Diversity and Innovation – Improve the Person, Improve the Idea

By: Hutch Carpenter | September 23, 2010

A key aspect of the next generation of innovation is the ability to tap a much larger set of minds in pursuit of valuable ideas. This draws quite heavily from the realms of Enterprise 2.0 and crowdsourcing. The historic method of innovation relied exclusively on a designated few. Now we’re seeing companies recognizing a missing voice in the innovation process: that of those who make the products and service the market (employees), and those who buy the products and are most intimately familiar with what needs they fulfill (consumers).

Diversity is the key element here. That is, engaging a broad set of different perspectives to generate something better than one could do individually. In considering diversity, there are actually two ways in which diversity affects innovation:

On the left, diversity relates to collaborative networks for an individual. Diversity can be applied to improve any individual’s command of different perspectives. On the right, the wisdom of the crowd bring a diversity of perspectives in identifying top ideas. Crowdsourced diversity can also help shape an idea, improving it.

One word about “diversity”. In societal terms, the term relates to ethnic, religious and other differences. But at the recent Front End of Innovation, The Wisdom of Crowds author James Surowiecki defined it this way:

Having crowd diversity – cognitive & heuristics diversity – is critical to crowd assessment

Cognitive and heuristics diversity – that’s what benefits innovation. People who see things in a different way, and bring a different practice to solving problems.

With that, let’s discuss the two ways diversity improves innovation.

Collaborative Network

The research on collaborative networks and their impact on innovation has been discussed previously. University of Chicago professor Ron Burt conducted an empirical study showing that people with more diverse sources of information generated consistently better ideas, as the graphic to the right highlights.

The Y-axis shows the management assessment of a series of employee ideas related to supply chain management. Higher is better. The X-axis measures the level of diversity in an employee’s internal connections. As you move to the right, you get employees who are more insular in their connections. They lack diversity of inputs in their-day-to-day world.

Notice the curves. Higher diversity of connections translates to higher value ideas.

This is the personal improvement that diversity brings to us, We gain a better command of options and ways to approach issues. We become better in the innovation discourse.

This relates well to another concept, put forth by Roberto Verganti in Design-Driven Innovation. In that book, Verganti argues that leading companies pursue radical innovations of meaning for products in the markets they serve. This is not chasing trends. It’s having the earliest of radars for new meanings emerging at the crispy edge of a market.

To get that insight, the leaders of companies must maintain a design discourse with these thought leaders, across different industries. In fact, going outside one’s industry is key.

You see what Verganti is arguing? Diversity of viewpoints to make an individual smarter, and thus propose new products that radically innovate meaning.

Tapping diversity – cognitive and heuristic diversity – is a key enabler for better innovation by individuals.

Wisdom of Crowds

In The Wisdom of Crowds, Surowiecki notes the strength that numbers bring. Individually, it can be hard for one person to consistently (i) propose the best ideas; or (ii) identify the best ideas. We’re all subject to our biases. We have unique cognitive abilities, work experiences, life histories and biases.

But let’s put all those to work en masse. In the previous section, the value of individuals maintaing a diverse network of connections was discussed. Here, the value comes from a wide variety of proposals, followed by a wide variety of perspectives brought to those proposals. In a previous post about crowdsourcing, we discussed the role of the crowd in filtering for the best ideas.

In an innovation community, tap the diversity of the crowd to get different ideas. This is somewhat orthogonal to the previous section. Rather than an individual generating the highest quality idea based on diverse connections, get a diverse set of ideas and work with them collaboratively. Let the wisdom of the crowd determine which ideas have the most merit.

In the FEI speech, Surowiecki made these observations:

Innovations emerge best from communities rather than the mythical lone inventor. #

Random group may have lower avg IQs than best-of-best group. But diversity gives random group higher collective intelligence. #

People *will* make mistakes in judgment. Key is to get crowd to make mistakes on different areas, not same way. #

That last point is a critical one. Great innovation can emerge from insular groups that “do their own thing”. But the probabilities are lower. Having greater homogeneity of thought risks the group making the wrong evaluation based on the same line of thinking.

Tapping diversity means bringing different points of view to the innovation discourse. Which, statistically speaking, improves the chances of getting the best answer.

As seen here, diversity is incredibly valuable for both the individual innovator, and for the innovation community at large.