Unlocking Innovation Potential
Thought Leadership

The Importance of Diversity In Team Decision Making

Written by contributing writers, Anne Mieke Eggenkamp and Fennemiek Gommer, co-founders, Caracta Business Innovation 


Innovation requires looking at the world from different perspectives and developing new connections between existing ideas, which is a key characteristic of creative people. The need for multiple perspectives is one of the reasons you need interdisciplinary teams for innovation. But corporate reality is often different. In the years that we’ve worked as innovation partners across various industries and countries, we have seen a lot of silos. Most “birds of one feather tend to stick together” and allow little room for people who think differently. Without even realizing it, organizations and departments have developed their own sets of unspoken rules – behavioural constraints that are not talked about or written down. Social psychologist Irving Janis from Yale University introduced the term groupthink to describe how members of a group can be so focused on striving for unanimity that it overrides their motivation to explore alternative courses of action: 

“Groupthink refers to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment that results from in-group pressures. These groups are over-cohesive. Because of a need to belong to the group, no one wants to break the peace and express a contrary view.”


Examples of groupthink fiascos studied by Janis include the United States’ failure to anticipate the attack on Pearl Harbour, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the escalation of Vietnam war and the ill-fated hostage rescue in Iran. Groupthink is a threat for creativity because it leads to self-censorship. People don’t bring up alternatives, or potential risks, for fear of upsetting the status quo. Groupthink is common, and all organizations are vulnerable to it, especially when the people working for it are similar in backgrounds and the leader is strong. 


Like the overconfidence bias, groupthink is a human bias that we need to acknowledge and counterbalance in innovation projects. Fortunately, we’ve experienced that it is relatively easy to break existing patterns in a specific project, while it’s much more challenging to change patterns structurally in an organization. Bringing in unusual outsiders that are willing to challenge the status quo will encourage the whole team to use their explorative mindset and result in more innovative ideas. For example, the famous pointed front shape of the Japanese bullet train was inspired by the beak of the kingfisher. This aerodynamic shape was the answer to a sound problem the engineers encountered and ended up saving them 10% to 15% in energy usage as well. This creative solution was made possible because one of the engineers on the design team was an avid bird watcher in his free time. 


One outsider can easily be overruled. In our business innovation projects, we have experienced that you need to bring in at least three outsiders to counterbalance groupthink. Some companies take this a step further and create a group that consists only of outsiders to challenge their thinking. Microsoft in the Netherlands has introduced the concept of “the Council of Difference.” Gonnie Been, at the time responsible for social innovation at Microsoft, told us: “For some questions such as ‘how to improve diversity’ you need the eyes of outsiders. We created the concept of the Council of Difference to provide us with unusual perspectives and stimulate a different type of dialogue. We invite different groups, like 16 to 20-year-olds or people with a disability and give them free access to the company for three months. Afterwards, they share their observations with the board, which result both in meaningful conversations and concrete actions.”


Diversity makes teams better 

Most companies now actively focus on increasing diversity and inclusion, although sometimes we feel the interpretation of diversity is somewhat narrow. The focus tends to be on gender, ethnicity and age, while we would like to look at diversity in terms of the different mindsets and leadership styles.


Luckily, more and more business leaders interpret diversity in this broader sense. Accenture research among 200 human resources executives from global companies concluded that many leaders are realizing that they need people who significantly differ from each other in the top of their businesses. A HR leader they surveyed said: “Top leadership groups in the future will be characterized by people with great diversity of experience and thought styles — for example, are they more analytical or more ‘by the gut?’ These forms of diversity will be even more important than diversity of age, nationality and gender.” 


When we spoke about diversity in the interviews we did for this book, we got mixed reactions. Some were tired of the diversity discussion and stressed that you should pick the best person for the job. Most, however, recognized the value of diversity especially for decision-making. A hopeful perspective since companies will not only improve their decision-making by creating more diverse leadership teams, but also their innovation capabilities and their ability to embrace change. As the CEO of an international company said: “Even though we were active globally, our leadership team for a long time wasn’t. Now that different nationalities have joined the board, we are looking at problems from more different angles. It’s true that it has become more difficult to automatically understand each other, but I also think we make better decisions because of this.” 


How can you make sure that diverse perspectives lead to applied creativity and not to endless discussions? How can leaders deal with increasing differences in their team and still steer the project in one direction? Leaders will need to lead collectively as a team. Accenture proposes the name “ensemble leadership” for this, comparing it to how a musical ensemble is organized – a metaphor that speaks to us because it’s easy to picture. 


A successful ensemble can perform equally well in the intimacy of a quartet, the relative formality of a chamber group or the tight structure of a symphony orchestra. An ensemble leader may be called upon to be strong and visible, as in the case of a symphony. At other times, for example in a chamber orchestra, the conductor will lead while playing amid the group, or the group may perform entirely without a conductor. In all these examples the leader empowers his team to perform. Shared understanding — forged through the common experience of tackling difficult scores — and a desire to improve through practice give musical ensembles the agility to operate under widely varying conditions. Shared purpose and values are the foundation for this type of agility. 


We also like the ensemble analogy because it shows that the kind of musical instruments you need depends on the music you want to play. In other words, each business innovation challenge requires a tailor-made diverse team to address it. Designing the project team that will create the future of your business is as important as designing the process and the potential solutions. We recommend combining insiders with outsiders, big-picture perspectives with niche expertise and unusual thinkers with creative makers in your design team. It doesn’t end there. You also need to create the right type of trusted environment for this diversity to work. As Brené Brown so beautifully put it in her TED Talk about the power of vulnerability, real connection (and creativity, we would add) only happens when people allow themselves to be really seen. 


About the Authors:

Anne Mieke Eggenkamp and Fennemiek Gommer are co-founders of Caracta Business Innovation and authors of Boardroom Creativity. They work with the C-suite and company boards to highlight the importance of creativity for entrepreneurial leaders in designing a better future for their business. They believe that business innovation requires both strategy and leadership development and create design innovation journeys that result in organisational learning and new future directions. The name ‘Caracta’ makes clear that they take a business’ character (purpose and values) as their starting point for helping them define where to go next. In their new book, Boardroom Creativity, Fennemiek and Anne Mieke describe how boards can apply creativity both in strategy and leadership development to design the desired future for their business.