Creativity is a lot like looking at the world through a kaleidoscope. You look at a set of elements, the same ones everyone else sees, but then reassemble those floating bits and pieces into an enticing new possibility.— Rosabeth Moss Kanter
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Jakob von Uexküll, was a pioneering biologist particularly interested in how living beings perceive their environments. He argued that organisms experience life in terms of species-specific, subjective reference frames he called Umwelt (The German word for environment). Each organism senses the environment in its own unique way, he said. The eyeless tick, for example, “climbs onto a grass stem to await the smell of butyric acid emanating from mammalian skin.” Other animals perceive ultraviolet light, while others live in a world of smells or, like the star-nosed mole, feel their way around underground. Some sit on the branches of an oak, and others live underneath its bark, while foxes dig a lair among its roots. Each perceives the same tree differently.
Von Uexküll highlighted how just one environment offers hundreds of diverse perspectives peculiar to each species.
I highlight this point to draw attention to how each of us perceives our own environment differently. The more diversity in our backgrounds, education, upbringing, interests, cultures, the more diverse our minds. Rather than a singular view of anything, we have a kaleidoscope of views.
In my workshops, I ask participants to think of “an egg”. There is no visual prompt, no hint, no priming, nothing. Please take a moment to think what the word egg brings into your mind. It is not a trick question.
After a few moments, I ask participants to share the egg they pictured. The replies are always wide ranging. The answers vary from poached eggs, scrambled eggs, fried eggs, Easter eggs, the Cosmic egg, the Instagram egg to a bird’s egg laying in a nest.
On one occasion, I was working with a team who had a dysfunctional member who felt the team was sub standard. I asked this person for their “egg” description before anyone else. Visibly irritated, he blurted, “An egg!”. It was obvious, wasn’t it?, his look suggested. I should know what type of egg he was talking about. When I probed further, once again he barked, “An egg!”. I suggested that I come back to him after I ask around the room.
As each person described their egg, I observed how our friend slowly realised that others did not perceive things as he did. That was the goal of the exercise: to demonstrate how we all think differently. With one innocuous piece of information, we hear a kaleidoscope of answers.
The answers are even more varied when the group is more diverse. Cultural background means more variety in how people consume eggs, age variance means a millennial may include a cultural meme such as the Instagram egg, while an avid reader may mention the cosmic egg of the universe.
With five concurrent generations in the workplace, each time we add a variable such as educational or work background to the mix, the answers become more creative.
(Image by Eric Linx https://elynx.artstation.com/)
Innovation and creativity aside, diversity is good for the bottom line, very good. A McKinsey study revealed:
Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.
Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians (exhibit).
Despite compelling research, diversity does not take hold for a very human reason. We are always more comfortable in homologous groups (Irish pubs have relied on that principle for decades, the first thing many Irish do when they go abroad is find a pub). There is comfort in being in the company of those who are “like us”. There is no fault here. If we have a brain, we have bias.
The human brain has evolved for life as a hunter gatherer on the ancient Savanah. When we emerged about 200,000 years ago, our bodies prioritised energy for survival, short-term thinking and reactivity. If we stumbled across someone at the river, it made sense to identify if they were like and the quicker the better. That legacy hardware remains with us and it will take (even more) time to evolve. However, awareness is a good place to start.
Early in an organisation it makes sense to have a group of people who see the world in the same way, tightly aligned and driven by the same values, motivations and vision. However, as the business evolves, so too must our opinions. We need people to perceive the socio-economic umweltdifferently. We need various generations to perceive things from their generations’ point of view, not that of someone higher up the hierarchy.
Even when we take that first step and invite diversity of thought into our organisations, the next step is to listen to it and that is a bigger challenge.
The last part I would like to mention today is the role of culture.
Even when an organisation invests in the neurodiversity of their people, none of that matters if the culture is toxic. If the organisation lacks psychological safety, for people to speak up and share a half-baked idea or highlight a potential threat, then diversity is just rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.
In our changing world, we need all our people to be a kaleidoscope of sensors for both opportunities and threats. The more diverse the sensors, the more successful the organisation and the more enjoyable the working experience.
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This week’s Innovation Show is EP 234: The Art of Ideas: Creative Thinking for Work and Life with William Duggan
Great ideas don’t just happen. Innovation springs from creative thinking — a method of the human mind that we can study and learn. In The Art of Ideas, William Duggan brings together business concepts with stories of creativity in art, politics, and history to provide a visual and accessible guide to the art and science of new and useful ideas. He details how to spark your own ideas and what to do while waiting for inspiration to strike.
He shows that regardless of the field, innovations happen in the same way: examples from history, presence of mind, creative combination, and resolution to action.
The Art of Ideas features case studies and exercises that explain how to break down problems, search for precedents, and creatively combine past models to form new ideas.
It showcases how Picasso developed his painting style, how Gandhi became the man we know today, and how Netflix came to disrupt the movie-rental business.
Have a listen: