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Do You Need Proof That Diversity Is An Asset?

Updated: Jan 8

Listen very carefully, because maybe only one person on your team is right

Creative people thrive in rich, diverse communities where lots of parts and pieces are available to choose from. Whether it is a fifteenth-century Florence artist's studio, an eighteenth-century London coffee house, or a twenty-first-century global social networking site, ideas bloom from cross-pollinating experiences and relationships of diverse people.

This understanding is as old as The Republic written in 360 BCE, where Socrates observed:

“The true creator is necessity, who is the mother of our invention… We are not all alike; there are diversities of natures among us which are adapted to different occupations.”

Many moons ago I attended a seminar on soft skills with a group of young Peat Marwick managers, affectionately known as “charm school.” It seems rather fruitless to try to make accountants charming, but nonetheless, against all odds, Peat Marwick took a shot.

We split into about a dozen teams to play a survival game, where each team’s plane had crashed north of the Arctic Circle. The task was to rank twenty items on the plane in order of importance. We had about an hour to come up with a solution.

Our team spent most of our time analyzing our situation and hashing out what was essential to survive. Would we stay with the plane or leave? Was the wind a greater threat than hunger? There were lots of different ideas at the beginning, but over time we developed a strong consensus about what we needed to do together to make it out alive. We were forty-five minutes into the hour exercise before we seriously considered what items were in the bag.

Because of our consensus, ranking the items was pretty easy, except for a container of water purification tablets. I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina. Mr. Janzen, my scoutmaster, drilled into my head that you don’t drink outside water unless you filter it or purify it. In the world I grew up in, that was so beyond question that it was “common sense.” All but one member of the team were from urban areas too, so the almost unanimous opinion of the group based on all our prior experiences was that thirst would become a problem very quickly so the purification tablets were among the most essential items we had.

One member of the team, a woman from rural northern Maine, observed that “the snow is clean north of the Arctic Circle.” The purification tablets were not needed. As soon as she said that, the rest of us paused — hmmm…

She knew a lot more about snow than I did. Where I grew up we sprayed snow from a can on the windows at Christmas. Now she seemed to make common sense.

The woman from Maine was a minority of one on our team. She had a distinctive, valuable insight that she shared only once and very softly. Fortunately, the person in the group who assumed the mantle of leadership was listening for just such an insight and heard her.

As it turned out, the Army Rangers, who developed the solution key for the exercise, agreed with her and ranked the tablets as the least essential item the group had. We ranked all twenty items in the same order as the Army Rangers, except for number eleven and twelve which were flipped. Our instructor said it was the best score he had ever seen.

Most of the other teams tried to solve the problem a different way. They first had each team member individually rank the items in the plane. Only then did they begin to talk among themselves about what the solution should be. By that time, individuals had staked out their turf and spent the rest of the exercise advocating for their solution. They ended up focusing on their differences, rather than focusing on what they had in common. These teams missed the inherent strength of the diversity in their groups. Our team focused from the beginning on our common problem of what was essential to survive. We listened carefully to each person in the group, even when she was a minority of one. Our team got to a better solution to our pain because we managed diversity as an asset.

Any hope that makes me charming?

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