Diversity: not just the right thing to do, the only thing to do

Y&R's Saul Betmead on why diversity is crucial for top creativity.

It hits you the moment you arrive. The global nature of the communications business is here in Cannes, in all its glory. People from every corner of the globe are celebrating what’s hopefully the best thing about the business -- its ability to see and do things differently.

It makes me proud.

Something I and many others are less proud of is the industry’s ongoing issue of diversity -- or the continuing lack of it. There are many obvious reasons why the lack of diversity in all its forms is a problem, and fixing it is simply the right thing to do. But you don’t have to look far outside our business to realize it’s a great deal more important than that.

Many of the innovations that have shaped humankind have been born as a result of variance, of different perspectives. In an erudite exploration of the history of innovation, Steve Johnson’s book "How We Got to Now" highlights that most of the biggest innovations of our time -- from Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to Edison’s light bulb to Babbage’s first computer -- have come from what he describes as the "edges of disciplines," where different areas of expertise converge and overlap. Yes, there is deep, specific knowledge involved, but it’s the interaction between those areas of expertise that enables the real leaps in innovation.

His argument is simple: if you want to break free from the smaller, more day-to-day incremental innovations, you need different perspectives. You need diversity.

It does beg the question, why? Cognitive neuropsychology, where I started out my professional life, provides some important clues. Our brains have what is described as functional fixedness, the tendency for us, as we enter adulthood, to get stuck in seeing the things around us in a very specific way (the opposite is true for kids, they have less fixedness and therefore more flexibility to see an alternative). A classic example is where people are given a tray of objects, and asked to solve a challenge that ultimately involves using the tray in a way that isn’t as a tray. Most people struggle to make that jump.

A related and no less pervasive trait is belief or cognitive bias, where we tend to see things that support our existing view, and subjugate things that don’t. It is no surprise that our political beliefs tend to be cemented in tightly and we find it difficult to comprehend a different view, even when there is perfectly good evidence to the contrary.

Both functional fixedness and belief biases are a result of our brains trying to navigate a complicated world, they serve an important purpose -- but they produce significant and pervasive barriers in our ability to see a different perspective.

We see the manifestation of this very human trait in an organization’s abilities to succeed as the world changes around them. Most firms get stuck in what Harvard Professors O’Reilly and Tushman describe as the "success syndrome," where confidence in past success creates cultural blindness to shifts required to continue performing in the future. Companies that are able to avoid this usually terminal issue are not only able to exploit what they are currently good at, but also concurrently explore what will make them relevant and successful in the future -- often in very different kinds of business. One such example is the remarkable Ball Corporation, an $8 billion firm which has been in 45 different kinds of businesses over its 130-year history. From wooden buckets to the Mars Rover, it has shown the ability to shift to harness many evolutions and sometimes revolutions in technology.

At the heart of this successful navigation, these companies have an ability to balance and harness different perspectives inside and outside their organization.

Diversity is not just critical to our day to day business of creativity. It is also fundamental to our industry’s future, to us breaking beyond our current technologies, and evading obsolescence in favour of new business models.

I do wonder what we as an industry would be capable of if we could embrace diversity for what it truly is -- the foundation of our current and future success.

Saul Betmead is Y&R chief strategy officer, EMEA.

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