By Delphine Ducaruge
Evolutionary biologist William Muir conducted an experiment on the productivity of chickens in the 1990s. Unlike our workplaces at times, it’s easy to tell if chickens are productive – they lay lots of eggs.
Margaret Heffernan does a great TED talk about it and I recommend that you check it out. Not to ruin the ending, but Muir discovered that breeding out the less productive chickens to create super-chickens was a disaster. They pecked each other to death.
From that, Muir devised that hyper competitive environments don’t necessary improve productivity. What I learned from it is that we need all types of chickens in the henhouse.
Diversity makes better businesses
Diversity has become a cliché word that we throw around sometimes to show others that we’re forward-thinking, 21st Century businesses. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t genuine intent to be diverse, just that we’ve missed the point. It’s not about ticking a box or even about doing what’s right. It’s about doing business differently because it makes you a better business.
Someone asked me once if it takes courage for a manager to build a diverse team. For me, it just makes sense. Why wouldn’t you? It’s like saying, “I won’t eat healthy. I’ll just eat junk food every day of my life.” It doesn’t take courage to eat healthy, but it makes sense for better long-term health outcomes. It’s the same with diversity.
Think about the chickens: the henhouse was more productive with chickens of different abilities. Differences give us an edge when we create a safe environment for them to thrive.
If it were easy, everyone would do it
Take the same principle and mix people of different education, culture, gender, age, ethnicity and religious backgrounds and you’ve got potential for the diversity that counts: diversity of thought. But it isn’t going to happen organically. Getting the best out of your diverse team takes effort.
Researchers have demonstrated that diversity on boards has better outcomes for businesses. So, you would think that it’s something we would all do. The reality is that I’ve been on all-male teams and not only was I the only female, but also the only one with an accent. I don’t get fazed easily, so I get in there, notice my difference and get on with it. But life was probably easier for them before someone different like me came along and disturbed their chain of thought and pushed back and thought differently.
Implementing diversity – genuinely implementing it by going beyond diversity to inclusion – is easier said than done. For one example, there are cultural barriers we must push through when a team member comes from a highly hierarchical or less open society and they’re worried that giving their opinion will have consequences. We need to keep challenging them to be more “rebellious.” We must help them learn to trust us and tell us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear. We have to unite around a common purpose and create strong team community.
There are challenges, but the good news is that lots of businesses are on the journey of taking diversity beyond lip service and that itself is good.
The United Nations of Orbica
Orbica has been diverse from the start and we’ve continued to grow that way. Right now, we have 10 nationalities and speak 23 languages between us. And there are only 30 of us!
We’re from different educational backgrounds and careers, with different socio-economic and personal backgrounds. We’ve got a former journalist, photographer, high school teacher; those who have worked in bars or on boats, the military or in Antarctica; those with a background in IT, GIS, geology and data science. Wow!
I can’t say that it’s something we’ve planned: it’s just happened as we’ve hired the best fit for the team. But it is something we celebrate. We learn about each other’s culture, language and religion. We have Muslims working with Christians, working with Hindus, working with Jews, working with atheists and agnostics.
We’ve got personalities right across the introvert/extrovert spectrum.
We share our skills and knowledge with each other and we encourage – even expect – each member of our team to speak up and tell us what they think. That’s where we get the real gold. When we put together a project team from India, France and China, you’re definitely going to get an interesting output. It’s like “wow – hello diversity at work!” because they come up with much better ideas as a team than they ever would alone, or with others who think just like them.
Our not-so-secret sauce
My least favourite saying is “it’s always been done that way.”
At Orbica, our mentality is that we don’t do something a certain way just because it’s how it’s always been done. Having people from different backgrounds – even different technical backgrounds – helps us with this. Because we don’t come from the same stream of thought, what’s normal for one is not normal for another. There’s not much convention or resignation to the familiar. This means that our customers get a better, more creative output. Diversity of thought means that we can help differently, and that’s become our not-so-secret sauce.
In chicken terms, that means our henhouse can produce not just more, but better-quality eggs. And we have much happier chickens for it.