Over the course of the past couple of years, as cognitive and neural scientific developments have advanced, we’ve collected an abundance of evidence that confirms somthing long suspected: That the way we perceive the world around us varies broadly depending on our experiences, language, and beliefs, to name just a couple of key “perception-shaping” factors. Furthermore, we’ve learned that harnessing a broad range of these differences can result in innovation. Books like James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and Frans Johansson’s The Medici Effect are loaded with examples of how creativity leading to innovation blossom at the intersections where different types of knowledge, experiences, and perspectives meet. In light of this finding, it’s not surprising that many business leaders in progressive organizations strive to increase the diversity of thought in their enterprises.
Like any other organized group, ERGs can benefit by having “diversity of thought” in their leadership ranks. Some readers may pause here and wonder how we can achieve diversity of thought within employee networks that tend to me homogeneous (e.g., a women’s network, or an African American Network, etc.). The fact is that while demographic diversity is one of the elements that can lead to greater diversity of thought due to the different shaping influences of personal experience, group experience, language, orientation, beliefs, and so on, you can have diversity of thought in what may on the surface appear to be a homogeneous group. For example, you may have two African American women who, as a result of personal experiences, differ in their tolerance for risk. One might be a very conservative person that focuses on predictability, control, and slowly measured moves while the other is a risk-taking, fast action-oriented entrepreneur.
Pure diversity of thought, regardless of the demographic differences that drive it, is the focus of the work of Dr. Martin Hilb and Dr. Nils Jent (who I had the pleasure of meeting in Austria) from the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. Their basic idea is to have leadership teams consisting of individuals with key qualities and competencies at opposite sides of the spectrum who can drive the agenda in a balanced way. To achieve this type of balance, they developed a tool called the Diversity Optima (for more on the Diversity Optima, please visit http://www.ifpm.unisg.ch/en/Centers/DC/Diversity+Approach.aspx).
Here are a few steps you can take in line with this approach, after you’ve completed your ERG Strategy Impact Map:
1. First, based on your goals and action plans, ask, “What are the key qualities and competencies that we need in our ERG leadership team?” For example, you may find that you need progressive spokespeople who bring a creative approach well-grounded in local organizational culture. You may also find that you need strong influencers to shape and manage key alliances.
2. Now, looking at this list, ask, “What qualities do we lack that we need to bring into the leadership team?” You may need to engage more than one person, or perhaps just one that possesses all the needed skills and competencies.
3. Finally, ask “What qualities do we need to provide a counterbalancing point of view?” Based on this example, these may include people who are conservative communicators, with more global viewpoints, and who seek to understand and ally with others rather than influence them to support their particular agenda. Again, look to see if these elements are present in individuals already on board, and if not, go out and find them in one or more individuals.
And remember, while valuable, optimizing the diversity of thought in your ERG can create some uncomfortable moments. This lack of comfort, however, is not a bad thing. To paraphrase a statement of President John F. Kennedy, “Too often we… enjoy the comfort of (surrounding ourselves with shared) opinion without the discomfort of (having someone around to counterpoint and stimulate) thought.” Diversity of thought may, of course, lead to discomfort because of differences of opinion about how to proceed. In the end, though, if managed effectively, well-balanced diversity of thought will lead to better decisions and superior results for your ERG.