Diversity and Creativity

What is the science of diversity and creativity? According to an article in Harvard Business Review, it may be slightly surprising given how much of a buzzword “diversity” has become:

  • Generating vs. implementing ideas: Studies suggest that diversity is useful in generating ideas, but actually a hindrance when it comes to selecting and implementing them. “It would therefore make sense for organizations to increase diversity in teams that are focused on exploration or idea generation, and use more-homogeneous teams to curate and implement those ideas. This distinction mirrors the psychological competencies associated with the creative process: divergent thinking, openness to experience, and mind wandering are needed to produce a large number of original ideas, but unless they are followed by convergent thinking, expertise, and effective project management, those ideas will never become actual innovations. For all the talk about the importance of creativity, the critical piece is really innovation.”
  • Good leadership: Effective leadership can mitigate diversity-induced conflict. “It is the psychological process that enables individuals to set aside their selfish agendas to cooperate with others for the common benefit of the team, articulating the natural tension between our desire to get ahead of others and our need to get along with others.”
  • Moderate diversity is better: “recent evidence suggests that a moderate degree of diversity is more beneficial than a higher dose. This finding is consistent with the too-much-of-a-good-thing paradigm in management science, which provides compelling evidence for the idea that even the most desirable qualities have a dark side if taken to the extreme.”
  • Personality vs. demographic differences: “Most discussions about diversity focus on demographic variables (e.g., gender, age, and race). However, the most interesting and influential aspects of diversity are psychological (e.g., personality, values, and abilities), also known as deep-level diversity. Indeed, there are several advantages to focusing on deep-level variables as opposed to demographic factors. First, whereas demographic variables perpetuate stereotypical and prejudiced characterizations, deep-level diversity focuses on the individual, allowing a much more granular understanding of human diversity.”
  • Knowledge flows: Diversity doesn’t matter unless there is “a culture of sharing knowledge. Studies mapping the social networks of organizations have found higher levels of creativity in groups that are more interconnected, particularly when creative and intrapreneurial individuals are a central node in those networks.”
  • Skeptics: “diversity training is most effective with individuals who are skeptical of it. This is encouraging, though the challenge, of course, is to ensure that people who are cynical about diversity actually enroll in these training programs.”1
  • Non-diversity factors matter (and matter more): “As a seminal meta-analysis of 30 years of research showed, support for innovation, vision, task orientation, and external communication is the strongest determinant of creativity and innovation; most input variables, including team composition and structure, have much weaker effects. Likewise, developing expertise, assigning people to tasks that are meaningful and interesting, and improving creative thinking skills will produce higher gains in both individual and team creativity than focusing on diversity will.” Selecting employees based on their creativity also enhances overall creativity.

The article concludes, “In short, there are probably much better reasons for creating a diverse team and organization than boosting creativity. And if your actual goal is to enhance creativity, there are simpler, more effective solutions than boosting diversity.”