More than ever, workers and the workforce are diverse, as are the households and communities in which they live. Increasing globalisation has put the management of cultural differences on the agenda for most organisations—leaders have recognised the need to attend to diversity in order to reflect the attitudes shared by most workers, especially younger generations who have grown up in more diverse settings. And yet, a quick scan of most large organisations will reveal a fairly homogeneous makeup; tertiary educated, white, male, 50-60 somethings.
While the demographic necessity alone should be compelling to integrate employees from all walks of life, the benefits—of which include increased innovation, growth and competitive advantage—in creating a diverse workforce, seem to have alluded most organisations.
Diverse attributes amongst employees are valuable resources and can be wielded as a powerful business tool. Exposure to different or opposing perspectives also encourages exploration of issues and enables a deeper understanding of problems as well as providing alternative solutions. Different people come equipped with different perspectives, experiences and ways of communicating. Working with these differences enable us to new experience things and it is those insights which can help to better understand and empathise with others, which in turn enables us to design and create more considered and sustainable outcomes.
The whole premise of ‘design thinking’ or design-led innovation is that it’s human-centred. It’s all about people, and about having the ability to empathise with others and experience something in a new or different way. But you can’t do this, if you’re doing the same things, with the same kinds of people, with the same types of experiences.
Albert Einstein was quoted as saying, ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results’. I have a similar view about homogenous organisations that try to innovate.
Innovation, collaboration and diversity all go hand in hand. Bringing different views and different voices to a collaborative effort, creates opportunities for people of different cultures, backgrounds, and experiences to create something together. Your collaborators will bring different frames of reference and fresh thinking to the problem, which will ultimately elevate the work. This also cultivates shared ownership of ideas. It also increases the chance that the team will have empathy for those who will use what they are designing and that the collision of different backgrounds will generate truly unique solutions.
Architect and writer John Cary believes that the lack of diversity in design that leads to thoughtless, compassion-less spaces.
‘The contemporary world was literally built by men. Who had rarely taken the time to understand how people unlike them experience their designs’, says Cary.
Thoughtful design has a unique ability to dignify and make people feel valued, respected, honoured and seen. Cary chose architecture because he believed it was about creating spaces for people to live their best lives, instead what he found was a profession that was disconnected from the people most directly impacted by their work. In the United States, the number of registered architects who are women in barely 15 per cent, it’s an even smaller number for people of colour. In the United Kingdom, women make up roughly 22 per cent and in Australia is about 25 per cent. Cary raises the question of how shared spaces might be different if there was a greater number of women and people of colour behind the blueprints. Building on that, imagine the potential in engaging people with mobility challenges, vision impairment or autism in city planning. How would the world look and feel if we considered the experiences of all citizens and design to multiple needs, not that just the ones we know or feel comfortable with.
And yes, like a diverse world, a diverse workforce can present unique challenges. But surely the opportunities and benefits far outweigh any potential hurdles. Without diversity, organisations run the risk of stifling creativity, initiative and enthusiasm, emphasising a culture of conformity and sameness, which to me, sounds a lot like insanity.