Thursday, March 12, 2009

Clones or Clowns?: Diversity for Innovation

For generations, corporations believed that a uniform workforce promoted harmony and efficiency, and relied on observable outward characteristics to determine who was the “right sort of person” to fit into the organization. In an effort to reduce the uncontrollable and ensure harmony and unity of purpose, new employees across the organization were chosen who most resembled a chosen archetype. Through human resource policies, hiring and training procedures, and managerial preference, many corporations were intentionally populated with employees who were alike. Harvard Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter labeled this process of replication “homosocial reproduction”: “Managers tend to carefully guard power and privilege for those who fit in, for those they see as ‘their kind’…There was a decided wish to avoid those people with whom communication was felt to be uncomfortable, those who took time to figure out or seemed unpredictable in their conduct. Deviants and non-conformists were certainly suspect for this reason. Even people who looked different raised questions, because the difference in appearance might signify a different realm and range of meanings in communication” (Kanter, 1977). Human resource expert Francis Horibe similarly asserted, “The very qualities that make for great innovation—passion, drive, out-of-the-box thinking—are often viewed as arrogance, unreasonableness, and uncompromising behavior by many peer employees and organizations (Horibe, 2001). In their drive to improve efficiency and limit corporate risk, it was not unusual for corporations to purposely hire the vast majority of workers from a specific geographic area, school, religious institution, fraternity, club, or sport.

To succeed in the dynamic modern global economic environment, companies must continually develop new, fresh ideas into viable products, services, and processes, and only decidedly nonlinear ideas are likely to create new wealth (Hamel, 2002). In most instances, companies cannot create the future by imagining entirely novel solutions to customer needs and dramatically cost-effective ways of meeting those needs unless they abandon their historical trajectory and the shackles of policy, tradition, and orthodoxy. Homosocial reproduction limits the range of a company’s innovation capabilities and may ultimately derail the future success of the organization. Instead, there is an increasing awareness of the important correlation between the amount of diversity present in a corporation’s employee base and the number of valuable innovative ideas bubbling up within the company. Heterogeneity in decision-making and problem-solving styles is an important avenue to innovative ideas, and the successful generation of new, different ideas is based largely upon the diversity of motivations, experience, and thought among corporate employees. The concept of diversity itself must be reframed: innovation-driving diversity must include age, race, country of origin, sex, education, experiences, perspectives, attitudes, and other salient personal characteristics. The intentional mixing of different skills and abilities, attitudes and behaviors can generate enthusiasm, refreshing new ideas, and remarkable new opportunities.

The need for corporate diversity for innovation is biblically grounded. In 1 Corinthians 12 (NKJV), Paul notes that people possess a wide variety of God-given gifts, and this individual uniqueness should be celebrated: “There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all.” He uses the image of the human body, composed of many varied but collectively important parts to describe the importance of diversity: “For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For in fact the body is not one member but many.” Max DePree noted that diversity is important in organizations: “Understanding and accepting diversity enables us to see that each of us is needed. It also enables us to begin to think about being abandoned to the strength of others, of admitting that we cannot know or do everything. The simple act of recognizing diversity in corporate life helps us to connect the great variety of gifts that people bring to the work and service of the organization. Diversity allows each of us to contribute in a special way, to make our special gift a part of the corporate effort” (DePree, 1989).

To hire the appropriate mix of employees to support successful innovation, there must be intentionality in the identification of needed capabilities and recruitment of new employees. The purpose of hiring must not only be quantitative expansion, but also qualitative expansion, including enlarging the range of a corporation’s capabilities and the breadth of its vision. To expand its boundaries, companies must also hire “one-offs,” those who are slow learners of the organizational code, the often-unspoken rules, assumptions, and traditions in an organization. As Stanford Professor Robert Sutton noted, “This means it is smart to hire slow learners, to tolerate deviants, heretics, eccentrics, crackpots, weirdos, and just plain original thinkers, even though they will come up with many ideas that are strange mutations, dead ends, and utter failures. The cost is worthwhile because they also generate a larger pool of ideas—especially novel ideas—than you can get from just hiring and breeding fast learners” (Sutton, 2002). If innovation is the question, employee diversity is definitely the answer.

Dr. Gary Oster
Regent University
School of Global Leadership & Entrepreneurship


Diversity, extreme diversity, innovation, homosocial reproduction, employee recruitment


DePree, M. (1989). Leadership is an art. New York: Dell.
Hamel, G. (2002). Leading the revolution. New York: Plume.
Horibe, F. (2001). Creating the innovation culture. New York: Wiley.
Kanter, R. (1977). Men and women of the corporation. New York: Basic Books.
Sutton, R. (2002). Weird ideas that work. New York: Free Press.