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The Case for Team Diversity Gets Even Better

Geplaatst op mrt 28, 2014 in News

We know intuitively that innovation goals are well served by cross-functional “SWAT” teams that are diverse in their membership. As Andy Zynga argued in an earlier post, diversity is a means to overcome the cognitive biases that prevent people from seeing new approaches or engaging them when found. But while this seems only logical, is there empirical evidence to support it? When such diversity is enforced can we expect it to produce results? How do we know “more is better”?

Stanford professor Lee Fleming and his colleagues have been working on these questions by looking for patterns in the teams behind patents. They find that higher-valued industrial innovation (by its nature also riskier) is more likely to arise when diverse teams are assembled of people with deep subject matter expertise in their areas. Other interesting findings in Fleming’s body of work include the observation of a bimodal distribution of outcomes for diverse teams (that is, a relatively high rate of failure and high rate of big successes, with not much middle ground); and the discovery that different kinds of communications networks foster different levels of diffusion of innovation. Fleming focuses on cross-pollination in the context of “big D” Development, which often involves recombination of existing knowledge to serve commercial goals.

Along similar lines, Ben Jones and colleagues at the Kellogg Business School of Northwestern University published a paper in Science last year focusing on diversity in the production of new knowledge, as reflected in the research literature. Looking for patterns across some 17.9 million papers indexed in Thomson Reuter’s Web of Science, they demonstrated that the most influential papers (most highly cited) were those that exhibited an intrusion of interdisciplinary information. They also found that groups were more likely to foster these intrusions than solo researchers. This is entirely consistent with Fleming’s findings for industry, and his attempts to dispel some of the mythology around lone inventors. (One difference in the studies is that, thus far, Jones hasn’t observed the bimodal distribution that Fleming does; there is apparently no cluster of papers with abnormally low citations which also feature intrusions of outside knowledge.)

Taken together, the studies led by Fleming and Jones make a good case for assembling that SWAT team that can bring multiple disciplinary perspectives to bear on a problem. It isn’t always obvious how to do so, but we at NineSigma can point to an  instructive example at AkzoNobel. AkzoNobel is a multi-national, multi-divisional manufacturer and distributor of coatings systems, or more simply put, paint. But paint is really not as simple as just paint; for example, coatings for automotive applications are very different from decorative finishes. Among AkzoNobel’s divisions are more and less conventional manufacturers of chemicals and polymers. Having grown by acquisition, the company has the typical silos, with organizational and geographic boundaries inhibiting the diffusion of knowledge.

AkzoNobel was already breaking down external barriers by engaging in open innovation, inviting solution ideas from outside the company. Management wanted to break down the internal barriers, too. The solution was to implement essentially the same Request for Proposal process inside the organization, broadly training large numbers of technical staff about the process, and more intensively training a core group of “Internal Program Managers” to provide the coaching and guidance required for a well-specified search.

Two years after that decision, it’s clear, first of all, that the system is working. Individuals with challenging problems are now able to reach out across the organization and assemble their own ad-hoc SWAT teams. As you might expect, tracking of system usage shows some groups adopting the new capability more aggressively than others, but overall, people have proved eager to tap into a system that gives them rapid access to colleagues in other divisions and countries. There is also solid evidence of input solicited from other divisions reenergizing the idea pools feeding into many R&D projects. Measurement of the success of the effort isn’t an exercise in just counting communications; the focus is on real problems being solved and new opportunities being identified.

Large-scale results from scholars like Fleming and Jones are valuable confirmation that, when teams are diverse, meaningful innovation is more likely to happen. AkzoNobel’s experience shows that a management team can put a system in place that makes assembling such teams the norm. It’s what we’ve suspected for a long time – but it’s great to have solid evidence.

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