Are multicultural teams more innovative?

In theory, a multicultural team should have many more creative ideas than a team made up those of all one culture. But in reality, multicultural teams are often stuck in even deeper ruts of tradition than mono-cultural teams, because so much of their energy is devoted to keeping the peace and learning how to communicate. Rather than coming with a fresh new strategy, the team just continues to do what they have always done because the “way we have always done it” is the least risky and requires the least amount of explanation.

Driven by Difference: How Great Companies Fuel Innovation Through Diversity by [Livermore, David]

In his book, Driven by Difference: How Great Companies Fuel Innovation Through Diversity, David Livermore of the Cultural Intelligence Center helps us understand what team leaders and team members on diverse teams need to do to create a climate and a process for true innovation. 

As Livermore says, multicultural teams are not automatically more innovative.

Diversity alone doen’t lead to innovation, but cultural intelligence and diversity together are a multiplying force. Diversity and low CQ leads to higher levels of frustration and reduced productivity. But diversity and high CQ leads to far brighter outcomes than homogeneous teams can ever experience. (p. 231)

The first part of the book explains how to create a climate for innovation on a team or in an organization. One must learn to take the perspective of other people, “to step outside our own experience and imagine the emotions, perceptions, and motivations of another.” This is obviously easier to do if the team already includes people from different cultures because one can more easily imagine how people from one’s home culture would respond to a particular idea. Livermore also talks about paying attention to innovation, getting rid of distractions (see blog post on Deep Work), focusing for extended periods of time on a particular problem, and choosing physical spaces that encourage innovative thought.

I thought the chapter on the power of trust was particularly helpful. Multicultural teams cannot be innovative unless people trust one another enough to share new, crazy ideas and then try them out. Livermore points out that likeability, competency, intentions, reliability, and reputation are all factors that are considered when one decides whether someone else is trustworthy or not. But each culture puts these 5 factors in a different order in terms of priority.

The second half of the book explains a 5-step process for culturally intelligent innovation.

  1. Define: Align Diverse Expectations and Goals
  2. Dream: Generate Diverse Ideas
  3. Decide: Select and Sell your Idea
  4. Design: Create and Test for Diverse Users
  5. Deliver: Implement Global Solutions

In the section on “dreaming”, I could really identify with the difficulty that people with differing native languages have in fully participating in “brainstorming” sessions. I know that I contribute far more creative ideas to a discussion if the discussion occurs in English rather than in Russian. But my individualistic, low-power distance culture values “speaking up” and contributing ideas that might be different or even at odds with what my leaders think. How much more reluctant I would be to share my ideas if I came from a collective, high-power distance culture!

To give everyone a chance to participate, Livermore encourages multicultural teams to redefine what it means to “speak up.” It does not necessarily require one to verbally promote one’s ideas in a free-for-all discussion. One can contribute ideas in writing, particularly if one has advance warning. It helps to make it clear that you expect everyone to contribute by a certain day or time. Learn how to build on the ideas of others by using the words, “Yes, and …”, rather than arguing against the ideas of someone else.

In each of these 5 steps, Livermore identifies the challenges for diverse teams and how a “fusion approach” can utilize the diversity to come up with more innovative and better ideas and then implement them with greater success for a wider range of users and customers.

“Driven by Difference” helped me both understand what creates a climate for greater innovation as well as how to help multicultural teams achieve that potential of innovation. If you have a desire to see your multicultural team really tap into the wealth of its diversity, this book will give you some helpful guidance to make that happen.

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