Barbara Knickerbocker-Beskind has just started freelancing with the design agency, IDEO. When she heard IDEO’s founder David Kelly speak about the importance of diversity of experience in the company—and how a variety of perspectives benefits design—she knew she would be a good fit.
Barbara graduated as an occupational therapist and worked in the army throughout WWII, inventing ways to adapt clinical equipment to suit the needs of individual patients. She went on to work with children with learning disabilities, patenting many of her inventions before becoming an author. Barbara is now 91 years old.
Not only does Barbara offer IDEO another design perspective, she is also one of the very consumers IDEO has just started to design for—our ageing population. And because empathy for the consumer begets better design, Barbara could lend her expertise to advise IDEO on what the ageing population really needs.
The richer the mix of backgrounds, lifestyles and thinking within the team, the more likely they are to empathise with the consumer. It’s increasingly clear that such diversity affects the bottom line, too: McKinsey’s latest research finds that companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have profit margins above industry averages. But diversity is most effective when it’s not only a description of the human resources in a company, but also a way of working. Diversity of process encourages creative thinking and making new connections, and a more thoughtful and thorough development of an idea.
Apple has developed what it calls parallel production, a system of production that introduces diversity to the design process while keeping it entirely within the organisation. Rather than going from design to engineering to manufacturing to sales in a linear fashion, Apple brings everyone together at once. It’s a messy, noisy, open-ended, confusing, argumentative process. It takes longer. But because there’s more dialogue between the different disciplines, it makes for more creative and original ideas. And the results speak for themselves.
We are surrounded by potential new configurations, new ways of breaking out of old patterns of thinking. Yet our default is not to work in this way. We don’t instinctively seek out serendipity in our creative endeavours. Instead we are more likely to navigate sources in a way that reinforces our existing worldview. We read newspapers that agree with our political persuasion. We follow those on Twitter who reflect our opinions. We hire people who are similar to us. “We have a deep tendency to like people who are like us,” says Daniel Haun of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. “We’re more likely to chat openly about our thoughts to people like us, because we don’t fear their judgment.…But at some point it becomes an echo chamber of similar thoughts and experiences.”
We also have a tendency to hold onto routines that may have started out serving us well but quickly get stale and unhelpful. A groove can easily become a rut. In order to open ourselves up to creating more new and original ideas, we need to disrupt these path dependencies. We need to play.
Physicist Andre Geim is a big advocate of play. On taking up the post of professor of physics at Manchester University, he set up a Friday night experiment club for fellow scientists and enthusiastic students. He created an environment that encouraged playful methods and risk-taking, borrowing ideas and principles from across different scientific disciplines. It was in this after school club that Andre discovered graphene—a revolutionary new superconductive material one atom thick—by peeling layers away from a pencil lead using a bit of sticky tape. It was a discovery that won him a Nobel Prize.
Amy Ryles is senior research executive at Flamingo London
Andre says that his successes happen when he’s working outside of what he comfortably knows. For this reason, he’s always seeking new experiences and tries “to see the world through a child’s eyes.” It is Andre’s curiosity that gives him a broader view, and his purposive playfulness enables him to filter and connect ideas from diverse fields.
Diversity is a business necessity, more so today than ever before. A diversity of thinking, opinions and cultures changes the way we look at the world: it opens our minds and fosters stronger, more confident abilities to engage with and respond to the complexities and uncertainties of business today.