Innovation  | 5 MIN. READ

A New Definition of Diversity

Kimberly Douglas, October 11, 2018

Conceptual image of human brain in colorful splashesCreating diversity in the workplace isn’t just a politically correct exercise. Diverse organizations are proven to consistently deliver better results.

McKinsey data shows companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. Conversely, companies in the bottom quartile are statistically less likely to achieve above-average returns. Diverse companies are also more innovative. According to a 2018 Harvard Business Review study of 1,700 companies in eight countries, the most diverse enterprises averaged 19 percent higher innovation revenues and nine percent higher EBIT margins than industry averages.

But to get the most profound benefits from organizational diversity, companies need to look beyond race, gender and age, to focus on diversity of thought.

The goal of creating a diverse and inclusive organization is to bring multiple viewpoints to the table. Yes, it is true that women, people of different ethnicities, and those from different generations have unique life experiences. These experiences help them to empathize with customers in different ways and to approach problems from different angles. When these differences collide, everyone can generate ideas that they may not have created before. But life experience isn’t the only measure of diversity.

Imagine, for example, that you have a room full of accountants, who represent a variety of ethnicities, genders and ages, but all of them are deeply analytical problem solvers. They may generate ideas based on facts and data, but they will be less good at taking risks, empathizing with customers, or collaborating with each other. Conversely, a room full of creative thinkers may generate amazing ideas, but they can quickly lose the link to the strategic goals of the project in the quest to be brilliant.

This is why diversity of thought is equally important for teams to be innovative. When teams include diverse thinkers, they generate better business results. One six-year study at the US Forest Service shows that teams with a balance of thinking preferences are 66 percent more effective than non-balanced teams, and that they consider more options and make better decisions.

What Color is Your Brain?

The trick is figuring out what diversity of thought you have on your team — and then capitalizing on that diversity to drive greater innovation and improved business results. Unlike traditional diversity measures, which are fairly apparent in the makeup of any team, you cannot just assume that all lawyers are analytical or all designers are passionate collaborators. Every person has their own way of approaching a problem and thinking about solutions.

Gaining insight into these preferences usually requires some level of personality assessment to understand the makeup of each person on the team. I like to use Herrmann Solutions’ Whole Brain® Thinking model, (although Myers Briggs, DISC, Insights and other assessments can also be useful). The Whole Brain® model uses a self-assessment that asks people a series of questions to determine their preferred thinking and learning style, then calculates their preferences in four quadrants:

Blue thinkers are analytical. They like to define a challenge, use numbers to solve problems, and apply formulas to test their theories. They are good at analyzing and diagnosing the problem.

Green thinkers are planners and testers. They like to follow a process, capture inputs, and fix what isn’t working. They are good at focusing on the details and linking ideas to the real world.

Red thinkers are collaborators. They are great at expressing ideas, empathizing with customers, and communicating with others. They like to collaborate and they work well in a team environment.

Yellow thinkers take risks. They like to experiment, generate ideas, and invent new solutions to existing problems. They are big picture thinkers who are good at developing insights to facilitate change.

Some people are dominant in a single quadrant, while others may have characteristics from some or all of them. The key is knowing the strengths of the people on your team and then using that knowledge to drive higher engagement and better business results through creative abrasion. Balance analytics and facts with collaboration and creativity.

Once teams complete the assessment and recognize their own strengths and those of their peers, they can decide when certain people should lead activities, and where additional voices need to be heard. Blue thinkers, for example, are very good at making sure the team is focused on the right challenge statement, while yellow thinkers are best at energizing brainstorming sessions; red thinkers can be relied upon to keep the team and customers engaged, and green thinkers are ideal to lead testing and prototyping efforts.

Along with better understanding of team dynamics, these assessments help individuals recognize where their dominant quadrant may be preventing them from considering a different path (aka a “blind spot”) or listening to other people in the room. It may also help them to be more empathetic and to recognize the value that they all bring to the process. This is especially useful in design thinking exercises where brainstorming big ideas and identifying the latent needs of customers is how innovation occurs.

Many companies ask employees to complete personality assessments as part of their development, but they often don’t effectively use this information after the initial debrief session — and that’s a mistake. Having insights into employees’ thinking style can help managers make better decisions about team dynamics and encourage team members to leverage the dominant skills of their peers to deliver better business results.


Learn how to enable innovation skill-building at scale here or download our free ebook Kickstart Innovation: A Guide for Organizations. 


Kimberly Douglas, SHRM-SCP, CPF, is President of FireFly Facilitation, Inc., and is a nationally recognized strategic planning, team effectiveness, and innovation expert. Over the past 25 years, she has collaborated with hundreds of leaders — at organizations such as Coca-Cola, Home Depot, McKesson, AT&T, and even the U.S. Marine Corps — to dramatically improve their business performance. A SHRM Senior Certified Professional and a Certified Professional Facilitator, Kimberly also holds a Master of Science in industrial/organizational psychology. Prior to founding FireFly seventeen years ago, Kimberly was an organization effectiveness manager for Coca-Cola; a Director of Consulting with the Hay Group; and served in HR leadership roles in the hospitality, telecommunications, and healthcare industries.

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