You can never have too much diversity for innovation

I remember turning up to facilitate a client’s ideation session a few years ago and being surprised to see a few young people in school uniform helping themselves to the breakfast provided for participants.  My initial conclusion was that perhaps there had been a problem with the local school or that transport had fallen through, and a couple of parents had brought them to the venue until other arrangements could be made.  I was put straight, however, when the client group were invited to file into the room set up for our session and the young people in question – senior school pupils it appeared – joined the throng.  They certainly stood out amongst the otherwise pretty homogenous group of middle-aged male engineers.

It turns out that the client had interpreted my earlier suggestion to beef up the diversity in the room by inviting a few students to take part in the session.  I was thinking that a few undergrads taking relevant subjects at the local university might have brought some fresh perspectives.  It turns out my client had interpreted “students” to mean high school pupils – my bad for not being clear in my request!  I had to say I wasn’t at all sure that the young people would be able to make much of a contribution to the creative effort, and in fact I was a little worried they would end up slowing down the process due to their complete lack of knowledge, not just in relation to the client’s technologies but also of the world of work and commerce more generally.  How wrong I was!

As it happened, the pupils in question were all award winners in local and national schools innovation competitions and they made an incredible contribution to the day. Precisely because of their lack of knowledge – or preconceived ideas – they were able to effectively challenge the thinking in the room and brought very different perspectives to the ideation process.  The session was a great success and in no small way due to the inclusion of the pupil group.

What was interesting for me was that, although I was already an advocate of the benefit of diversity for the creative process, it seemed that perhaps I had self-imposed limits on the subject.  I certainly learned a lesson that day.  There’s no doubt in my mind that all ideation groups would benefit from more diversity and more perspectives.  This can come through bringing different people into the process but also through using tools and techniques that force a change in perspective.  However, it’s done, finding several different ways to look at our issue will make it much more likely that we’ll find truly innovative solutions.