Thoughts on how diversity of thought improves creativity

We’ve all heard the conventional wisdom about the relationship between diversity and creativity.

A diverse team, i.e. one where team members have different perspectives, backgrounds and strengths, are better able to bring different ideas to the table. This may be because they each see the same problem in different ways, or they see different problems, and can think of different solutions. This is true for all sorts of situations, from designing a new product / service to creating content to delivering a project.

If one team member proposes an idea based on their own perspective, and then a different team member challenges / questions / builds on that idea based on their own perspective, and then a third team member challenges / questions / builds on that idea based on their own perspective… By the end of this process of creative abrasion, the idea should naturally be much better than if all team members had only been able to think in the same way as each other.

As Frans Johansson explains in his TED talk about his book The Medici Effect, all “new” ideas are really combinations of existing ideas, but not all idea combinations are created equal. Frans believes that some of the most powerful innovations happen at the “Intersection,” where ideas from diverse industries, cultures and disciplines collide. This has been seen at various points in history when artists, philosophers and other intellectuals from diverse fields have been brought together, such as by the Medici family in 15th century Florence which led to the Italian renaissance. Based on this logic, if a team can combine ideas that are far apart and unpredictable, it’s much more likely to come up with innovative and impactful ideas.

What does the science tell us about diversity and creativity in the workplace?

More diverse teams and organisations are more creative

This 2016 study of 12,422 video games released worldwide from 1979 – 2009 found that teams with cognitive diversity, in addition to some team members having prior experience of working together, were most likely to create video games that were inventive and critically acclaimed.

This 2017 study of 1,700 companies in eight countries (Austria, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Switzerland, and the US) across a variety of industries and company sizes found that companies with above-average leadership diversity had 45% innovation revenue on average (i.e. revenue from products and services launched in the past three years), compared to 26% average innovation revenue for companies with below-average leadership diversity. This is a good reminder that the culture and values of an organisation, including around diversity, inclusion and support for innovation, are set by the tone from the top.

We should remember that diversity isn’t skin deep, and focus on deep-level diversity

This 2019 meta-analysis of 44 studies found that deep‐level diversity (unobservable attributes including personalities, values and attitudes) in culturally diverse teams is positively related to team creativity / innovation, whereas surface‐level diversity (e.g. nationality and racio‐ethnicity) in culturally diverse teams is not related to team creativity / innovation.

This 2015 study of 385 Norwegian companies found that the higher the level of deep-level board diversity (board members’ backgrounds and personalities), the higher the degree of creativity and cognitive conflict during the decision-making process. 

Greater diversity is not an easy and quick solution for increasing team creativity – it’s crucial to manage teams well and provide a supportive environment for innovation

This 2018 meta-analysis of 108 studies found that cultural diversity increases creativity and satisfaction within teams, however the performance of culturally diverse teams is also hindered by task conflict and decreased social integration. Therefore, while diverse teams are good at coming up with lots of ideas, it can be more difficult for diverse teams to make decisions and implement the ideas. This is not a reason to not have diverse teams, but is a reminder about the importance of good management.

This 2009 meta-analysis of 104 studies spanning 30 years found that support for innovation, vision, task orientation and external communication are much more important for team creativity and innovation than input variables like team composition and structure. As organisational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic puts it, “there are probably much better reasons for creating a diverse team and organization than boosting creativity. And if your actual goal is to enhance creativity, there are simpler, more effective solutions than boosting diversity”.

What about diversity of thought on an individual level?

In the same way that diverse teams are able to bring together different points of view and ways of thinking in order to come up with more and better ideas, individuals can improve their own creativity by exposing themselves to diversity.

Multicultural experiences enhance creativity – if people can integrate foreign cultures with their own

This 2009 collection of five studies found that individuals who had spent time living abroad (and therefore adapting to a foreign culture) were more creative, whereas there was no relationship between simply travelling abroad and creativity. This supports well-known anecdotal evidence of this within the arts – many famous painters (e.g. Gauguin and Picasso) and composers (e.g. Handel, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg) created many of their most admired works while living in foreign countries.

A follow-up study in 2012 found that this result was due to the ability of individuals to integrate the host culture with their home culture – these individuals, who identified with both cultures (i.e. they became bicultural) showed enhanced creativity compared with individuals who identified with only a single culture. This is because biculturals have greater levels of integrative complexity, which is the ability to consider and combine multiple perspectives.

This isn’t just the case for world travellers – if people can integrate their own different identities (cultural and beyond), they can better tap into and combine the knowledge from these different identities and therefore are more creative

This 2007 collection of three studies found a positive relationship between people with high identity integration (ability to perceive their multiple identities as compatible rather than conflicting) and creativity in three groups of individuals with multiple social identities. While one group was Asian American biculturals, the same results were also found for female engineers and faculty members with two disciplinary affiliations.

This 2013 study looked into identity integration for mixed-race individuals, and found that positive bicultural experiences at home may help individuals to integrate their biracial identities and therefore enhance creativity.

A new personalisable children’s book, A Child of Two Worlds, has been designed with this in mind – to help dual-heritage children to explore the identities of their two nationalities and understand that these two worlds come together within their own identity and family.

Some organisations intentionally give creative roles to people who are able to personally integrate their different cultural identities in this way

According to top management at L’Oréal, the main reason for the company’s success in emerging markets has been their strategy to use professionals with multicultural backgrounds in new-product development i.e. the company’s most critical source of competitive advantage. These multicultural individuals are naturally able to understand the norms and behaviors of multiple cultures, draw analogies among cultural groups, and have developed a flexible perspective – all of which can enable powerful innovation. As one director put it: “Their background is a kind of master class in holding more than one idea at the same time. They think as if they were French, American, or Chinese, and all of these together at once.”

So what does this teach us?

Firstly, we all naturally have different parts of our identity. If we can find a way of integrating them and forming a cohesive, authentic version of ourselves that is an amalgamation of the different parts of ourselves – and we are in society, workplace and home environments that allow us to be our fullest selves – we will naturally be more creative due to our unique perspective and ability to combine ideas.

Secondly, we can improve this individual diversity of thought by exposing ourselves to lots of different ideas and viewpoints. This broadens the mind by increasing the knowledge / idea pools we can draw from, and further develops our ability to combine ideas.

Thirdly, teams should be diverse to allow the team to benefit from the diversity of thought brought by each team member. This has the additional benefit of exposing each team member to the multiple perspectives and worldviews of the rest of the team, thus also increasing their own individual creativity. In order to access these creativity benefits, organisations must remember the importance of deep-level diversity rather than surface-level diversity, and not neglect the importance of good management and a supportive environment for innovation.

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