Where to begin
The purpose of innovation is understanding the needs of customers: discussing who they are, what are their needs, and finally, how to come up with an offer. Driving diversity simply pushes the logic of innovation a little further than has been done before.
The starting point to cementing diversity in product innovation is to have those open discussions with the right team of people. A team needs to reflect both a diversity in competencies and perspectives. The diversity within the team at the beginning of the project will affect the opportunities that are chosen to be pursued or not. If a team is all male, for example, it is difficult to bring gender into the discussion. Research shows very clearly that, whether it’s the management or innovation team, or the board, diverse teams perform better along many different dimensions. Inevitably, they are more complicated to manage, and therefore less efficient. It takes longer to debate issues, and to reach convergence on any single item, which can be frustrating. But with the right culture and processes in place, they are more effective and can deal with more complex problems by devising richer solutions.
Good management of teams comes down to good leadership. Google conducted research into the effectiveness of teams and found that psychological safety (confidence in participating in discussions without fear of being judged or ignored), is the number one criterion for success in teams that want to innovate. With good leadership, strategies will be in place to ensure that everybody has a voice. It may be as simple as asking all members to write their perspective on a given topic and sharing those with other members prior to the discussion.
Leaders should also always ensure that it is a debate of ideas, not people, and any disagreement is at the level of the perspective, or the idea. Finally, they should be able to gauge and make clear to everyone the length of time for debating – too short and it may curtail the richness of the debate, too long and people are frustrated by the lack of outcome.
It’s important that a team is allowed to evolve. It may become clear through the innovation process that some fundamental perspective is lacking, and in that case it should be brought on board. Fluidity is an important part of agility, and the structure of the team should evolve based on what is learnt, and the directions taken. It should not be limited by the initial formation that was in mind at the beginning of the project.
Help from elsewhere
While diversity within the team is fundamental, it’s also important to engage different stakeholders outside in the ecosystem. Beyond asking, “who do we have on the team?” companies should ask, “who do we talk to?” and, “do we have a view of the world that reflects the diverse needs of the people we could serve?”. Talking to different people, and detecting interesting needs and practices enables innovators to connect insights that come from very diverse sets of knowledge bases. That, in turn, gives rise to an intuition as to future direction.
Having a product diversity office (as is the case at Lenovo) may be a sensible step for companies. With corporate social responsibility initially, and latterly ESG, we have seen that there is a first stage of awareness which requires a dedicated person, or office, to make sure that the programme receives proper attention in the organisation. It’s a logical first step, as the fact that the office exists would suggest that there is still a lot of progress to be made. Once diversity is integrated into the fabric and culture of the organisation, from conception of product to sales, the need for the office becomes redundant.