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How Diversity Helps You Innovate More Effectively

I would be very surprised to learn that your company’s new product development teams aren’t multi-functional. After all, NPD is a team sport requiring many different players to take an idea and turn it into a commercial success.

The problems that NPD people confront are challenging. These problems outstrip the capabilities of any one person, which means that NPD people have to form groups that are functionally diverse.

After all, it makes no sense to have a team of  just engineers on your NPD team because they are not skilled at marketing and sales. Likewise, it makes no sense just to have marketing and sales people, because they are not skilled at design, development and manufacturing.

Each player on your NPD team has a specific functional role to play and brings a set of skills to the table that adds value to the transformation process. This is called “functional” diversity. But what other diversities are there and how can they help your company innovate better?

Talent is important, but so is diversity

Having more talent on a development/new venture team is always better. But having too much of the same talent isn’t going to provide the team additional capability. Deep skill sets in area of technical competence is essential to achieve design breakthroughs. But design breakthroughs aren’t of much value if they don’t translate into full products that solve important problems for customers. Nor is it much help if we can’t communicate and market the value proposition to attract ideal customers.  (See article on “Five Top Reasons Why New Products Fail and Remedies to Alleviate Failure.”)

We need more diverse skills beyond technical competencies on our team to succeed. Think of it this way. The amount someone contributes to a group depends on who is in that group. If the group contains people with same cognitive tools  and skills of each other, then adding a similar person will not improve the collective skill of the group. But a person with a whole bunch of different skills and talents joins the team, then she can make an enormous contributions to the group.

Generally speaking then, more talent and diversity is better. We would like to have as much of both as possibly.

But what do we mean by diversity?

There are two kinds of diversity we are interested in exploring beyond functional: identity and cognitive.

Identity diversity is defined as differences in such characteristics as race, gender, cultural or ethnic background, and physical capabilities-differences in who we are. Often times when we talk about diversity we are talking about identity diversity.

Cognitive diversity is the difference in how people think about problems. The tools they use to solve problems and the perspectives and mental models they bring to the table in framing reality and imaging the future.  With this definition we can say that functional diversity is really a subset of cognitive diversity.

What we want to expand and exploit is cognitive diversity, but identity diversity is highly correlated with cognitive so by no means am I suggesting identity diversity isn’t important. Certainly identity diversity brings favorable social benefits to an organization over the long haul. But don’t confuse the two, cognitive diversity is the characteristics we are looking for.

Why diversity works

If we have more perspectives to bring on a problem, then we are going to see more solutions. Since thinking from multi-perspectives is a good thing. But how well does your innovation and product development system utilize the cognitive diversity of your teams throughout the innovation cycle?

From identifying opportunities, to formulating innovative solutions, to predicting the market success, if your innovation and NPD systems aren’t tapping the richness of the  cognitive diversity on your teams, then you are missing a great opportunity to not only innovate better, but to also build a resilient team with a collective ability to compete on a complex and ever changing battlefield.  Plus encouraging diversity and a culture that honors different points of view creates a vibrant and fun environment to work in.

How can we access more diversity given the limitation of or our current resource constraints?

We do have limitations on our internal teams’ ability and cognitive diversity. No doubt most of us could improve the collective skill sets of the resources we already have, but sometimes our internal resources have been honed to exploit specific market opportunities which by definition means it has become specialized in doing what it knows how to do best. It’s hard for it think differently because it’s not in its DNA.

We may need to look outside the organization to add diversity to the team. Of course we could hire these resources, but there is an alternative approach, and that is open innovation and crowd sourcing.  In my December blog I touched on how the trend toward open innovation is changing the formula on how innovation happen. ( See article  “Has Your Internal Innovation Efforts Lost Steam? Perhaps It’s Time To Look At Open Innovation.”)

There is a whole new generation of platforms and approaches enabled by web technologies that facilitate cognitive diversity and wisdom of crowds.  These platforms and resources are changing the competitive landscape of how innovation gets done.  I’ll be exploring some of these platforms in the future and discuss how you can use them to your competitive advantage.

Till then, bring people onto your team who think differently than you and share a common value: create great products that make positive differences for people and the world around us.



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