In our design management studies at the Lucerne University of Applied Science, we have a lot of project work in diverse teams of four to six people. Each semester, we work at least in three different teams to engage together in a creative endeavor towards a goal set by the lecturer. Sometimes we form our own teams, other times our teachers form the teams. As our studies are international and at the edge of two disciplines, design and management, we have a very diverse class. Not only is the age range around ten years, but there are also more than five countries represented and many different industry backgrounds. One could think that design management students are diversity champions and understand the benefits of diverse teams. However, looking at my experience so far and observing our class, there is still a great challenge around the topic of diversity and many people have a strong preference for whom they want to work with. It becomes especially obvious when the class gets the chance to build the teams themselves. This often results in a nervous atmosphere and frustrated people.
In this blog, I want to explore three questions: Why is it such a challenge to work in a diverse team, how can the teamwork experience be improved and what are the benefits of diversity and inclusion on creativity and innovation? By looking at these three questions, my goal is to find out how design managers can improve their experience of working in diverse teams, and how we can help to manage diversity and inclusion in companies. For the reader, it is important to know that diversity in this article describes not only differences in gender and culture but also takes into consideration the difference of career paths, industries, academic backgrounds, and age.
One of the most important challenges of working in a diverse team is leaving the comfort zone and understanding the opinion and ideas of other team members. Diverse teams have to deal with the differences of each member to understand how to reach the goal together. This often means that everyone has to leave their bubble and tap into the beliefs of others to understand their point of view. In his book Liminal Thinking (2016), Dave Gray describes this problem of our bubbles with the term of self-sealing logic. The concept of self-sealing logic depicts that people often take their assumptions as facts and build the rationale around them. People start with conclusions and only then try to create the rationale for this conclusion. One reason for this behavior is that it feels safe to stay in one’s bubble and that it takes energy to question the beliefs and assumptions one has built over the years. Consequently, it is crucial for a successful team collaboration that each team member overcomes the assumptions and beliefs in his or her bubbles as otherwise they only accept concepts that have internal coherence. Internal coherence describes the situation, when an idea fits into the current beliefs and assumptions without challenging them. When working in diverse teams, this can lead to conflict and failure. It is not an easy task, but one can start by raising the awareness around their bubble and questioning where the beliefs come from. This will result in better understanding team members and having more success in reaching a consensus. Team members will feel more comfortable in the team and are therefore more likely to be creative.
Next to the awareness of each individual, the working environment also has a huge impact on the success of diversity in teamwork. As stated by Rocío, R., Voigt, N., Schetelig, K., Zawadzki, A., Welpe, I., & Brosi, P. (2017), five work environment factors are crucial to develop the valuable asset of diversity into its full potential. First of all, the environment must allow openness to cognitive diversity. This means that team members should feel free to speak their minds. Constructive conflicts and opposing ideas should be encouraged and supported by the company or working culture. Secondly, diversity should get support from the top management which means that it becomes a strategic priority. This could mean that the CEO endorses an inclusivity initiative or similar affirmations of the C suite. Thirdly, managers should listen to their employees and practice a participatory leadership style. It is important that not only coworking people feel understood when collaborating, but that line managers also actively listen to their subordinates and take their opinions into account. Fourth, the company should have equal employment practices. One example is that a company should avoid pay differences in salaries as this can cause conflict. Another example is the benefit of having more women in leadership positions. As mentioned by Zenger, J., & Folkman, J. (2014), women perform better overall in leadership positions than men, with the biggest differences lying in skills like taking initiative and practicing self-development. The fifth environmental factor that can help diversity to unleash its full potential is frequent personal communication. If the company or a team can facilitate informal exchange between people with different backgrounds, it can support the employees to create relationships and be inspired by colleagues. If all five of these environmental factors are well managed, the company can harvest the rewards of diversity due to these inclusion initiatives.
In our studies, it becomes clear that the environmental factors play a crucial role in the success of the team. After three semesters of studying, we learnt that at the beginning of a project, we should talk about our expectation, strengths and weakness, to build trust and create the basis for a successful collaboration. Further in the project, we start every meeting, with an informal exchange so that the team members have the chance to form relationships beyond the professional context. We call this check-in. One of the most difficult aspects of teamwork in our studies is to create an environment of constructive feedback and active participation. Team members often either strongly identify with their own concepts and become hung up on them or avoid exposing themselves and just agree to everything. Walking this thin line between participating in discussions but not identifying with one’s own ideas is challenging and should be addressed by the team. Our team working skills have evolved a lot since the beginning of the studies and each semester new insights improve our collaboration.
For design managers, it is especially interesting to better understand the correlation between creativity and diversity. The idea that diversity enhances creativity is not new. According to Viki (2016), artists like Picasso and Hemingway looked for inspiration in foreign countries. Immersing oneself in a foreign culture can strengthen the ability to produce creative results. Translated into the corporate world, this means that being exposed to multicultural experiences can enhance the idea flexibility and capacity to connect concepts. Many studies have been conducted to understand the reasons behind this and they all had the same conclusion: The ability to integrate different viewpoints and insights results in greater levels of integrative complexity, which is at the core of those eureka moments of creativity. Diverse experiences, and being able to understand underlying differences, strongly boost this ability. Design Management is about taking advantage of these benefits.
But what benefits does diversity have? According to a study by Rocío, R., Voigt, N., Schetelig, K., Zawadzki, A., Welpe, I., & Brosi, P. (2017), there is a positive correlation between diversity in management and innovation. As a result, companies with higher diversity therefore also have more successful products and can create more profit from new products and services. Especially if a company has several different product lines or operates in different industry fields, it has an increased benefit. Furthermore, a study performed by Hunt V., Yee L., Prince S. (2018) shows that there is a positive correlation between companies’ financial performance and cultural, ethnic and gender diversity, particularly in executive teams. The study analyzed more than 1000 companies in 12 countries. It showed that the companies with the most diverse executive teams were 33% more likely to perform better than their competitors. Also, companies in the top 25% for gender diversity in executive teams were 21% more likely to outperform the industry’s average EBIT margin. The reason for this improved financial performance is that these companies attract top talent, better their customer orientation and customer satisfaction as well as have a superior ability to make decisions. To sum up, both studies show that companies with more diverse teams are more successful in innovation and generally do better in their financial results.
To conclude, it is clear that diversity in teamwork is a desirable state. However, it is important to understand that each individual needs to contribute to the success of a team, as there are many challenges involved. There is a potential for conflict, which should be well managed and developed into a culture of constructive feedback where opposing ideas are encouraged. Each person needs to be aware of their own beliefs and try to understand the viewpoint of others. Design managers need to be aware that diversity needs to be managed and that the environment has a crucial impact on the collaboration of diverse teams. The benefits that can result in successful collaboration are clear. By enhancing the ability to innovate and the creativity of teams a company can gain a competitive edge. In the end, this means that diverse companies can also generate more profits compared to uniform ones.
Gray, D. (2016). Liminal thinking: create the change you want by changing the way you think. Brooklyn, NY: Two waves books.
Rocío, R., Voigt, N., Schetelig, K., Zawadzki, A., Welpe, I., & Brosi, P. (2017, April 26). The Mix That Matters: Innovation Through Diversity. Retrieved from https://www.bcg.com/publications/2017/people-organization-leadership-talent-innovation-through-diversity-mix-that-matters.aspx
Zenger, J., & Folkman, J. (2014, July 23). Are Women Better Leaders than Men? Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/03/a-study-in-leadership-women-do
Yee, L., Hunt, V., & Prince, S. (2018, January). Delivering through diversity. Retrieved March 14, 2020, from https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/delivering-through-diversity
Viki, T. (2016, December 8). Why Diverse Teams Are More Creative. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/tendayiviki/2016/12/06/why-diverse-teams-are-more-creative/#7a7eb39a7262