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January Guest Blog: DEI - The Missing Ingredient to Drive Innovation

January Guest Blog: DEI - The Missing Ingredient to Drive Innovation

DEI: The Missing Ingredient to Drive Innovation

Written by Kurt Merriweather

Kurt Merriweather, Head of Products at The Diversity Movement and a Certified Diversity Executive (CDE), is an accomplished product strategist and marketing executive with a passion for helping leaders and organizations identify and implement growth strategies.

Innovation requires exploring, and sometimes ignoring, what is around us and imagining a new future. Organizations and leaders that are able to blend proven product development practices with new ideas and perspectives are able to create breakthrough business ideas and outcomes. Building an engine for creativity requires cultivating multicultural, multigenerational teams that have access to information and possibilities to reach customers in new ways. This is the key to delivering sustainable business results and this is where diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and innovation intersect. The heart of diversity, equity and inclusion is to have the right people (diversity), supported by the right policies (equity) and integrated with collaboration practices (inclusion). Accessing the superior output of a diverse team requires inclusive leadership. 


Source: Korn Ferry, World Economic Forum 

Many leaders and organizations lack the patience and foresight to understand that building a high-performing diverse team that delivers innovative solutions takes time. It is hard-work and requires patience before seeing an increase in productivity. Finding the right place to start is a critical element in creating the right environment for success. Here are 3 strategies to help leaders develop the necessary skills to drive inclusive innovation. 

1. Build the capacity to hear 

Innovation starts with listening and understanding the behaviors, expectations, attitudes and needs of your customers and your team. The best approaches combine quantitative and qualitative data. Great innovators are able to anticipate market needs by having access to information that is collected from a variety of sources. The diversity of your team, from both an inherent (e.g., different physical characteristics) and acquired (e.g., different experiences) perspective, provides knowledge that should mirror the markets and communities that your organization is attempting to serve. Only when you build products and speak in the language of your customer, can you create innovation in product delivery as well as marketing communications. This happens more rapidly when you have diverse perspectives that are informed by different social networks. Stanford sociology professor Mark Granovetter introduces the (counter intuitive) concept of the strength of weak ties to describe why people that operate in different social networks are more efficient in sharing new information and gain access to information that people in tight networks do not have. By internalizing different sources of information within your own team, you will be able to achieve advantage vs. other organizations that have tight social networks. 

2. Synthesize information to create a new way to see 

Turning information into knowledge requires a process of interpretation and creating meaning from it. Diverse teams can do this powerfully when inclusive leadership practices are at work. To build the environment for this to occur, leaders should practice the following behaviors when conducting meetings, hosting brainstorming events and sponsoring ideation sessions.

  • Ensure that everyone has a voice. This is critical especially as we work in remote teams. During video meetings, utilizing chat is an important way to democratize input from team members that might not be as vocal as others.
  • Make it safe to propose novel ideas. Google has done quite a bit of work on unlocking the keys to creating innovative teams. Psychological safety is the key to this. This is an important element to create the right space for innovation. Many teams use worst possible idea brainstorms to eliminate the fear of coming up with bad ideas to create connectivity and engagement among team members.
  • Give team members decision-making rights. This goes beyond the typical thinking that says everyone should have a seat at the table. It is incumbent upon leaders to ensure that members of the team, especially those of underrepresented backgrounds, have an opportunity to make decisions that will have impact.
  • Share credit for success. The essence of collaboration is to make sure that wins are team wins rather than wins by the leader.
  • Provide actionable feedback. Underrepresented team members often lack actionable feedback. This sometimes comes from the fear of offending teammates or saying the wrong thing. As a result, there is often silence or neutral feedback on performance. The thing to do here is make sure feedback is future-focused and specific. For example, I like where you are going with your idea to improve our customer success practices. If you can show how this will improve our retention rate at our next meeting, your idea will have even more impact.
  • Implement feedback from the team. Make sure that your team sees a direct line between their input and the impact on the outcome. This should happen in a consistent manner and this will help to build trust to develop an incubator for even better outcomes. 
3. Map your DEI plan to specific business outcomes 

The final step in harnessing the power of DEI for innovation is to be intentional about linking it to business processes and outcomes. Here a few concrete examples 

  1. Limit the impact of bias on hiring and promotion practices. Usage of tools like Gender Decoder can help to reduce the impact
  2. Manage DEI like any other business practice with appropriate rigor. In a recent podcast with The Diversity Movement, author of Crossing The Chasm, Geoffrey Moore makes the case for DEI as a necessity for innovation. He describes how Salesforce uses their V2MOM (Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles, Measures) framework as a tool to track progress against DEI plans. 
  3. Make the linkage between DEI, innovation and key business metrics. Examples include sales/revenue, customer satisfaction, market share and geographic reach. 

By hearing, seeing and acting specifically, DEI will unlock the innovation that drives business results.


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