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Diversity and disruption: fuel for foodservice innovation

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Karen Malody FCSI outlines the link between diversity and innovation in business and the foodservice industry

Three words are dominant in our vocabulary today: diversity, innovation, disruption. It is the relationship of the three that is intriguing.

Diversity of thought, termed “cognitive diversity”, often creates disruption. Disruption creates discomfort. Many successful leaders consider this a whopping positive. The former CEO of General Motors, Alfred Sloan, had these thoughts in response to his team being in complete unison during one meeting: “Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here.” Everyone nodded. He continued, “Then, I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until the next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement, and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”

A leadership principle on the Amazon company’s website reads, “Have backbone; disagree and commit.” CEO Jeff Bezos feels leaders are obligated to “respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting.”

We want innovation. Yet we sabotage a higher likelihood of achieving it when we turn our backs to uncomfortable ideas. This unfortunate phenomenon has been researched for years. That same research reveals that diversity, via disruption, fuels innovation. The Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) breaks diversity into two categories: Inherent diversity, which describes the characteristics we traditionally think of when we think about diversity: religion, culture, appearance.

Acquired diversity, which also weighs a person’s experience, such as where they grew up or were educated, plays an equal part in creating differences.

In its 2013 report Innovation, Diversity and Market Growth, the CTI further asserts that teams ought to have a healthy mix of both types of diversity to thrive. In fact, companies and teams with “two-dimensional diversity” – leaders who have both inherent and acquired diversity traits – are 45% more likely to report year-over-year market share growth that companies without it.

In fact, the report revealed that the vast majority of white-collar employees in the US, 78%, work for companies that fail to realize their full innovative potential because their leadership lacks the inclusive behaviors needed to effectively “unlock” the innovative potential of an inherently diverse workforce. We begin to understand why so many workers in America are unhappy in their jobs.

Many readily say they support diversity and inclusion, but when it comes down to the wire, many are shunned, ridiculed, or even fired for being “disruptive” and “not fitting the culture”. How, then, can diversity of thought become a more easily embraced behavior? In 2004, Anthony Lising Antonio, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, said ”When we hear dissent from someone who is different from us, it provokes more thought than when it comes from someone who looks like us.”

More productive

The McKinsey Study from 2011 Big data: The next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity revealed some interesting statistics about diversity. The study concluded that gender diverse teams are 15% more productive and ethnically diverse teams are 35% more productive. The study went on to claim that for every 10% increase in ethnic diversity on the senior team, there is a 0.8% increase in earnings. This introduces another term bandied about in companies all the time – team building. This diversity > disruption > innovation concept should challenge how we build the teams within our companies. Are they built for our success as a company, or merely for our unity as a corporate culture?

A workplace that values diversity of thought is one that makes it possible for people with a variety of ways of thinking to contribute to projects together. That includes people who are analytical as well as imaginative and organized as well as highly creative.

But, at core, it simply challenges us to ask ourselves: Do I listen to and accept as equally valid, people with ideas that simply don’t agree with mine?  If we are threatened by diversity of thought, if we mentally and emotionally shut down when challenged by an alternative viewpoint, we squander the opportunity to think bigger, broader, bolder. And oddly enough the only thing that increases with our objection to diversity of thought is the chance that our ideas will be left out entirely.

A critical beginning is the creation of an environment that authentically makes it safe to propose novel, often disruptive, ideas. Following the lead offered by an article in the Harvard Business Review, I suggest these practices be adopted to ensure diversity will thrive:

  • Ensure that everyone is heard
  • Encourage proposals of novel ideas
  • Give all team members decision-making authority
  • Only release new policies and procedures that credit the team   for success
  • Give actionable feedback options to those affected by change
  • Implement the feedback using the team that originated the change or policy.

According to Harvard Business Review in 2013, How Diversity Can Drive Innovation, leaders who give diverse voices equal airtime are nearly twice as likely as others to unleash value-driving insights, and employees in a “speak up” culture are 3.5 times as likely to contribute their full innovative potential.

Quite simply “Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not”, wrote Columbia Business School professor, Katherine Phillips in the Scientific American article How Diversity Makes Us Smarter. Diverse teams become better prepared for decisionmaking and accomplishing the task at hand. Differences among team members force each person to anticipate that there will be alternative and unexpected viewpoints to consider and evaluate. Diversity enables nonlinear novel thinking and adaptability that innovation requires and exemplifies best practices for an engaged healthy culture.

Creating pearls

It all comes down to a simple equation: we cannot be inclusive if we exclude oppositional, contrary thinking. We cannot be inventive or innovative if we spurn disruption, contention, or disagreement.

The very things that make us uncomfortable are those that stimulate us to grow and expand. The irritation of sand pushes the oyster to produce beautiful pearls. To create new ways of being and thinking we must realize and embrace uncomfortableness.

So, reconsider in your next intake interview, when you hear yourself think, “this person just doesn’t fit our culture,” that perhaps that might be the very positive thing you are seeking.

Telle Whitney, former CEO and president of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology aptly stated: “Diversity drives innovation – when we limit who can contribute, we in turn limit what problems we can solve.” Our foodservice industry has an enormous opportunity right now, to grow and illuminate the importance of cognitive diversity through our hiring, operations, and services. We feed the world. What an opportunity.

Karen Malody FCSI is the founder and principal of Culinary Options.