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The Mindset Case for Building Diversity

The Mindset Case for Building Diversity

By Mike Stephens

Here’s two ideas that make diversity a must if you want to win commercially:

Let’s cut to the chase, this isn’t about ethics. There are lots of ethical arguments for diversity and inclusion, and doing what’s right should be fundamental to any business. That message is loud and clear. What this is about is the impact diversity can have on decision-making and risk taking, and how your business will be better if you build a diverse team and find a way to enable that diversity to flourish.

“One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.”
                                – Thomas Schelling, Nobel Laureate

Let’s start here. We use this very simple idea to illustrate why two heads are better than one when it comes to creativity. Every person you add multiplies the number of ideas exponentially, as all of their thoughts and experiences combine with all of yours. There are hundreds, thousands, millions of things that would just never occur to you working on your own.

Now apply that concept to a team. Mostly white, mostly middle-class background, mostly somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum, mostly in their 40s. Can you feel the walls closing in on the cognitive diversity in that room? Hundreds of doors closing all at once, just because no one has access to a radically different set of perspectives.

And when someone does bring a fresh idea from their culture, background or experience, they become the outlier. It’s not just about having access to more ideas, it’s the willingness of the team to accept them when 80% of them think along the same lines.

Linked to this (idea number 2) is ‘Inattention Blindness’. You can see a hilarious short explainer video here. Inattention blindness is what happens when we focus hard on something (e.g. achieving our business goals). Our brain can become so laser focussed that we completely miss very important things happening right in front of us (like new opportunities or major risks approaching).

A homogenous team will tend to focus hard on the same things, and be blind to the same opportunities. Diverse teams miss less because each individual has different blind spots, so collectively they see more. 

A final cautionary note for any devil’s advocates out there: I’m not saying you should recruit a team purely based on stark differences – a team who can never agree with each other because they are poles apart in any discussion. Teams need to share values, core purpose and goals, otherwise you have chaos. It’s your job as a leader to find the common ground between the diverse individuals and nurture it. The more diverse your team the harder this is, but if you make that stretch then the rewards are there.

Building cultural, educational and social diversity in your team can help them solve problems faster, make better decisions, and take better risks. It starts right from your first recruit and the culture you build with them. And it’s not just about doing the right thing, it’s about creating new worlds and new futures beyond what you alone can dream.