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A Diverse Workforce is Critical to Innovation A Diverse Workforce is Critical to Innovation

Companies must innovate to grow. But where do the new ideas come from?

Innovation is often a painstaking series of small improvements.  But in many cases, breakthrough ideas come suddenly from the ‘lunatic fringe’, the oddballs, the disgruntled or the passionate loners.  The center is often burdened with conventional wisdom, best practices, highly paid consultants or perhaps a generation of success pursuing ‘the way we do things’.  But changing markets, changing tastes and disruptive technologies can destroy such dogma.  Who would have imagined an entire new way of thinking could come to the taxi industry (Uber)?  Innovative leaders must find a way to hear those ideas, develop them and bring them to the mainstream.

[There is] a surplus of similar companies, employing similar people, with similar educational backgrounds, coming up with similar ideas, producing similar things, with similar prices and similar quality.
- Kjell Nordström and Jonas Ridderstråle, Funky Business

Management must be able to listen to and learn from unusual and fresh sources.  Where are the people ready to challenge conventional wisdom?  Perhaps they don’t know any better. Perhaps they see a new way to use technology.  Perhaps they are angry about poor service.  According to Wayne Burkan, a company’s savior may be a disgruntled customer, off-the-scope competitor, rogue employee or fringe supplier.  Addressing and listening to these constituents may be the key to a breakthrough new product or service.

Hiring a diverse workforce is critical to innovation.  Diverse teams are better problem solvers than experts when the solution is unknown.  Experts are likely to buy into a conventional approach.  A cognitively diverse team is more likely to find an asymmetrical, off the page solution.  Hire oddballs.  Hire people without college educations.  If you are an engineering driven firm, hire some finance or history majors.  If you don’t have anyone with a tattoo or purple hair, you are probably not diverse enough.  

Where do good new ideas come from?  That’s simple!  From differences.  Creativity comes from unlikely juxtapositions.  The best way to maximize differences is to mix ages, cultures and disciplines.
- Nicholas Negroponte, MIT Media Lab

Wikipedia: “Fringe theories in science depart significantly from mainstream science and have little or no scientific support.”  However, there are a multitude of examples of scientists, often considered misfits or heretics, disproving accepted science while bearing the scorn of their peers for decades.  Are eggs, coffee, salt, red wine, aspirin, fluoridated water or cholesterol good or bad for you?  The accepted wisdom has flipped more than once in the last 50 years on all of these. 

According to Tom Peters, one Vice Chairman of a pharmaceutical company asked an R&D leader if he had enough “weird people” in the labs.  New ideas, even in science, often come from “weird people”. So is it true with business.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world;  the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
- George Bernard Shaw

Malcom Gladwell tells the story of the Paris Salon in the 1860’s where all artists wanted to be shown and the awards that were given could make a career.  One group of artists could not get shown.  Their art was unconventional, even outlandish, by the standards of the Paris Salon and its audience.  In 1863, Cezanne, Manet, Pissarro and others organized their own show with paintings the Paris Salon had rejected.  Called the Salon des Refusé, (exhibition of the rejected) the artists who were exhibited became some of the most celebrated of all time, later known as the Impressionists.  Contemporary culture and the juried art world in the 1860’s had no room for this new way of seeing the world.   

How many companies today are rewarding and promoting executives who are most able to conform to the current corporate culture, while Cezanne, Manet, Pissarro, Leonardo, Michelangelo or Einstein languish frustrated in their midst, treated as misfits?

Most organizations welcome fresh ideas and recognize the innovator’s dilemma.  They know that ideas often come from the fringes and need a facilitator to move into the mainstream.
- US Navy 2012 Innovators Guide

It can take just one mentor and a gifted-geek-in-a-garage to bring a new product or service to fruition.  Where would we be if Nolan Bushnell had not hired an unkempt and unruly Steve Jobs and allowed him to work at night so he wouldn’t bother other employees?

An innovative leader does not need to originate the ideas.  An innovative leader needs to be the one who listens well and finds the iconoclasts with new, disruptive ideas and facilitates moving those ideas into the mainstream.  An innovative leader figures out how to remove barriers and shields new ideas from the skeptics.  An innovative leader executes well on new ideas regardless of where they originate.

If you want to grow your company, spend more time with the lunatic fringe.    


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Ted Pryor
Ted Pryor
Ted Pryor is a Managing Director with Greenwich Harbor Partners and focuses on senior level executive recruiting in Media, Technology and Business Services including general management, sales, marketing and customer service. He has over ten years of experience as a senior executive at GE Capital and over 20 years of experience in corporate finance. Prior to executive recruiting, he served as CFO and CEO of a venture backed start-up company.

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