Tuesday, March 16, 2010

First Time - Part 17: Diversity

This is part 17 of in a series of short essays on fundamentals of leadership. While it is drafted for those who have just moved into their first leadership position, I hope there is a little something in here for the most practiced of leaders, a ‘getting back to basics’ that everyone needs every now and then.

You’ve been told to put together a team of folks to do something, and you want to pick a good team. So let me say a few words about diversity. The truth is that the word is used a great deal but often with inconclusive or irrelevant results.

A number of years ago I found myself on a planning team for a major military operation. The general in charge of the planning team made a point of telling everyone that he wanted a diverse team, for all the politically correct reasons. He then assembled a group of perhaps a dozen officers: there were Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines; there were seven men and five women; there were several pilots; several infantry officers, a submariner, a logistician, etc.; there were several African-Americans, an Hispanic-American, two Asian-Americans. We were, from his perspective as diverse as he could get.

What I saw was 12 officers all with 13 to 18 years in the military, all graduates of one of the War Colleges (if memory serves, 8 were graduates of the Army War College, two were graduates of the Air Force War College, and two were graduates of the Naval War College); each had at least one year of duty on this staff. In short, stripping away the labels, we were all pretty much the same. And the planning proved it: we produced a bread and butter plan; it suited its purpose and was more than adequate. But it was hardly original. In short, there was no significant diversity among the team members, at least not diversity that mattered.

What had happened was the general who selected us had used superficial characteristics as marks of diversity.

After that, whenever I had a chance to weigh in on selection of teams where there was any desire for creativity or a new perspective, I offered this option: bring in two additional people: at least one ‘new guy,’ someone who has been in the organization for less than a year (in the military it can be very helpful to bring in an Ensign or 2nd Lieutenant and have him sit and listen and take notes). If the planning isn’t making sense to the ‘New Guy,’ and you can’t explain it to him, you have a problem. This is not to say that you should ‘dumb down’ plans so they are understandable to someone just off the street. On the contrary, no plan should ever be simply ‘dumbed down.’

If, on the other hand, if you can take a complex issue and a complex solution and develop an execution plan that can be explained so that a neophyte can clearly understand it, you probably have a plan that can be successfully executed.

The second person to bring is someone with a completely different background. Again, by way of example, I was involved with several teams that were designing satellites. One team was made up exclusively of engineers; one had a student of the arts on it. The team of engineers worked faster – they all thought alike. But the team with a couple of non-engineers was able to address issues from unusual perspectives. Innovation came from the ‘chemistry’ between engineers who ‘already knew the answers’ and liberal arts majors who kept asking: “why can’t we do XXX?” Because the engineers had to explain “why” so many times, we started to see instances where we had accepted certain positions as immutable truths when, in fact, they were nothing more than engineering conveniences. We would never have arrived at the conclusions we did if it had not been for the prodding and questioning from the non-engineers.

The point is this: there is some diversity that is relevant to the task at hand, and there is some that really isn’t. We should all be color-blind. It shouldn’t matter a tinker’s damn whether the parents of the guy sitting next to you are from China, India, Ireland, or Indiana. But, which team is likely to make a better city planning team, all other things being equal: a half dozen lawyers, or a carpenter, a lawyer, an architect, a chemist, a teacher and an electrical engineer?

In putting together any team, focus on the important characteristics, particularly the intellect and experience base and character of the possible candidates and leave the superficial to the politicians.


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