Juliet Bourke on harnessing the power of diversity for innovation

What are the two common assumptions around diversity of thinking that need to be challenged within organisations?

Leaders who are looking to create genuinely diverse thinking groups within their organisation first need to test and challenge two mainstream assumptions about diversity of thinking, according to UNSW Business School’s Juliet Bourke, Adjunct Professor in the School of Management & Governance.

The first common assumption is the “saviour ideology” or “saviour mythology”, in which people believe one single person has all the answers to their problems. “People have this view that there’s a maverick who thinks very differently and if we bring that person into a group of people who think very similarly, that person will save the day. So, there’s this real emphasis on an individual. I think that’s incorrect,” said Prof. Bourke.

“Really, diversity of thinking is about making sure the different elements of the group come together so you need everyone in that group to have a slightly different frame of reference so that in combination creates this really rich, robust diversity of thinking.”

The second common misconception around diversity is what Prof. Bourke calls the “shake it up and see what happens” assumption, in which people have an inherent belief in the value of random brainstorming. “This has been absolutely debunked in academic research, which has found it’s not about getting a group of people together and shaking them up to get some magic diversity of thinking out of them,” said Prof. Bourke, who also serves as Chair of the AICD 30% Club Education Working Group and board member of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership King’s College London, US-based tech start-up qChange and Ovarian Cancer Australia.

“You do need people within the group who have a certain level of skill and capability, and no lack of that basic skill and capability can be made up for by shaking people up together. I don’t really want a random group of people performing brain surgery on me, with the idea they will all come up with a great way of performing an operation – there’s a basic level of capability there that’s needed.”

The other erroneous part of this misconception is the belief that every idea generated in a brainstorming session should be put on the table. “Well, actually, some ideas are bad ideas,” said Prof. Bourke. “There has been a shift towards recognising the value of greater levels of introspection and thoughtfulness so that you actually come to the table with some thinking before speaking.”

In sum, according to Prof. Bourke, innovation is stimulated by assembling a capable team who each bring slightly different approaches to solving problems, encouraging individual thinking and integration-style conversations.

Read more: How diversity can be leveraged to drive organisational performance

The challenge of changing biases

Dr Judith MacCormick, a Faculty Advisor and Facilitator for the Australian Institute of Company Directors and Visiting Fellow and Alumni Leader at UNSW, said another common myth is the idea that it is easy to get rid of biases. “But spotting our own biases and addressing them takes continuous work,” she said.

“We often aren’t aware of our own biases. It’s a little bit like asking a fish ‘how’s the water today?’ They don’t know because they’ve always been immersed in it, so it takes conscious effort and openness in ourselves and collectively to safely ‘call out’ our biases and question assumptions we have always held.”

Awareness of biases is one issue, however, addressing them is another challenge that also takes work, according to Dr MacCormick. “We all want diversity, but neuroscience reminds us that our default is what is comfortable and familiar. We often think that diversity is good and okay, but we actually have to be willing to recognise that we will be drawn to similarity bias. We prefer people (and ideas) that are familiar, that we can relate to, which can be the enemy of innovation” she said.

“Even when we say we want diversity, our default is often what is familiar. Difference and diversity mean we have to shift out of our comfort zone and question our taken-for-granted assumptions. That’s hard work.”

Psychological safety and speaking up

Prof. Bourke recently authored a new book, Which Two Heads Are Better Than One? 2nd Edition: The extraordinary power of diversity of thinking and inclusive leadership (published by the Australian Institute of Company Directors).

In the book, she explained one of the important considerations for leaders looking to harness the power of diversity is providing an environment in which individuals feel psychologically safe. In voicing different ideas and opinions, psychological safety is particularly important for individuals to feel it is okay to speak up and be heard – particularly if they come from backgrounds and cultures that are different to the host environment.

Prof. Bourke gave the example of a project she worked on with Gilead Sciences based in Asia, in which innovation was particularly important in quickly bringing a treatment for COVID-19 to market when the outbreak first occurred.

Judi MacCormick AICD-min.jpg
The Australian Institute of Company Directors' Dr Judith MacCormick says it takes conscious effort and openness in ourselves and collectively to safely ‘call out’ biases. Image: supplied

“A lot of the work that we were doing there was about the ability to speak up. Psychological safety is a challenge in hierarchical cultures such as those in Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia, so empowering people with a voice that is contextually appropriate and enabling people to share a view that would be listened to by leaders and other people in the hierarchy meant that new ideas were able to come to the fore and the group was able to have a richer conversation,” she said.

As a result, the company was able to develop an innovative solution that was first to market, and challenges that would otherwise take a year to resolve took just weeks or months.

Where is the value in diversity?

Dr MacCormick also said it is important to understand different kinds of diversity and where the real value lies for leaders in encouraging it. “A lot of people immediately assume diversity in Australia is around gender diversity. And in the US, of course, it’s racial diversity. Increasingly, we’re talking about age diversity as well” All these outward characteristics demonstrate ‘identity’ diversity” she said.

Dr MacCormick highlighted that research shows that when leaders welcome identity diversity and their voice is respectfully listened to (included), taken for granted assumptions and biases are more likely to be surfaced and questioned. This facilitates cognitive diversity and different lenses being applied, making innovative thinking more possible. So identity diversity can facilitate diversity of thinking.

In addition to the potential of cognitive diversity for explicit innovation, Dr MacCormick noted that if the voices of those with diverse identities are both seen and heard, leaders are implicitly signalling process innovation through the organisation’s openness to voices from diverse identities. This will be attractive not only to customers who might feel their needs may be better met and diverse employees that they too can aspire to the top, while investors and the wider community will rate the organisation better in terms of the leaders’ increased attention to ESG and equity expectations – and in turn attract better employees.

“By bringing people with diverse backgrounds and experiences to the table, where the world can be seen through different lenses, better questioning can be prompted and assumptions busted. At the same time an openness to thinking from diverse voices can tangibly contribute to equity – a win for increasing the possibility of innovative thinking as well as potentially better outcomes for multiple stakeholders,” said Dr MacCormick.


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