Where Do You Keep the Ketchup? The Importance of Diversity in Solving Problems
It’s lunch time.
Imagine that you’re about to make a sandwich.
You’ve carefully laid out the ingredients. You have your meat, your cheese, and your veggies.
There’s just one problem.
You’re out of ketchup.
At first you gasp. You shed a tiny tear. But, then you start to consider what other condiment you can use to complete your masterpiece.
Do you use mayonnaise? Mustard? Perhaps something a bit more obscure like dill spread, hummus, or pesto?
Let’s stop right here.
Where did you imagine you were looking for ketchup? In the cupboard? Or the refrigerator?
If you envisioned looking in the fridge and finding your ketchup empty, then you likely considered other refrigerated alternatives–mayonnaise, mustard, et al.
But if you were thinking of the cupboard, you likely had an entirely different set of alternatives.
I’m not so concerned with where you kept the ketchup. (There is–apparently–a raging debate over which is the right answer.) But, the point is that your different experience or preference is likely to shape your next move. It literally shapes the way that you associate things in your brain, which rewires how you think–and how you act.
This same phenomenon applies to almost any kind of critical thinking or problem solving scenario. As humans, our experiences and our mental associations often drive the solutions that we come up with.
When we discuss diversity in the workplace, many times it involves thinking about gender, race, and other designations.
But, really, these characteristics are often just a proxy for why diversity is seen as a critical component for driving creativity and cultural awareness. That is, diversity of experiences–different perspectives about the world.
Of course, there is plenty to be said about pursuing diversity simply because it’s the right thing to do–because inclusion is an important part of the workplace.
But there are more benefits for teams beyond just doing what’s right.
Sure, which sandwich spread you choose is fairly inconsequential. But, where you grew up, your rituals, your opinions, and your life experiences all shape the way you think, the way you act, and the way you solve problems.
It’s for this reason that diversity is such a valuable tool for teams.
Different perspectives lead to different kinds of solutions. Because of how our brains are wired, a solution that is obvious to one person may seem abstract or irrelevant to someone else. Thus, the more diversity in perspective that you have when analyzing a problem, the more likely you are to consider a broader range of possible solutions.
This proves to be a huge asset for teams that are regularly tasked with analyzing and solving difficult problems. Considering a broader range of solutions is more likely to surface a better or more innovative idea.
In other words, diversity of experiences helps to drive innovation and better, more creative problem solving.
Diversity drives innovation
Solutions created by diverse teams tend to be more innovative or creative than those devised by more homogenous teams.
This really shouldn’t be surprising. If we assume that different backgrounds and different experiences are likely to lead individuals to different conclusions, then having a broad set of answers presented is likely to give us more possible solutions to choose from.
Innovation isn’t driven by the same people trying over and over to solve the same problems in new ways.
It takes innovative thinking–new perspective and insight.
We often think of creativity as coming from some hidden region of the brain that we must unlock or tap into. But in reality, most creativity–most innovation–comes from some kind of outside stimulus or inspiration. Our brain takes things that are familiar to us and puts them together in new and interesting ways or identifies new patterns.
In practice, it feels like a eureka moment–you’ve just struck on an idea.
But, biologically, it’s more like you’re shaking the same snow globe over and over again until you get the snow to land in just the right pattern.
If we extend this snow globe metaphor to think about diversity, it’s like having a big set of different snowglobes. If you shake all of them at the same time, each one will end up with a unique outcome. You cycle through more potential snow patterns in less time and you cover a broader range of possible snowfall. This means that you’re more likely to hit on the “right” one and it will also take less time than if you only had one snow globe to shake.
This is because our brains are wired to make associations. We find common links and similar patterns that take us from point A to point B. So, in order to come up with some new or different idea, we often need some new or different way to connect those dots.
One of the most effective ways to come up with different conclusions from the same set of circumstances is to alter our perspective on the problem. That can be incredibly difficult to accomplish if a group of similar people are tasked with solving similar problems over and over again. Habits begin to take hold. The same thinking is applied time and time again.
Moreover, those same ways of thinking continue to pop up even when the problem changes.
We approach different problems with the same (or similar) perspectives and therefore often derive much the same conclusions.
Not only do people from diverse backgrounds bring their own ideas and thoughts to the table, but a diverse team is able to learn from the experience of others. So, over time, members of a diverse team who are exposed to more diverse perspectives then individually gain a broader worldview that will literally reshape the way they think.
In other words, having diversity on your team helps each member of your team to think in new ways.
So, not only will new and different solutions be introduced by team members with different life experiences, but being exposed to those different perspectives will make every member of your team more creative and help them to advance new and more innovative solutions in the future.
Too often, we get wrapped up in the politics and tokenism of diversity.
But, the value of diversity isn’t about numbers or quotas. It’s about creating competitive advantage by introducing new worldviews and overcoming stigmas and barriers between people from different backgrounds.
Embrace diversity. Solve more problems.