If you need innovation (and I think you probably do), you need diversity.

For more and more organizations in more and more industries, creativity and innovation are rapidly becoming the best new opportunity for establishing competitive advantage. This is no big secret as there is a great deal of writing, talking, buzz-wording, best-practicing and shouting about innovation today. Innovation is also coming to be viewed as increasingly important to education, non-profit and government entities working to address increasingly complex and systemic issues. Beyond the organizational context, innovation is also starting to be seen as a key driver for growth and vitality for communities and even regions.

Innovation is important. That does not seem to be in question.

Where there seems to be a bit more confusion is in the area of what you need to make innovation happen. In addition to a commitment to innovation and an infrastructure to support it, you have to understand what its ingredients are.

On of my favorite books on the topic is The Medici Effect by Frans Johansson. Johansson does a great job of providing numerous examples of innovation happening at intersections of different cultures, different professions, and different organizations.

Among other things, what Johansson does with this book is illuminates the importance of diversity (or difference) in innovation. He reminds us that difference is the key source of value in generating new ideas, new approaches. He also reminds us that this is not a new understanding and has been spoken to be a number of people, among them Thomas Kuhn in his seminal book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where he points out that

“almost always the men who achieve fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change.”

Difference is valuable and those that bring difference are more likely to contribute to innovation.

G. Michael Maddock and Raphael Louis Vitton of Maddock Douglas talk about diversity (difference) as a key to sustainable competitive advantage in this Business Week article and offer up some of the most successful and innovative companies as proof:

“Diversity=Sustainable Competitive Advantage. (This, of course, is the Holy Grail.)
Don't take our word for it. Some of the best, and most innovative, companies—Booz Allen Hamilton, Deutsche Bank (DB), DuPont (DD), Pfizer (PFE), and Raytheon (RTN)—believe diversity to be one of the invaluable ingredients that leads to sustainable competitive advantage.“

The interesting thing about many of the innovative efforts these companies are benefiting from are never spoken of as “diversity initiatives”, but they are reliant upon diversity and one of the most explicit manifestations of its value.

This recent article in the New York Times
also highlights the importance of diverse groups of people in innovation and problem solving:

“The best innovations occur when you have networks of people with diverse backgrounds gathering around a problem,” says Robert Fishkin, president and chief executive of Reframeit Inc., a Web 2.0 company that creates virtual space in a Web browser where users can share comments and highlights on any site. “We need to get better at collaborating in noncompetitive ways across company and organizational lines.”

It’s a perspective shared broadly in corporate America. Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation Studios and Disney Animation Studios, describes what he calls “collective creativity” in a cover article in the September issue of Harvard Business Review. “Creativity involves a large number of people from different disciplines working together to solve a great many problems,” he writes. “Creativity must be present at every level of every artistic and technical part of the organization.”

So. You may very well be part of an organization that is currently talking a great game about creativity...innovation...but, do they really get it? Are you really bringing more diversity together around issues and valuing different perspectives? A lot of organizations are still talking about "tolerating difference" ...and the time has come for us to do much more than that, we have to relentlessly pursue difference and put it to work. Easier said than done for most of us, but if we want better solutions (or solutions at all) this is part of what will get us there.

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