Mark Hassemer

Dear Friends of ACT:

Every October, NDEAM celebrates individuals with disabilities and their contributions to the workforce. We’ll be doing the same right here in Central Missouri.

“Inclusion Drives Innovation” is the National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) theme this year.

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta said, “Smart employers know that including different perspectives in problem-solving situations leads to better solutions. Hiring employees with diverse abilities strengthens their business, increases competition, and drives innovation.”

It seems like a bold claim. Including people with different abilities or who may seem different gives businesses an advantage. How do they know that? Here’s what I found when I investigated this question:

A December 2013 study in Harvard Business Review looked at two types of diversity, inherent and acquired. Inherent diversity is exhibited by traits such as gender and ethnicity that you’re born with. Acquired diversity is gained from experience, like working in another country.

The study showed that companies whose leaders exhibit at least three inherent and three acquired diversity traits out-innovate and out-perform those that don’t. The research also showed that nearly 80% of the companies that responded didn’t have this type of leadership.

Lacking diversity actually costs companies crucial market opportunities. Having diverse contributors in the workplace allows businesses to understand and address unmet needs in under-leveraged markets.

Donald Fan, Senior Director in the Office of Diversity at Walmart, has observed that diverse teams out-perform those comprised of the best qualified or highly credentialed employees. Diversity of perspectives and problem-solving approaches trumps individual ability.

Diverse teams demonstrate these characteristics:

  • Freedom of Thought – they embrace mavericks who challenge the status quo and solve problems in new ways.
  • Cross-Pollination – they advocate for collaboration, which enhances the flow of skills and information horizontally across the organization or teams.
  • Ingenuity – their willingness to swim upstream, against the dominant pattern of an organization or team, unleashes pleasing surprises and unexpected outcomes.
  • Competency – team members become competent in the cultural intelligence (wisdom, information, values, perspectives, solutions) of cultures other than their own and exploit that competence in the workplace.
  • New Outcomes – they create environments in which new ideas/great ideas can emerge and thrive.

Mary Frances-Winters, President and Founder of the Winters Group, Inc., distinguishes diversity from inclusion. She says diversity alone doesn’t foster innovation. It’s inclusion (just like the NDEAM slogan says) that disrupts and drives breakthroughs.

She says organizations will tell you innovation is the key to their success. In practice, they lean toward valuing conformity and standardization.

Hiring is a good example. People are commonly hired based on “good fit”. “If they’re like us, they won’t rock the boat.”

Innovative companies are hiring people who are not “like us”. They don’t look like us nor do they see things from the same worldview.

As in an orchestra, she says, the conductor does not want the violin acting like or sounding like a clarinet. Each instrument has a unique sound and contribution to make.

Innovation potential is lost in organizations when they subconsciously force people to act in ways that do not take their unique capabilities into account. Creating a “melting pot” team for the optics or to achieve a diversity metric falls short of what can be gained by actually using those unusual or atypical attributes in the workplace. It’s like hiring an oboe player, giving her music, seating her on the stage with the rest of orchestra, but not letting her play because she sounds different from the cello.

Innovation blossoms when culturally competent leaders (like an orchestra conductor) know how to manage and leverage the unique talents each person (instrument) brings. The result is far superior to what would otherwise be attained.

I think Steve Jobs was right when he said, “The source of wealth and capital in this new era is not material things…. It is the human mind, the human spirit, the human imagination and our faith in the future.”

As soon as I read the theme “Inclusion Drives Innovation” I knew it rang true for me. I believe it. Now I have evidence to support it. Join me this month, and whenever the opportunity arises, as we help others know and think about the facts of workplace inclusion. Businesses that include excel.

Until next month,