Bruce Mau, the XQ Super School project, and the Hearst Labs all have something in common: thought diversity.  In nature, biodiversity is the infrastructure, platform and engine driving the symbiotic co-existence of species.  There are over 40,000 plant species alone thriving in the Amazon rain forest: without that biodiversity, then flora, fauna and other organisms would not grow and flourish. Similarly, in our human ecosystems- to be specific, in our organizations- we need thought diversity to drive innovation. This is because the more diverse the inputs into a process, the more innovative the output.

I define thought diversity as the dynamic perspective informed by gender, ethnicity, age, class and work experience.  Thought diversity is a mindset and a skill-set.  It happens when a team is intentionally made up of a range and depth of people who will show up asking lots of different types of questions.  Jerry Hirshberg, former president of Nissan Design classified this resulting potpourri of energy "creative abrasion".

Thought diversity is a business imperative.  And it exists in lots of different places.

Examples of teams that are intentionally thought diverse include:

  • The XQ Super School Project: The XQ Super School project has on its advisory board not only educators but also the musician Yo-Yo Ma and the fashion designer Mark Ecko. 
  • Freeman's Design Leadership Council: When the enterprise designer Bruce Mau joined Freeman, he curated Design Leadership Council that includes an impressive group of creatives including Itamar Kubovy, the executive director of Pilobolus dance company, and Gina Warren EVP of Culture & Talent at Lululemon.
  • Hearst Labs: At Hearst Labs, a community of early stage women-led startups,  the goal of investing in and supporting women led businesses from a range of sectors has an infectious effect throughout the larger Hearst company.  The teams at Hearst Labs trend to be more gender and age diverse.  As Vice-President Chris Wilkes explained to me, "Associates from other departments at Hearst visit the Lab and get excited- it ends up positively affecting their daily work."  

The value proposition of having thought-diverse teams has a catalyzing effect in other parts of a company. Organizations without thought diversity cannot possibly rise to the challenge of solving today's most "wicked" challenges.  More leaders are endorsing thought diversity, including Julie Sweet, the CEO of North America Accenture and Bob Johannsen a futurist at the Institute for the Future.  At last week's CTHRA "Disruptive Thinking" symposium, Johansen asserted in his keynote that "Diversity is about innovation!"

Here are 3 key reasons why thought diversity is essential:

  1. Thought diversity helps you to lead with questions because you must be more curious about the perspective of people who are different from you.   The ideas from others also helps you to start approaching a challenge with a better variety of questions.  Thought diversity becomes a mindset.
  2. The acronym VUCA has referred to "volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous" environments. But thought diversity prepares you for a new VUCA, requiring you to be:
    1. Versatile
    2. Unassuming
    3. Creative
    4. Ambiguous-Friendly

3.   Thought diversity ultimately leads to more vibrant and dynamic organizations that can anticipate change by identifying multiple scenarios.  

Published on: Oct 30, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.