Written by Barrie Bramley and Graeme Codrington.
There is no doubt that Diversity is playing itself out as a critical factor in business today. In some countries, especially those with histories of institutionalised oppression (like South Africa, or the USA) it is being legislated. This includes quotas around women, disabled, minority races, and issues like affirmative action and Black Economic Empowerment. Many people in these countries make the mistake of seeing diversity as primarily a ‘local and political’ issue. However, it is more accurately seen as a global issue facing countries, organisation and people around the world. There are at least three key reasons for this.

Firstly, in an increasingly globalised world, where at the same time, customers are expecting personalisation like never before, the ability to have multiple worldviews represented on teams at all levels of the organisation is critical.
Secondly, if you and your competitors sell similar things to the same people, at a similar price, delivering through similar channels, advertising in the same media using similar techniques, and you even look for staff at your competitors, why should anyone buy from you? And why should anyone work for you? Increasingly, the answer to these questions lie with your people. What you are selling is becoming less and less important in a fiercely competitive market. Who you are and how you sell are becoming more and more important. This is what we call the ‘connection economy’. In this environment, diversity is a critical component of a successful team, where different voices are heard and you avoid ‘group think’ or a ‘yes man’ culture.
Thirdly, innovation cannot happen without diversity. Innovation can only happen in an environment when people look at what they’ve always been looking at, but see it in a different way – this is a definition of creativity. Diversity (or maybe better, ‘Difference’) is a natural enabler of this foundation of innovation.
Certainly part of the solution toward harnessing and leveraging the opportunities that diversity offers, is to see it as a global factor that has recently emerged and is not going to disappear (not in the near future). It is our experience that once people begin to reframe their local view to one of a global view, they are able to ‘lift their heads’ to look forward for solutions, and not to the past to find a way ‘back’ to the way things used to be, or find someone to blame for how it’s all ‘ended up’.
Destructive Methods of Implementing Diversity
Most often, the methods used to integrate ‘difference’ have been for those in authority to use a ‘big stick’ approach to get people to sit across the table from one another and find ways to dialogue, understand and ultimately get on with each other. The underpinning paradigm has been that people will, given enough time, provided with enough data about each other and with suitable convincing will ultimately accept each other, and even like each other.
Current methods often stem from this thinking. Government puts pressure on business leaders. Business leaders put pressure on their managers. Managers put pressure on their supervisors. Supervisors put pressure on those who report to them. We create diversity committees and task teams, and go on endless information workshops. However, most people are still not given a compelling reason to go through the stress and trauma of having to get to know someone different from them, and even like them.
One needs to understand that a natural consequence of diversity is conflict. That conflict specifically forces you to engage your value system (your worldview – the part of you that decides what is right/wrong, good/bad, normal/weird). And engaging your value system causes you to investigate your belief system (the core of who you are). One is not surprised that the approach of putting people into a room together to understand and even like someone different from them, is a traumatic and stressful process. Having no compelling reason and therefore resorting to a stick method to convince someone in such an environment is not a recommended route. In a world of machines and efficiency it may have been, but in today’s world it certainly is not.
From ‘Diversity’ to ‘Difference’
‘Diversity’ is such a loaded term that has so much baggage and a lot of emotion attached to it. Yet, it is essential for many aspects of competitive advantage in the 21st century that we build a passion for differences into our corporate cultures. This is part of keeping organisations ready to respond to challenges and take advantage of opportunities that come our way. Organisations that value difference at every level will have an increasing advantage in the connection economy.
To build a culture that values difference requires an understanding of existing paradigms and also of new emerging paradigms of doing business. We need to create a new lexicon of ‘important’ words that have until now been frowned upon by our paradigm. We need to move from:

  • Harmony towards Disruption (and reframe disruption as conflict which is not destructive)
  • Certainty towards Paradox (and reframe paradox as not wishy washy)
  • Homogenous towards Heterogeneous (and reframe heterogeneous as not ‘selling out’)
  • Alignment towards Creativity (and reframe creativity as not chaos)

A Business Case for Diversity
From a business point of view diversity presents itself in two broad guises. The first being that of a threat, impeding the efficiency and progress of a business, and the other as opportunity, enhancing the creative ability of a group of people approaching old and current paradigms with a new instant competency, allowing for different approaches, problem solving and ways of doing things.
In order to understand the threat, it is important to help people see how business has developed over the last 200 – 300 years. In the early 1900’s Henry Ford reached the pinnacle of the Industrial Era with the quantum leap that his assembly line represented. His was a world of efficiency in which the efficiency was attained through people (he famously said, ‘all I need is a good pair of hands. It’s a pity they come attached to a human being’). Machines were not able to run the lines on their own. People in this environment had no ability to be creative, think outside of the box, make fine adjustments to meet deadlines, etc. People were critical to the process, and we’ve kept this paradigm close to how we view the people within our business today. ‘Carpenters became knob turners, seamstresses became button sewers. It was the beginning and the end of imagination all at the same time’ (from Sea Biscuit, the movie).
This view of the relationship between people and efficiency has pervaded our approach to management – top down; hierarchical; command and control, etc. However we are no longer as reliant on people for efficiency as we used to be. Certainly our people can slow down our operations, but our systems, machines, IT infrastructure is far more capable than it used to be, and no longer needs the same people-intensive focus from an efficiency point of view.
Therein lies the opportunity. We now have the luxury of re-deploying our people into more creative roles, where they can think more freely about our business, choose opportunities to interact with our customers, assist our machines and systems to find better, more efficient ways to do what they do. In order to do this we need to move away from the efficiency/people paradigm of the Industrial Era toward a people/creativity paradigm of the Connection Era.
This shift has not been driven by diversity, but diversity plays an important role in enabling us to create thoughts and ideas we’ve not been able to before. It is also a pre-requisite for resilience in the world of rapid and continuous change.
If business is able to move to a new paradigm – one that accepts diversity as a key component of our society, and sees people less as ‘machine like’ and therefore not needing to be controlled, and more as creative resources with the capacity to innovate – one can only imagine the potential that can be un-locked as we re-deploy our people into new areas of responsibility.
The bulk of this article is extracted from a recent proposal written for one of our favourite clients, who is wanting to include diversity development in their Executive Leadership Development Programme.

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