The Power of Cognitive Diversity on Innovation
As an often indefinable output, innovation can be difficult to accurately measure and even more difficult to reliably produce. What constitutes innovation at one organization may simply be called production at another. Where, in one sense, innovation is new ideas and development, in another innovation may be research or process setup. What is clear though is that despite advancements in standardization, innovation is in many ways a specified, tailored approach to creating or modifying the status quo to produce greater and more positive results.
Sounds great (if not a bit technical and boring) right? Well, the excitement comes in the fact that by opening the definition of what innovation truly is, we have the ability to open innovation up to a greater audience of people than we sometimes think.
Who are your innovators? Insert common answers here: R&D, marketing, etc.
However, with a paradigm on innovation centered on a more comprehensive, holistic approach built upon the specific needs of the company or industry, the playing field should get much bigger. This is where I’d argue that cognitive diversity brings a needed emphasis to successful innovation. Cognitive diversity goes beyond job function or titles (where even diverse multifunctional innovation teams can come together yet still fail to come up with truly innovative ideas and development) and gets to a root level differentiator of the way people look at the world and how they communicate that vision.
This kind of collaboration must be built first on cognitive respect, which is not always an easy element to engender – think of the organizational cultures you’ve been a part of…how many were based on a particular leadership approach, style or “personality” that permeated throughout the organization. And, not only can culture become entrenched in one style…the effects can be damaging to organizational performance. A blog from the Leader Lab cites a study from the Journal of Applied Psychology, addressing this danger head-on stating, “…a goal-focused style of leadership works best with employees that are high in conscientiousness and emotional stability, but can burnout (emotional exhaustion) employees that are low in conscientiousness.”
It’s tough to innovate when you’re employees are burned out…which makes it all the more imperative to have a spectrum of approaches and cognitive styles from leadership through management and teams and a respect for all points on that spectrum.
Although respect for cognitive diversity is not an easy concept to actualize, once an organization has it, the shift toward implementation and innovation is actually within reach. I attended the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) Conference last week and was struck by the focus that the best minds in the business (both consultants and organizational leaders) were placing on innovation. In a presentation from DDI Worldwide on a global study of leadership, the number of leaders citing innovation as a critical skill increased more than for any other skill.
That same report goes on to say, “When people question their assumptions about stakeholders, think differently about potential solutions, experiment in order to build the highest value solutions, and get things done so that solutions are brought to market, they begin to overcome the challenges to innovation in an organization.”
Think closely about that statement and it’s easy to see that innovation isn’t about ideas…it’s about the left-brain (thinking differently on potential solutions; getting things done to get to market) and right-brain (looking more closely at stakeholders; experimentation to build high-value solutions). It’s about differing behavioral characteristics (pushing to get things done; being flexible to different options; expressing stakeholder opinion).
These traits can’t be fully accomplished by one individual…and nor can they be accomplished as effectively as possible via a like-minded team of innovators. In that kind of mind-vacuum, one trait will inevitably rise to the fore…it may be bringing solutions to market without properly vetting stakeholder opinions. It might be valuing experimentation instead of thinking differently on a common solution. Whatever the tendency, the point is that pushing for one aspect of innovation over another is detrimental to the end results.
When it comes to driving innovation assembling a way to understand, appreciate and leverage diverse ways of thinking can push any team or organization to new levels.
Mark E. Miller is the Director of Marketing for Emergenetics International – an organizational development consulting company dedicated to expanding the capabilities of the one thing most valuable to every one of our clients – their people. Follow us on Twitter.