Why diversity is crucial to innovation success

Written by David Moskal, InVision Edge

Let’s say I work on the shop floor of a furniture manufacturing company. Senior leadership has decided that, as the focus of an innovation project, we need to come up with ideas for reducing errors and rework on the shop floor.

When it comes to selecting the team who will work on this project, conventional wisdom says to gather a team of shop floor employees to make up the innovation team. After all, we deal directly with the errors and rework. We’re the ones with extensive knowledge in the area. It makes sense that it would be our team that tackles this challenge. While that sounds like the best way to approach it, in fact, it isn’t.

In the example above, every employee that would have been selected for the innovation project team has a similar mindset. They have similar backgrounds in furniture manufacturing and rework. While these similarities help to a degree, they will hinder the project in the long run. These employees work on these tasks every day; those similar experiences will lead to similar thought processes; similar ideas will emerge, and none will be new and innovative. The end result will likely be a small tweak to the existing system, not an innovation. To make an innovation project successful, diversity is key.

An innovation project team generally includes six to ten employees. The ideal team for the example above would include the following:

  • Two shop floor employees (ideally in different roles) to provide information to the team on shop floor operations;
  • Someone from finance. From an operational perspective, this person knows the company well; has knowledge that the shop floor employees likely don’t; and will be helpful in developing math models and projections.
  • The balance of the team should all be from different functional areas: sales, operations, marketing, reception/front desk, R&D, etc.

The rule of thumb when building a project team is that more diversity is better. While a group of shop floor employees have preset assumptions of the way things work because of their familiarity with the task, the other team members don’t have those assumptions (because of their relative unfamiliarity). For idea generation, that is the best position to be in. You’ll find that the individuals on the team that have little knowledge of the issue are the ones who ask the divergent questions that lead to deeper thinking: Why does it get sent there? Why do we do this? Whydoes that need approval? Why? Why? Why? What if we can do this instead? These questions lead to innovative ideas because they alter the usual way of thinking about the focus of the project.

A few tips for building a diverse innovation team:

  • Make the team as cross-functional as possible: Different departments and functions should be represented within the team;
  • Include a finance person on the team, which will really help for building revenue/cost projections;
  • Select people who want to be on the team: If the team members are excited and passionate about the project, their interest will drive the project and generate excitement in others;
  • Senior leadership generally shouldn’t be on the team because they could potentially influence the collaboration of the team. The project team will present their findings to senior leadership at the conclusion of the project, which is when leaders have the opportunity to ask questions and dig deeper.

To create and develop innovative ideas, diversity on the team is key. After all, if everyone on the team is coming at the problem from a similar perspective, why do you need more than one person to solve it?

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