Playing To Win
Diversity & Strategy
A reader recently asked me: “How should practitioners think about diversity strategy as well as the role of diversity in strategy development? I thought the question was terrific — both timely and important. So, I decided to dedicate my 44th Playing to Win/Practitioner Insights (PTW/PI) to Diversity & Strategy. (Links for the rest of the PTW/PI series can be found here.)
I will start with the second part of the question (diversity in strategy development) because the answer to it has implications for the first part of the question (diversity strategy).
Diversity in Strategy Development
The short answer to the first question is that diversity is very important for great strategy development. But let me provide a longer answer with my reasoning.
One of the biggest obstacles to the development of a high-quality strategy is narrowness — a constrained view of available strategy choices and convergence relatively quickly on a chosen one. That is why one of the most frequent complaints about strategy is that it isn’t creative; it doesn’t get the company in question out of whatever box it was in at the outset.
To combat that gravitational pull, I built my process for strategy development with the goal of gaining maximum advantage from diversity of thought and opinion. I insist on generating a breadth of possibilities and refuse to allow speedy convergence on a standard line of thinking. I refer to strategy ideas as possibilities not options because the latter feels more formal and may trigger self-censoring of interesting ideas. I also refuse to allow criticism of possibilities — at all. If the central question is ‘what do you think is true,’ then the conversation is often dominated by the loudest voice and typically a critically negative one, which hastens the group toward premature convergence and away from novel ideas. Instead of asking participants whether they favor a possibility or think it is valid, I ask them to specify what would have to be true (WWHTBT) for the possibility to be a great choice, which is an optimistic take. Further, I insist that possibilities eliminate themselves rather than be eliminated by a member of the group. Elimination should only happen when a WWHTBT that is agreed upon by the group is shown not to be likely enough to be true based on testing that is designed by the whole group.
I believe it is critical to great strategy to source as diverse a set of possibilities as feasible and then keep them alive for long enough for their best features to show themselves. In the end, all you need is one awesome idea — and I can promise you based on decades of experience that you never know in advance from where it is going to come.
But you are not going to generate a usefully diverse array of diverse ideas in strategy development if the company doesn’t have a diverse group of employees working on the strategy. Workforce diversity won’t happen unless the company has an effective strategy for promoting and nurturing diversity in its workforce, measured in the various ways diversity is typically measured (ethnic, racial, gender, sexual orientation, cultural, educational, religious, geographical, experiential, socioeconomic).
But workforce diversity on its will not on its own produce the productive benefits of diversity. Productive diversity occurs only when the presence of multiple ideas enables a group to find solutions that are better than the incoming idea of any one member. If it can’t produce that outcome, then diversity won’t beat uniformity — even though it should.
To ensure productive diversity, the diverse group members must be equipped to take advantage of their diversity of thought. That is a non-trivial thing because the modern educational system teaches students to seek ‘the right answer’ in the context of a narrowly defined discipline, and then to defend the validity of their answer. I wish that it wasn’t so, but that is the dominant mode in modern education. Those features are mirrored in business education in which business students are taught to be narrow specialists who understand one knowledge domain and apply their understanding of that singular domain to frame problems and come up with ‘the right answer.’
This approach trains us — implicitly more than explicitly — to decline to listen to someone in another knowledge domain when we are discussing our own knowledge domain. A marketing person will be quick to say to a manufacturing person: “What do you know about marketing?” Typically, we ask the disciplinary interloper to adopt the logical structure and language system of our knowledge domain to converse with us. And if they don’t agree with us, we are likely to dismiss their views. We are not systematically taught to explore the thinking, the ideas, or the conclusions drawn from a point of view that is fundamentally different than ours, and certainly not to treat it as a precious resource.
That is why I think there is unease about diversity in corporations. Diversity without tools for gaining the value from diversity isn’t productive. It can, in fact, be a net negative, producing fighting, squabbling and recrimination. That is why diversity strategy needs two foundational elements: diversity itself, plus tools for taking maximum advantage from the inherent bounty of diversity.
The Importance of Integrative Thinking
The approach to strategy that I discussed above (which I call the Strategic Choice Structuring Process) is a single-purpose tool designed to take the most productive advantage of diversity in developing strategy by encouraging, nurturing, and protecting outlier views. The broader and more generalized tool for facilitating productive diversity is Integrative Thinking. I wrote about it in a previous PTW/PI piece and in two books — The Opposable Mind and Creating Great Choices (the latter with Jennifer Riel). Integrative Thinking is the foundational tool for creating superior solutions out of models that don’t easily fit with one another — or appear in outright opposition, as is often the case if those models come from dramatically diverse backgrounds or perspectives.
Integrative Thinking demonstrates how deeply understanding the functioning of opposing models can facilitate the creative combination of features from each model to produce a new model that contains elements of each but is superior to both. While it may sound intimidatingly difficult, it is in fact utterly doable. My colleagues and I started out teaching Integrative Thinking to MBA and undergraduate business students as well as business executives. But since then, we have now proven that it can be taught to young students across the K-12 spectrum in a program we call I-Think.
At the heart of Integrative Thinking is what we call a stance: the combination of how you see the world around you and how you see yourself in that world. The single most useful stance for productive diversity that you can hold going into any interaction is: “I have a view worth hearing, but I might be missing something.” Each element of that stance is important. If you don’t think you have a view worth hearing, you won’t share it and you can’t and won’t add anything to conversations. It is worthless go to a meeting with another person and declare: “I am just here to listen.” You can’t not have a view. Humans automatically do. Yours is worth hearing if you want to contribute to productive diversity.
Might is also important. In advance of the other person speaking, you can’t be certain that you are indeed missing something. But might implies genuine openness to the possibility that you are, and that openness is an important prerequisite for productive diversity. Finally, be missing something declares to yourself and signals to the other that you want more raw materials with which to work to create a better answer and a dramatically differing point of view is the richest source of those raw materials.
I have a view worth hearing indicates that you are delighted to provide more raw materials to the other person making the benefits from diversity truly reciprocal. But that person won’t listen if you don’t add but I might be missing something, because nobody wants to think jointly with a know-it-all!
If you adopt the stance “I have a view worth hearing, but I might be missing something,” you will be amazed what you and your diverse colleagues can create together.
I encourage everyone to lean into diversity because productive diversity holds the promise of making the world a better place, a place full of breakthrough decisions. It starts with adopting the stance of I have a view worth hearing, but I might be missing something. You won’t be able to hold it every time — I can’t either and I have been practicing a long time — but the more you do, the more effective you will be. Remind yourself of it before you go into any important meeting. The more you can maintain that stance, the more you will seek out diverse views and work to bring those voices into your organization. That will create an upward spiral of becoming more diverse and utilizing that diversity more productively, and so on.
When developing strategy, create an environment that welcomes and encourages possibilities. Let them be whimsical, even a bit crazy. Don’t allow opining on the merits of possibilities. Only permit asking WWHTBT to gain agreement on the logic of each possibility. Then seek agreement on what aspects of the logic needs testing and how. That will give each possibility a fair chance — which is all that each one deserves and needs, which will enable you and your organization to benefit maximally from diversity in strategy.