This article was inspired by the following observations:
- Companies that succeed in creating real diversity perform better.
- Heterogeneous teams have greater innovative power.
- The coronavirus crisis has compelled companies to cooperate and collaborate digitally.
- With digital collaboration skills and cultures now in place, the way has been cleared to focus on the formation of heterogeneous global teams in which diversity is both a condition and a goal.
- With a high degree of diversity and a global mindset, companies are stronger in global competition.
Make no mistake, this particular journey is a long and complex one, but this article will provide you with good reasons why (and simple guidelines how) you should get started.
Let’s dive in
Recent events spurred on by the coronavirus crisis have resulted in a significant technological boost for companies, but all the technological advantages that they now embrace and enjoy have been available for a long time. There is nothing new about Skype, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Meet, and other technologies that make online collaboration easy. But a global crisis characterized by sweeping nationwide lockdowns was needed before these technologies were finally truly embraced. It begs the question, why?
Heterogeneous teams as a catalyst for growth and development
Online collaboration creates an opportunity to increase the diversity of our organizations, teams, and projects. Specifically, online collaboration allows for global recruitment – access to the most intelligent and creative brains, regardless of location.
As we become more accustomed to working, collaborating, and co-creating online, so we become less dependent on proximity. Geographic location quickly becomes irrelevant. And the consequences of this are extraordinary: Organizations are able to recruit across regions, countries, continents, cultures, etc.
I do not think that we are far away from a reality where one employee in a team has a permanent base in Copenhagen, another in Krakow, a third in Bangalore, etc. Soon it will be easy to assemble teams based solely on professional, human and cultural competencies, and that will pave the way for innovation and creation of business value.
Such a development would be widely welcomed in Denmark, where it is very much needed! For example, it is estimated that by 2030 Denmark will lack more than 19,000 skilled IT specialists, and similar scenarios apply to a large number of other disciplines. In other words, we need to crack the nut that is global access to competencies, and with the recent expansion of digital platforms and online collaboration habits, we are a step closer to doing so.
In addition to local skills shortages, organizations should consider the large body of knowledge compiled through research into the importance of heterogeneous teams and diversity. Analyses and studies by respected sources – such as McKinsey & Co and Catalyst – document how greater heterogeneity in teams, projects and organizations leads to greater innovation. And how greater diversity produces better top- and bottom-line results.
In 2016, Boston Consulting Group conducted a survey of 1,700 companies spanning eight countries. It revealed that companies characterized by high levels of diversity on average produced 19 percent more on the top line – a direct result of the greater quality and quantity of their innovations.
It may strike the reader as obvious that heterogeneous teams generate greater business value than their homogeneous counterparts: The higher the degree of diversity, the greater the variety of ideas, approaches, competencies, etc. Taken together, these differences result in better, more balanced solutions. By exposing people to different ways of thinking and interacting, you produce the positive “disturbances” that are crucial to initiating out-of-the-box thinking.
Diversity and digital transformation
After working with IT strategy and digital business development for many years, I have personally seen how important it is that you put together heterogeneous teams when dealing with development. This applies regardless of whether the purpose of the project is (1) to digitize processes, (2) to develop the business, or (3) to disrupt or reinvent the business.
Besides diversity in relation to culture, age, gender, etc., it is, of course, also important to ensure diversity in terms of professional competencies.
Let’s take a closer look.
1. Digitize processes
Digitizing a process, whether related to back office, production, or anything else, is all too often considered a single-facet challenge. A homogeneous team of engineers, for example, will be effective at completing the task of digitization, but if we expand the competence palette to include profiles that know something about user experience, business development, and digital trends in the market, then we create an environment that will not only effectively digitize the process, but also challenge and optimize it every step of the way.
Instead of a single question – “How do we digitize this process?” – such a heterogeneous team will focus on a variety of key questions: “Are there new digital products on the market that can improve the process? Do we solve the needs of the end-users? Are we biased towards business as usual? Are we digitizing a process that is or will soon be unnecessary?” The list goes on.
2. Digital business development
3. Disrupt or reinvent the business
You can reinvent yourself without ruining your existing business, but it is difficult if you run the business and are caught up in daily operations. In such cases, disruption requires a variety of competencies be brought in from outside the company and combined with those that already exist in-house.
A favorite example of this involves the airline company SAS. Ask yourself the following questions: “What is SAS selling? And who are its competitors?” Most people will probably answer that SAS sells flights and that its competitors are Norwegian, EasyJet, Ryanair, etc. However, profiles with expertise in innovation and digital business development may respond quite differently. They may consider SAS to be selling face-to-face business meetings, in which case its competitors could be Skype, Zoom, Meet, etc.
Again, with diversity in our teams, projects, and organizations, we are creating opportunities for positive “disruptions” that pave the way for new perspectives. Ultimately, this results in better innovations and a greater number of them too.
Diversity is not easy!
The online collaboration experience of recent months will have placed companies in a perfect position to recruit more broadly and embrace diversity. But diversity does not come without challenges of its own. And to be successful, you must be prepared to handle them.
My skilled business partner, Charlotte Risbjerg, is an expert in this field. Among our many articles, we co-authored one that may be of particular interest: “How to create added value in international projects: How to create added value in international projects.
What follows is her take on the three biggest challenges created by a high degree of diversity in teams and projects. She also offers three useful pieces of advice that will help ensure success when it comes to embracing diversity.
“”The online collaboration experience of recent months will have placed companies in a perfect position to recruit more broadly and embrace diversity
THREE CHALLENGES OF DIVERSITY IN COMPANIES AND ORGANIZATIONS
1. Diversity is two-sided: There’s potential for innovation, and for problems. Intercultural collaborations in particular provide excellent opportunities for growth and innovation, but can easily lead to misunderstandings, conflicts, and unforeseen difficulties in communication.
2. Basically, we assess the world from our own point of view – our prior experience shapes our understanding and outlook. And when our understanding of the world is challenged, such as by someone whose approach to a particular problem is fundamentally different to our own, we tend to take offense.
Example regarding behavior: John uses his phone to make and store his professional notes. While at a workshop together, Jane notices that he is on his phone every few minutes, and this upsets her. Why? Well, phones are a relatively new cultural framework. In such cases, we rely on our personal experience to complete the picture, and we react subjectively based on that. If we use our phone primarily for Facebook and personal communications, then we automatically assume that this is what others do. Consequently, Jane ends up feeling offended and thinking: “He should not be on his phone during the workshop!” Meanwhile, John has simply replaced pen and paper with a piece of technology. This simple misunderstanding could lead to animosity between two colleagues if left unresolved.
3. Nobody among us is perfectly objective in every situation. Our experiences shape our perspectives and we all come with bias in one form or another. As such, we sometimes overlook the real dynamics at play and our differences become a weakness instead of a strength.
Example: A 55-year-old female lawyer from Germany must collaborate with a 33-year-old Danish man who has a sales background.
There are several layers to this collaboration, and we cannot simply look at it as a difference of, for example, cultural geography, or German vs. Dane. Seniority, education, international experience, and many other factors also greatly impact the way we understand the world. Therefore, when problems arise, it can be difficult to accurately identify the origin of the conflict.
Three pieces of advice for greater success with diversity
The ways in which we handle diversity and intercultural collaborations are crucial to success. Our behavior and insight can either be a driver or a limiting factor for the collaboration.
Therefore, the starting point should always be to uncover one’s own biases. Ask yourself: “What preconceptions do I have? What limitations do they create for me? Am I judgmental or curious?” You can also use the FFF model below as a mirror – ask yourself: “Am I being influenced by facts, fantasy, or feelings?”
Furthermore, the following three pieces of advice can be helpful:
1. Be aware of the dynamics that are at play. Look at yourself from the outside, be curious and ask questions, and use the FFF model to identify the real differences. Make an effort to move from reliance on feeling and fantasy to fact.
2. Remember that wherever you look for problems, if you look hard enough, you’ll find them – whether they are there or not! Going back to the example above, if you focus on the clash of German and Danish cultures, then that will become a problem. So, move your focus to what you can really do something about. If you focus purely on disagreements – for example, a disagreement about strategy – then the situation becomes far more manageable. In line with this, beware of prejudices and stereotypes – there are hidden dangers in attributing too much value to one’s own previous experiences. Humans are not static, yet we often generalize based on isolated incidents.
3. The team culture is crucial for getting people engaged in collaboration and sharing of knowledge. If there is mutual trust, if the team members have common goals that move them in the same direction, then they will support and strengthen one another. If there is a focus on the differences, however, you can expect the opposite. Therefore, always start with a clear matching of expectations in terms of why they are there and how best to collaborate. Set clear goals. Create a common framework – without it, it becomes difficult to stay on the right track, especially when diversity is high.
Try it out – it is a journey.