Why diversity is a driver of innovation

Use the variety of perspectives in your company to become more creative

How do we become more innovative?

This question is becoming increasingly urgent for many companies to keep up with the competition. Without innovation, time is running out for many companies.

The countdown is ticking:

  • Is your company already in the starting blocks to »launch« the next innovation?
  • Where does the innovative power in your company come from?

The potential for innovation have many companies. It is important to exploit this potential and thus strengthen the company from the inside out. This can mean giving space to lateral thinkers and also taking uncomfortable paths at times. With a disruptive, innovative force, even a monoculture can open up – and thus gain new, innovative perspectives.

Monocultures have a comparatively low complexity – and produce reliable, but also rather boring and predictable answers. Diversity, on the other hand, increases complexity; it counteracts simplifying response patterns – thus providing »blurred« answers with higher ambiguity. This is more demanding – but it also opens up the prospect of better, more groundbreaking solutions.

Learning to ride the tiger – jumping towards more innovation

A plausible thesis is:

»A company can only serve the market that it can internally map.«

This is how Dr. Rüdiger Müngersdorff from the management consultancy SYNNECTA, our cooperation partner in organizational development, puts it.

Illustration: SYNNECTA Diversity Insight Map®

SYNNECTA’s Diversity Insight Map® is a tool with which people are encouraged to engage in dialogue. The topics around diversity become visible and can be discussed.

A healthy diversity in the company does not only ensure that the products and services fit the market. It also promotes a forward momentum within the company that triggers new dialogues and generates ideas. The aim is to constantly rethink and reflect on one’s own certainties and thus be able to act tomorrow.

»Tensions in the company should be good?!« you might ask yourself now. – It is useful to differentiate two types of tension:

  • A negative tension describes, for example, a climate of fear, of isolation or personal intrigue. Here, people feel insecure, shut themselves off and tend to only »work to rule«.
  • Positive tension, on the other hand, refers to the creative energy generated by allowing different perspectives. Creative processes are not self-propelling, but usually hard work. The joint struggle for the best solution, overcoming mental barriers – the proverbial »out-of-the-box thinking« – all this requires a certain productive tension.

Even agile work or methods such as »design thinking« actively use non-conformist or external perspectives to increase the diversity and thus the creative tension within the system. Those who want to make their company the driving force behind innovations – even disruptive innovations – must not only endure this creative tension, but also actively use it for design purposes. In the free interpretation of a Chinese proverb: You must learn to »ride the tiger«.

Why does diversity become an essential concept for companies?

Promoting diversity in the company is one of the approaches to boosting creative, positive tension. Diversity is a collective term for a multitude of differences. At least the following so-called »diversity dimensions« can be differentiated:

  • Cultural differences, often in the sense of ethnic-cultural or religious differences, are regularly understood as relevant differentiation.
  • In society, disability is all too often a stigma that leads to a disregard for the potential of people with disabilities – a naive waste of resources from a company’s point of view.
  • Gender: The »small« difference between man and woman is clear to everyone. Since 2017, the German Supreme Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) has distinguished people who do not assign themselves to either of these two categories (official term »diverse«). Reality has always looked more colorful. »Girls play with dolls – boys with cars.« True, if you keep in mind (and preferably say it, too) that many girls also play with cars and many boys with dolls and figures.
  • Age: We were all young once – and the hope unites us to become old. But that doesn’t save companies from inter-generational conflicts and misunderstandings in the workforce. Demographic change is fueling this tension: especially when young employees lead older employees – or when the »young« do not feel understood by the »old« – the difference in age suddenly becomes relevant for cooperation within the company.
  • Sexual identity or orientation: »It’s a private matter after all« is the cry of naïve conformists. As those belonging to the majority frequently do not understand the concerns of the minority. But it’s not that difficult: Those who feel they have to hide »the private matter« in everyday life in the office or factory hall will be more secretive and focus their energy on secrecy – instead of on the next innovation in the company.

A decisive advantage for entrepreneurs: studies show that diversity in a company benefits them economically. Companies with high diversity are more innovative, have a stronger employer branding and a better working atmosphere. In short: diversity creates dividends.

To innovate you need to understand perspectives and recognize needs

If you want to strengthen the innovative power in your company, you should be able to change your perspective when searching for innovative opportunities. All too often, innovation processes begin with the question: »How can we improve our product?« – Sounds reasonable, but puts the cart before the horse. The initial question should rather be:

  • What solution does the customer desire from our offer?
  • What problem does our offer solve for the customer?
  • From his/her perspective, what becomes easier, faster, better, cheaper …?

This »101 of product development« (but also of sales, marketing, service) is unfortunately often forgotten and many companies first look at their offers from the »technical« side. The result is technical improvements – but they often do not provide any noticeable benefit to the customer. The key question is: »What additional benefits does the innovation create to the customer – from his/her point of view?« Every innovation must pass through the bottleneck of the customer’s perspective – otherwise it is not an innovation but only a variation. In short: Start with the customer’s perspective – not that of your offer!

An example from the DIY (do-it-yourself) sector: Instead of further improving the existing drill from your range, for example by increasing the speed or lowering the price, you might come up with the disruptive idea of developing a strong adhesive strip – after you have understood that most people in the household only need comparatively tiny holes to hang up light objects (towel hooks, pictures, wall mirrors).

But this change of perspective requires at least two skills: On the one hand, you need to be able to cognitively engage with the customer, his context and his challenges. On the other hand – and this is often the difficult part – you have to be able to feel his emotional situation (his »pain«). You need to be able to sense the different needs of the client. So you need a high degree of social empathy.

And this is where diversity and diversity management come in: The more complex my internal cosmos, which I have to manage in my company, the easier it is for me to understand the complex worlds of my customers. Consider: A range of services for women – designed only by men; a machine for the Indian market designed only by German engineers; a range for young people designed only by »old hands«? – Yes, anything is possible, but the chances are high that the target group’s needs will not be met. More promising is the approach of integrating diversity and complexity into one’s own processes at an early stage.

Why diversity promotes agility in your company

Diversity expert Hanna Göhler points out that for agile organizations, the competent handling of diversity is an important prerequisite for being able to use the potential of agile methods. Agility is a cultural issue. She puts forward the thesis:

  • »Only those who are aware of diversity in the group, appreciate it and make it usable, can be and work truly agile. This makes diversity a topic of system, culture, leadership and individuality.«

More on this in her readable article »Why agility and diversity belong together«. There she also explains the concept of »diversity learning« as part of a learning culture towards more agility. Hanna Göhler writes:

»Ambiguity tolerance« (i.e. the ability to tolerate ambiguities and differences or even better to accept them) is regarded as a characteristic of diversity awareness. It is also indispensable for the agile mindset. If this ability is lacking, people react to ambiguous and often uncontrollable situations in an agile setting with »linear thinking«. They fall into rigid, old, traditional patterns, the opposite of »being agile« and constructive diversity learning.

How do you set a base from which innovations can grow?

For managers it is important to create a common base and a stable framework in which the creative tension can stimulate ideas and does not become destructive. This also addresses questions of corporate culture, which should be characterized by trust, open feedback and a pronounced sense of community. This is the only way to build bridges and avoid typical silo thinking, e.g. between departments or teams.

Support the diversity and the overarching exchange within the company. Invite open dialogues and disruptive ideas. In workshops and at larger events, focus on the potential that lies in cross-hierarchical, cross-functional or cross-regional exchange. Allow a little more »colorfulness« in the company and make sure that your company is a place where positive tension can unfold its creative power.

For futher reading (in German):

Daniel Goetz
This article was first published by the author in agateno’s blog at www.agateno.com.
Photo: Matthew Schwartz by unsplash.com

Crisis Communication III

Few remarks on the announcement of the bad news

It is an event that captures the attention of the managers involved. Although it is only one step in a longer process, it is the central event because it sets the tone for the whole following process: the official first announcement.

Moderating such an event requires high emotional stability, the ability to perceive moods in a group early on and to address them sensitively. Without such control, misunderstandings, multiple sensitivities and unrecorded emotions take over the direction of the event.

It is important to involve all managers in the preparation – because they determine an important part of the evaluative assessment of the situation in side conversations, in their posture, in what they do not say and what they say afterwards – they are an important part of the social calibration. Often they are not involved enough, it is overlooked that they themselves are also affected and by preparing for the event and the process afterwards, they also have to and can clarify their own attitude. The mantra applies: Show presence!

It is understandable that intensive preparation is shunned again and again – one deals with an emotionally stressful and difficult topic and sometimes the desire to have already left it behind outweighs. However, with a joint intensive preparation of this event the foundation for the sustainability of the whole following process is laid and this process is not linear, it needs the ability to work iteratively as a leadership group and to deal with surprises, reversals and corrections.

Too often, very differentiated presentations are shown – they are politically and legally coordinated and usually too complicated. It is therefore important to work with the executives on stage to turn the complicated and differentiated slides into simple statements – at least when speaking. It’s all about striking the local tone.

Always too short, too loveless, only partially understanding the importance – the dialogue part of the proclamation. Here it is not just about asking questions, but about creating space for speaking. There are often only statements that ask nothing, but say what is happening emotionally. This space is of high importance, because here the people experience whether it is also about them or only about the handling of an economic problem. Here it is also conveyed that it is good, right and allowed to show emotions. After all, this is a situation in which then also the managers are no longer only preachers and explain, but also become visible and perceptible in their own emotionality. In these moments the feeling of togetherness, of being together, is created, even if the tasks and concerns are very different.

If an employee who knows that he will lose his job and who is still at a loss as to what to expect, goes to the responsible manager after such an event, by looking into his eyes and saying: »This is really bad and I don’t know what I can do now, but thank you for your clear words«, then together – the moderator, the managers and the group – have laid the foundation for a process in which everyone knows: We do the best we can in this situation and we do it for the community of all people who are affected.

Rüdiger Müngersdorff, Fetiye Sisko
Photo: David Straight by unsplash.com

Crisis Communication II

The dilemma of local leadership or A deep conflict of loyalties

There’s the decision. Costs have to be reduced, a reduction in staff is pending, perhaps the closure of a site or the sale of part of the company. The local management has the task of implementing the decision. A difficult task that plunges many managers into conflicts of loyalty. They themselves are insecure, but they want and should ensure that they act in a considered and secure manner.

So what happened before there was broader communication? There was a decision by headquarters – the local managers were hardly involved in this process, and if they were, then mainly as suppliers of analyses, data and information. With the decision, the task of implementation lies with the local management, which at first perceives the interfering support of the head office as helpful, but later, above all, as disturbing. The task now is not only to inform the people, to take their concerns and needs seriously and accompany them, to negotiate social packages, to start initiatives to give the affected MA an opportunity outside, but also to maintain productivity until the last day. The contact to the own employees becomes more intensive, they move much closer with their lives and the expectation develops that the local leadership will do everything to protect, maintain and maintain the own organisation. Naturally, conflicts arise here between what a head office wants and what local employees expect – and the responsible local management stands between both expectations. The personally challenging task now is to keep both interests in balance and to stay emotionally balanced. Good managers feel deeply committed to both sides – to the employees in their need, their worries and uncertainties, to the company that made such a decision for good reasons and with an eye to the bigger picture. A dilemma, often a moral dilemma, but always an emotional dilemma.

A particular challenge is to compensate for the loss of credibility that is inevitable from the very beginning. At the beginning, the local management already knows what is going to happen, but is bound to secrecy by very strict confidentiality agreements. If communication then takes place, one of the first accusations made by employees is: Why did you keep quiet for so long? How are we actually supposed to trust you, since you were involved in all this?

It is a difficult task, a task that deeply questions your own belief system. It is a task for which most managers are not prepared. How can they behave? How can they make room in the contradictions, the head and the heart equally? How can they deal with their own insecurities and worries and not let them distract them from their task?

Should managers be accompanied in such tasks? In all social professions it has proven to be a good idea to offer supervision for individuals as well as for teams. The point is to be aware of the situation and one’s own actions even in difficult situations. Only a guided self-reflection can help to be able to act and to act in the interest of all participants. We have had very good experience with a supervision approach in all the processes we have accompanied. The support helps all sides – the head office because it achieves its goal, the local management because it does not betray the interests of either side and can leave the process even with a clear awareness, and the employees because only a stable local management can ensure that new options for their own future can emerge even in this emergency.

Rüdiger Müngersdorff/Fetiye Sisko
Photo: Mauro Mora by unsplash.com

Crisis Communication I

Transparency makes credible – the need for honest leadership

It is a classic starting situation: A general manager, a plant manager, a divisional manager is informed that significant redundancies are imminent in his area, that a site is to be closed or an entire business unit sold. There may have been a hunch, and yet it is always shocking. The person in charge experiences what he will have to communicate to the employees in the near future. And he/she very quickly feels that he/she feels left alone and that he/she only receives reliable information in slices. The situation is confusing and will remain so for quite some time. It is the first scene in a process that now follows, in which every scene has to be rethought and redesigned again and again.

SYNNECTA has been supporting companies and responsible managers for many years in the design of such processes, which focus on communication. It is a different kind of communication – it requires a much higher degree of transparency, honesty and credibility than standard communications and it cannot be delegated. The communication cascades are already problematic in normal times, in crisis communication they are dangerous – the uncontrollable infectious rumor bags are created.

Our affected manager has a first task – he/she must form a team, a management team, which is able to deal sensitively with the situation from their own concern and is prepared to show a high level of presence throughout the entire process. We know the closure process from managers who like to visit the headquarters in such times. The management team with clear knowledge of the task and an honest willingness to go down this path with all employees is the backbone of the process. It is the time when the local managers, the micro-politics learned in seminars and their own tactical behaviour have to leave behind. Fetiye Sisko, who has supported many companies in these phases, says that in the beginning, support always involves developing a common attitude, which makes it clear that the focus is always on all the people concerned.

The people entrusted with communication are too often still young employees, without their own network, with little experience and little influence on content. Their commitment is often remarkable and yet they need support. Because crisis communication has a few special features. Again and again we experience phases of confusion, anger and rage when discrepancies become visible on the various communication channels. In particular, synchronised external and internal communication is required – any discrepancies spread by the press, social media, etc. must be included in internal communication. This is the only way to prevent irritations from the outside to the inside and to avoid strong emotional reactions. Differences in communication create mood and the situation is unstable.

The lively Q&A is an important component in successful crisis communication – every question stands for a need and a necessity, every question must be answered. And if it cannot be answered in the status of the process, exactly this must be said and justified. This is the only way to actively shape the mood part of a crisis and, as experience shows, to prevent the emotional substitutes such as actions of sabotage, refusal to work, etc. This also makes it clear that crisis communication is an iterative process; none of them proceeds in the way that very clever people, who are far away from what is happening, have imagined in advance.

As we have already said, delegation to a communication cascade is not helpful – it creates differences in communication and is no longer controllable by the responsible management team. Therefore it is essential for us to communicate with everyone at the same time as often as possible. Dialogue is already important in a normal situation, here it becomes decisive. It is one of the aims of crisis communication to reduce rumours, and for this to happen, joint communication experiences are needed. They are emotional, sometimes turbulent in the middle – but what happens in a meeting does not happen outside. Of course, this requires an experienced moderator who is able to keep an overview even in emotionally violent reactions and who can behave with appropriate empathy towards everyone.

We have had good experience in organising communication meetings together with the works council, employee representatives and management. This is where similarities become visible and differences become transparent. Each side has a different role and yet they are jointly responsible for shaping the situation for the people. And here again, every concern is to be taken seriously. In one case, the management had a reduction target which in their eyes was marginal (below the 10% mark) and therefore did not consider extensive communication necessary. One morning, the managers came to the site and saw 100 scarecrows wearing black T-shirts by the fence. It was the number of those to be dismantled. It may hit 100 people in the end, but in the beginning it hits everyone. And the principle is, what you do to one, you do to all.

There are many important characteristics of crisis communication – its quality makes a big difference, for the employees concerned and for the company. It takes experience to design such processes – and always a high level of emotional competence. Managers who have to deal with insecure people on a daily basis, and who are often insecure themselves, need support in these phases. If the attitude in the management circle is right, a constant empathic behaviour can be learned. Transparency, honesty and empathy are essential behavioural aspects in these processes. We at SYNNECTA are happy to do this task, even where it is very difficult, if one thing is given: the responsible leadership wants to make the process as honest and appreciative as possible for all those involved.

Rüdiger Müngersdorff/Fetiye Sisko
Photo: Hanna Göhler

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