Why diversity builds innovation

Four Catalyte apprentices discuss a client project around a conference table

Diversity and its relation to workforces is often a one-dimensional conversation. This conversation focuses on the important aspect of increasing diversity to meet equity and inclusion goals.

While employers should work towards these types of diversity goals, they must also understand that diversity isn’t just about inclusion. It’s not something that should live in the realm of human resources, press releases and “feel good” corporate messaging. Diversity isn’t simply an end unto itself.

The business case for diversity

Diversity is a business imperative that affects the bottom line. It helps you build innovation and expand the problem solving capacity of your organization. It creates stronger and wiser teams.

In nature, diverse biological systems are more resilient. What happens to a monoculture system when something changes? It collapses, as there’s no ability to adapt.

Why do successful companies fail? Because they’ve downplayed diversity and optimized for a single outcome. Faced with disruption, they can’t pivot fast enough to survive. Clayton Christensen’s research around “The Innovator’s Dilemma” and why new disruptive technologies cause big firms to fail is really, at its heart, a treatise about the lack of diversity of thought in large corporations.

Diversity offers you the ability to see problems ahead of time and have different perspectives, ideas, insights and solutions to overcome disruptions and build a company that grows stronger over time.

Diverse experiences in action

There are two stories that show how far we’ve come in understanding the business importance of diversity. In the first, a team of developers from Catalyte had just saved a major make-or-break-the-company product launch for a well-known F500 sports apparel company. They took our developers out to celebrate and asked what they did before joining Catalyte. One mentioned he had worked at Taco Bell. Another has a PhD in theoretical physics. A third trained dogs to chase geese off of golf courses.

The client didn’t expect this level of diversity from the team of developers who just delivered this amazing product. It freaked them out and we didn’t hear from them for a few weeks. They weren’t ready to believe that amazing tech talent existed outside of the narrow niche they’d created in their minds.

The client did finally call us back and came around to be a true believer in our model. In fact, they went public with data a year or so later at a major tech conference confirming how our diverse developers, former fast food workers or canine trainers, performed better than traditionally sourced teams.

The second example is from a client that sees the diversity of our talent as their crowning advantage. It sounds like a set up to a bad joke, but a marriage counselor, an EMT and a corrections officer join a software development team…

This diversity gives them the perspective, problem solving and leadership skills, crisis training and communications abilities to outperform “traditional” hires. The stress of meeting a deployment deadline is low stakes if you’ve spent a career managing prisons or saving lives. The ability to communicate with difficult stakeholders or solve team rifts is a nothing burger if you’ve spent years saving marriages.

Their diverse backgrounds and real-world experience outside of the tech industry is what sets them apart, and why they form the backbone of this client’s engineering organization. These are the intangibles that diversity provides.

Having people who don’t look, think or act like you in the room when decisions are made ensures that you see as many possible disruptions ahead of time, and have many solutions to work from when they hit. This is how diversity spurs innovation and why it’s a business imperative.

This column was first published through the World Trade Center Institute.

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