Diversity means different things to different people, and the word often comes with very strong opinions, judgments and historical viewpoints attached to its use. Imagine cutting those opinions out of the learning equation and using diversity to create objective-driven training where leaders eschew ideas and still get the results they want. No ideas? It sounds strange, but there may be a nugget of information here worth exploring.
“Diversity, to me, is really about individuality,” said Vincent M. Cramer, founder of Winchester Consulting Group and author of “Cramer’s Cube.” An electrical engineer by trade, Cramer has spent a good portion of his life in sales in the semiconductor industry. He rose through the management ranks until he found himself leading others and was taxed with the challenging job of pulling the best from his team. “Initially, it was very easy because everyone was pretty much like me. We were all white, male, middle-class geeks, and the management challenges were straightforward. Over time, the organizations changed. Organizations became more multicultural, and the management challenges got more complex.”
Many learning professionals take a myriad of approaches to handle these challenges. One way to help diverse teams function is to focus on overcoming language barriers. But sometimes, it’s cultural issues that stand in the way of a smooth-running team. “I needed the people on my team to really contribute to what we were doing. I needed to have a working environment for my team that was very contributory, and I encountered challenges because I wasn’t really getting the most out of all of the people on the team. As the organization became mixed gender, multicultural, I thought maybe it was a language issue. English was the second language. But over time I found out it was more a cultural reluctance to put themselves out, and in a benign way, challenge what someone else on the team was putting forward.”
Some of Cramer’s diverse team members had a high regard for people of a certain age, title or position, and he had a difficult time breaking down their barriers and predispositions to get them to offer criticism. He had to come up with a different, collaborative working environment that would get people to contribute. To create this team or objective-driven workgroup environment, Cramer focused learning on insights, not ideas.
“We don’t need to change each other, we just need to extract the contributions each person can uniquely provide to the workgroup, such that people of age have contributions they can make, recent grads from college end up making their unique contributions, and people that have been in the industry for a long time and have a great deal of work experience have a great deal that they could provide,” Cramer said. “I want to utilize diversity and provide its asset value as opposed to focusing on the inclusion aspect of diversity. I’m more focused on, now that the inclusion is there, how do we move that dynamic to facilitate individual and collective contributions on the operational side?”
You do that by creating a symbiotic work dynamic. There are many ways to get people to want to understand and appreciate one another through psychometrics or sensitivity training, but this can take on a lot of different manifestations, said Cramer. Instead, one can channel contributions by focusing on communications and collaboration in the workgroup. “The group has to achieve something,” Cramer said. “Focus on the objectives. It’s about individuals collectively, collaboratively working on achieving an objective to the best of their ability.”
Leaders can extract full-bodied, insightful contributions and use diversity to ensure that objective-driven work groups are as productive as possible by employing a methodology that creates the workgroup environment and doesn’t judge the contributions that people make. “Just enable them to make the contributions,” Cramer said. “Most corporations are striving to advance their diversity initiatives and also be more innovative. Getting leaders to advance both of those programs is based on ideas. Ideas are not as grounded as insights. Ideas are somewhat boundless. You don’t know when you should stop looking for ideas, and at some point in time, someone steps forward and judges those ideas. Insights have more tangibility. They have the transferability for a person to say here’s something I’d like the group to consider.”
“For example, an African-American woman puts forth an idea and people view that idea as coming from that influence of her cultural background, gender background or whatever, but the insight might come from the fact that the woman grew up on a farm and other people didn’t. She might have insights that came about because of that life experience that people can appreciate. You can share that insight with people, share its roots, and have people say, ‘OK, I understand that,’ as opposed to an ideas-based environment, which fosters more ideas. It’s cumulative, as opposed to staying focused on the objective. Insights foster communication and collaboration and lead toward the solution to the objective that they’ve been assigned.”
To encourage insight-driven contributions in your workgroups and leaders, give them a mental image of the operating environment, Cramer said. “Where are we? How does the operating environment look and feel? Rather than throwing ideas around, the solution is start with the group focusing on where the solution is, not what the solution is,” he explained. “What are the three most critical success parameters that define that objective? You literally surround the potential solution before you pinpoint precisely what the solution is. You’re inside the cube, and it facilitates a coalescing of thoughts and insights as opposed to everybody in the group vectoring off in different directions in an idea-based environment.”
“Realize that everybody has the ability to contribute to the process,” Cramer added. “It’s not about judging a person’s input; it’s about evaluating its efficacy and encouraging insight. Insights are non-prejudicial. There’s luggage and prejudice that goes along with an idea-based environment. It’s about asset utilization. It’s the difference between diversity potential and diversity kinetic, which is really taking the diversity and infusing it operationally into the fabric of the corporation.”