership can make the difference between repeatedly hearing mediocre ideas from the same people, or mining the hidden genius in your organization for breakthrough ideas.

Conversely, not knowing how to access that genius or motivate employees to be creative will eventually make you and your products commodities, competing for lower prices.

Ten Ways to Create Breakthrough Innovation Through Diversity and Inclusion Leadership

A culturally intelligent leader, who practices good diversity management, can plant the seeds of self-leadership, and accelerate employee innovation. Instead of waiting for the “big” transformational initiative that may take years, here are ten “every day” inclusive actions leaders can take starting now, that can make a big difference:

  1. Be conscious of the way you communicate with employees. Ask yourself, “Are they comfortable talking to me about their work, asking questions, and giving me suggestions?” If the answer if no, you need to find out why, and if yes, then keep getting better at it.

Innovation can often come from the lower levels, but if you don’t know how to communicate with everyone, they won’t share ideas, nor will they feel invested in the organization. Make a habit of interacting with the people on your team whom you may not know well, or with whom you are least comfortable. Identify the reasons for your discomfort, so you can move through it.

  1. Be informed about your employees but don’t micromanage. Acknowledge the progress no matter how small, made by people on your team.
  2. Research by Theresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer shows that employees are motivated when their managers are aware of and acknowledge even their small wins.
  3. Be introspective and get real about your biases and assumptions. Your behavior that results from those biases and assumptions can impede participation and innovation.

Ask yourself, “Whom am I not seeing?  Do I greet all of my employees or just the ones who are like me?  Do I walk past any employees without saying hello?  Who am I not hearing from in team meetings, and whose opinions am I minimizing, due to bias about work level, function or salary?”

Your bias and assumptions about people different than you mean that you give credibility to people most like you, and minimize the contributions of others. When employees feel unacknowledged and invisible they lose their motivation, and feel alienated from the organization.

  1. Learn and recognize the different ways in which people are intelligent and contribute to the organization. Stop being stuck in recognizing and respecting only one type of intelligence (yours.)
  2. Let other people share their expertise, talent and experience, even when their ideas differ from yours. You may find their idea is better.
  3. Let go of old parameters, limits and processes for innovation. Open your mind, expand your vision, and allow for limitless possibilities when people who think differently, start thinking together.
  4. Create opportunities for employees from different functions, departments, levels of experience and talents to work together as equals. Managers who expect employees to “go along with the program,” and just follow orders discourage creativity and innovation. When creative employees feel stifled, they will take their genius to another organization, possibly your competition, where they can flourish,
  5. Welcome the excitement that comes from the synergy of ideas flowing from all directions, as employees with diverse viewpoints continue to build on each other’s brilliance to develop “the next big thing” that will set you far above everyone else in your industry.
  6. Be a cheerleader for other people’s intelligence when they know more about a subject or work area than you. Give them the independence and tools they need to create a product or process that astounds you

Who better to develop a process that makes their work faster, easier and more productive than the people actually doing the work? Who better to suggest a new product that changes lives than the people who will use it?  Cheer yourself for being the kind of leader who is brave enough to let others shine and stays out of the way of oncoming breakthrough innovation.