December 30, 2017 JV

Diverse or Divisive?

“How are you managing your diversity requirements?” – an intriguing question asked at both of the recent Australian Coal Terminal Operations and Asset Management Conferences.  Although at times it felt like the respondents were egg-shell-walking, their words were none-the-less captivating.  Perhaps the most telling comment came from one of our female leaders: “I’d like to think that I got my job on merit and not because I’m a female.”

Blue Mink’s 1969 hit “Melting Pot” begged for extreme levels of diversity and it seems that we (society, in general and business in particular) are somehow compelled to oblige, as if entranced by the sirens of ancient Greek mythology.  Many organisations are now so convinced that diversity is crucial to their success that significant strategies, measures and resources are dedicated to make it happen.  Perhaps the most striking example comes from the Diversity departments of the Universities of California, (San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego).  For instance, the UC San Diego diversity department is led by the following:

  1. The Associate Vice-Chancellor for Faculty Equity
  2. The Assistant Vice-Chancellor for Diversity
  3. The Staff Diversity Liaison
  4. The Undergraduate Student Diversity Liaison
  5. The Graduate Student Diversity Liaison
  6. The Chief Diversity Officer
  7. The Director of Development for Diversity Initiatives
  8. The Director of the Cross-Cultural Center
  9. The Director of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource Center
  10. The Director of the Women’s Center

What is incredible is that the number of Diversity staff almost rivals that of Academic staff.  One can only assume that these universities consider the achievement of diversity as important as academic learning.  Where is the evidence that justifies such levels of resourcing?  Many college administrators have claimed that sexism, racism and homophobia warrant the recent bloating in Diversity staff levels.  Note that these diversity bureaucracies and programs contribute to enormous rises in tuition.  Do we really need a “great big melting pot” or are too many cooks likely to spoil the very, very expensive broth?

I don’t claim to be an expert on diversity, but am willing to share what I’ve learnt on the topic and to perhaps, add a little colour to what seems to be (according to Google) an otherwise vanilla conversation.  Decades of personal research into organisation learning, change and improvement and significant experience working in multiple cultures, continents and industries has convinced me that the current approach to diversity is not just over-the-top; it’s actually detrimental to workplace relationships and business performance.

It is important to “follow the evidence wherever it leads and question everything” (Socrates).  When questioning the benefit of diversity to organisational success in an internet search, most of the articles that appear on pages one and two indicate that the science is settled; the top answers are “yes.”  Despite that, I will argue that diversity’s impact is limited and its role needs to be understood better and used more deliberately.  Big business seems to be wielding diversity like a sledge-hammer, while I will contend that it requires the precision of a scalpel.

Let’s consider a thought experiment.  Imagine that you are responsible for undertaking a major organisational transformation initiative.  How would you resource it?  What kind of people would you be looking for to lead the effort?  Here is what I’d do; see whether you agree with me.  Firstly, I’d choose an experienced leader with general domain knowledge and one who people love to work for.  Let’s ask TLD.  Then I’d want someone who has a very broad knowledge of systems, people and improvement and knows how to convey complex concepts very simply.  RB would suit that role nicely.  What about an ERP and Maintenance Management process expert with wit and personality; perhaps TP would like to help.  A kind, intelligent and humorous change expert would also be key to success.  CD, will you join the team?  Finally, I need a finance guru with a keen analytical mind and a no nonsense view on options, to run the numbers.  JT, would you please help?

When thinking about team composition, I considered the critical skills and experiences required for success.  The team requires people with solid coverage of business management principles and practices, a mutual desire for teamwork and excellence and some specialised skills and knowledge in a few key disciplines.  The specific people I selected (from my own network of associates) just happen to be four men from the US, UK and Australia and one Australian woman of Asian descent.  They also happen to be a mixture of youth and experience.  I did not contemplate gender, age, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation when selecting the team as I couldn’t see how any of these may influence the outcome.  What I was looking for was a requisite level of diversity in thinking that ensures a sufficient breadth in domain knowledge, experiences working in several industries and geographies and enough EQ to ensure that the team members would be able to work together.

When reviewing some of the key management ideas of the past few decades, the concept of diversity appears to have been smuggled into popular thought on the coat-tails of complexity science and Darwinian evolution.  Random mutations in an unguided, naturalistic process will only yield improvements when bolstered by massive levels of diversity.  Otherwise, all we get is change for change sake and that is rarely a good thing.   I am, therefore intrigued by how commonly and glibly the term “evolve” is used within management-speak.  Would intelligent managers dare to simply thrust groups of “different” people together and tell them to “change whatever you can and see what improvements stick?”  I would certainly hope not.  One would expect that managers would actually design a strategy and encourage the team to adapt it through analysis, trials, experimentation and improvements that are selectively locked-in and verified – almost the total opposite of the evolutionary process.  Where then does diversity fit?  While massive levels of diversity are required within evolution and complex adaptive systems, how much is really needed when there is a clear design intent?  Diversity may play an important role, when there is no clear path forward, at the very beginning of strategy development, to ensure divergent thought is considered and that blind spots are discovered.  However, it seems today that business leaders are getting paid big bucks to elevate diversity over being informed and making good decisions.

Firstly, diversity is something that must be applied at the right time and in the right amount.  As mentioned in a previous blog:, “Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety states that in order to deal properly with the problems generated by diversity, we need a sufficiently large repertoire of responses which is (at least) as nuanced.  Back to the living organism analogy – too many bacteria, mutating too quickly and the system cannot repel the infection.  It becomes weak or may even die.”  If senior managers really understood Ashby’s Law, would they be willing to admit that their current strategy is so bad that it needs to die and be replaced by a better one?

Secondly, some diversity may be important, but diversity in what?  Gender, ethnicity, age?  These are relative externals.  What is really important in business and organisation is diversity in thought.  We need people who specialise in different domains in order to help break entrained patterns of thinking and to foster the creativity that so often begins at the intersection of disciplines.  Even among siblings, whether they be the same or different genders, there can be a huge difference in how people think.  Why then do some leaders insist (often through quotas) for diversity in external attributes (e.g. gender or race) rather than thought?  I think it’s because the latter is difficult to do and only good leaders invest the required time to know their people.

Now, we all know that listening to just one author on any particular topic may be problematic.  What does Google have to say about diversity?  After all, isn’t the internet supposed to be the free marketplace of ideas and doesn’t Google give us a trustworthy, unbiased view of this?  Well, I did ask Google “is diversity always good for business?” and there was only one link to a negative response and that was on Page 2.

The article: discusses research with the thesis that diversity applies well to lower and middle hierarchies while it causes problems within key decision makers.  A second concept relates to that of using T-shaped teams to drive innovation.  “There is an approach, particularly used in Design Thinking, to assemble a set of T-shaped people.  These people possess a basic literacy in a broad domain of topics, and a very specialised skill set in their particular profession.  Now, when assembling a team, you want different specialised skills to work in orchestration.  The basic literacy of the people is the common denominator, which allows them to coordinate and make use of their special skills.  When visualizing this kind of team, you get many T’s next to each other and make their horizontal bars overlap. With a little phantasy, it looks like a gate.”  I think it sounds very much like my transformation “dream team.”

You may not know much about Google’s inner workings.  It is a typical big business with Diversity and Inclusion goals.  The company was recently accused by the US Labour Department of having an “extreme” gender pay gap.  In 2013, Google punished one of its engineers for creating a little too much internal transparency around salaries.  Then in late 2017, James Damore, a senior Software Engineer published a 10-page document about Google’s approach to diversity titled: “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.”  James provided some ideas on how to increase gender diversity in Google Tech, using strategies other than the politically-correct, reverse-discrimination variety employed at the time.  His document went viral and was picked up by multiple news outlets, labelled as an interesting view on diversity, based on research and for this he was then fired.  In a Youtube video:  James describes how Google censors views that it does not agree with, including those on diversity (how ironic).  The video was loaded in mid-November and at the time of publishing this article, it is still available on Youtube.  The video is summarised by: “Is Google open to a diverse array of viewpoints? Or is it an ideological echo chamber? Just ask former Google software engineer James Damore. He was fired for disagreeing with Google’s (left-wing) orthodoxy. In this video, James shares his story.”

Is my article really in the minority or does Google itself have a problem with diversity?  Whether it be on the topic of diversity or something less politically sensitive, we should always be prepared to question that which doesn’t make sense.  Our freedom of speech must be protected for society to continue to flourish.  People like James Damore must not be punished for airing their views, especially in a nation like the USA that has a constitution with strong provisions for individual freedoms, like speech.

Workplace discrimination has likely occurred in the past; let’s stop it from reoccurring in the future by focusing on capability and merit.  But let’s be very careful about how we intend to deal with discrimination lest we make a bigger mess than already is.  Two wrongs don’t make a right and forcing reverse discrimination through gender, ethnicity or any other external attribute bias will only divide staff.  Whether straight, white male or gender-fluid person of colour – no-one should fear losing their job or even worse, fear obtaining one based on anything other than merit.

Comment (1)

  1. W Strudwick

    Hi John,
    Another thought provoking article on a contemporary subject.
    Diversity in my view is a good thing for society and business, but not just of sex, race, ethnic or religious grounds.
    Diversity of opinion and considered viewpoint is also a good thing.

    Extreme diversity has been allowed to take control, quotas, boards and punishment to enforce diversity and certain similar policies have created a silent backlash which sometimes exposes a simmering resentment of “reverse discrimination”
    Universities the world over but particularly in the US have become places where freedom of speech and opinion are now being suppressed by PC, sometimes in the name of pushing diversity quotas and views. Speakers are sometimes violently suppressed because their views are “incompatible” with mainstream campus opinion. Lawmakers in Ohio are considering making laws to protect free speech in their universities, overruling the management of those campuses.
    Sometimes the wrongs of the past cannot be fixed immediately, a course has to be set and people re- educated and engaged on why these things are favourable. Even if a candidate for a position is the best, the appointment will be questioned as a “diversity quota” if a company has a bias in their employment policy to ensure a diverse workforce. It may not be outwardly obvious at first, but the simmering resentment will continue and undermine to effectiveness of that candidate into the future.

    Employers have seem to forgotten that effort is improved by harnessing the “discretionary ” component of peoples work. I have witnessed what happens when that is done and it is very powerful for a business if achieved successfully. Forcing policies that are not understood or unpopular on people does not achieve great engagement.

    It used to be that to get a job at a good well paid business you had to know someone, have a relative or friend to help you through. I have seen this change to a more merit based approach that is blind to race, sex, religion or other biases. Are we to regress to introduce new biases to try and correct the “sins of the past”
    I hope not!



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