Groupthink is the enemy of innovation – instead, aspire for diversity

Published Jan. 4, 2022, 6:56 a.m. by Sini-Maria Melanen

Research shows that diverse teams generate better ideas if they can work effectively and celebrate their differences.

Businesses sometimes fail to see the real benefits of having diverse teams. However, diversity is not only good for equality, but essential for the creative process. How exactly does diversity benefit business and what makes a diverse team thrive?

Let’s start with the definition of the concept. Informational diversity refers to the different opinions, ideas, and perspectives that people bring to the table. An easy way to see how crucial diversity is for innovation is to look at it through the work done by interdisciplinary teams. For instance, it takes experts from various backgrounds, from design to quality control, to design and build a car. But social diversity – diversity of thought brought by people with various backgrounds and experiences – is important and beneficial for business too. Essentially, diversity means being intentional about who you invite into the room because you want heterogenous ideas and perspectives to drive your conversations.

Better performance and more profit

They say great minds think alike, but ‘groupthink’ is the enemy of innovation. This refers to the phenomenon of reaching consensus without much critical thought – if you only have like-minded people in your team, you’re going to end up with a narrow range of ideas. And this is not always a good thing if you want to generate unique and creative concepts. For groups that value innovation, diverse teams drive better business outcomes in several aspects. Companies with more gender or race diversity have been shown to perform better in terms of revenues, profitability and customer acquisition. Research also shows that while working with like-minded people feels easier, the outcomes are not better compared to diverse companies and teams.

The fluency heuristic is a term that refers to a very common bias that makes us prefer information that is easier for us to process. This is why homogenous teams feel more effective. While dealing with friction and different opinions may seem more troublesome, this is precisely why diverse teams can turn pains into cognitive gains. A 2009 study found that even the presence of an out-group member can boost team performance by providing the necessary drive to question assumptions and established ways of thinking. When we hear dissent from people who are not like us, it provokes more thought compared to if the same idea came from someone similar. There’s also evidence that when we disagree with someone who is of a different gender, race, or political party, we work harder to prove our point.

How to benefit from diversity?

Divergent thinking is clearly better for creativity and business performance. But many firms still haven’t reached their full creative potential because they seem to struggle either with social or informational diversity. A simple reason could be that as humans, we are risk-averse and generally, we prefer to avoid the challenges and potential for friction involved in working with diverse teams.

Having a diverse team isn’t a magical, instant solution either, since these teams also need to find ways to work productively. So how can we effectively enhance creativity through diversity? People tend to gloss over differences in a group setting to preserve harmony. However, differences should be leveraged rather than hidden to reap the benefits of varied perspectives. While diverse teams may be more prone to conflict this usually stems from different values colliding rather than when different ideas are discussed. For effective teamwork, teams need to do the work required to build a shared value system, and each team member should also feel included and appreciated in their uniqueness.

Diversity standards and programmes should therefore aspire to more than window-dressing for the sake of meeting inclusivity targets. Leaders should recognise the real value of diversity. If your team consists only of members from the same demographic, race or cultural background, you’re going to miss out on the creative energy that true diversity offers. The effort involved in harnessing the power of diverse teams may seem daunting, but the rewards are well worth the effort.