By Steve L. Robbins, Ph.D.
Who out there knows everything?” (Recognize that I didn’t ask, “Who thinks they know everything?”) No human knows everything. None of us has had ALL experiences. All of us have incomplete knowledge when it comes to our world and the people and ideas in our world. All of us are missing some data—a lot of data relative to the universe of data. And if that’s the case, (that we lack sufficient knowledge in many areas and subjects of which we have little experience), do you suppose we could be wrong every once in a while, maybe even more than every once in a while? I think you know the answer to that question.
What might increase our chances of being correct? The short answer is having more knowledge and data, and specifically more knowledge and data from diverse sources (think diverse perspectives). Therein lies the power of diversity and the power of diverse groups. A problem, and especially a complex one, has a greater chance of being solved when one has many different perspectives gathered to try to solve the problem. It’s a simple matter of mathematical probability. The probability of finding a solution is increased when the number of potential solutions increases, and the number of potential solutions is greater as the number of “lenses” and different ways of thinking increases.
The logic is straightforward. Ideas are the result of experiences and the birthplace of solutions (i.e., innovations). The more experiences one has individually and collectively, the greater the probability of discovering a solution. And it’s not just having many diverse individual experiences — that’s helpful. It’s having many diverse collective experiences. That’s powerful!
Staying in our comfort zones and only hanging out with people just like us contributes very little to building a diverse set of experiences and perspectives. It is self- and group- reinforcing behavior, and is a huge barrier to greater creativity and innovation.
Here’s how it works. We tend to gravitate toward people and ideas that are similar to our own. We find it very comfortable to surround ourselves with folks who think like us, act like us, look like us and who generally share the same values and beliefs. These folks are our buddies. Besides being a great support group, our buddies serve as a sounding board for us. They listen to what we have to say and the vast majority of time, they agree with us, especially on important “values”-type issues. We need people like this because they help us to navigate our world with some level of confidence. They serve as protective walls that shield us from weird and funny sounding ideas.
However, walls can be seen not only as things that protect, but as things that imprison. Unfortunately, our buddies also serve to insulate us from ideas that, at times, we need to hear and critically entertain in order to solve problems and discover critical solutions. They prevent us from hearing and seeing alternatives to our current reality – alternatives that can only come from “outside” perspectives and sets of experiences different than our own. Within the comfortable “walls of sameness,” we are unable to recognize or even see the crucial perspectives and data that could lead us to different possibilities and solutions.
From the perspective of Systems Theory, the “walls of sameness” — if we are unwilling to venture out — create a closed system. Closed systems go into entropy – an eventual spiraling to death because they perpetually lose energy without taking in new energy. When it comes to organizations, ideas can be thought of energy (especially in the idea and knowledge economy in which we currently live). Within closed organizational systems, new ideas are never introduced and the organization eventually dies out, giving way to dynamic organizations that are creative and can innovate (i.e., embrace different ideas in order to problem solve better). Intentionally or unintentionally creating homogeneity (sameness) is a big mistake for any organization or company that seeks to be more creative and innovative.
About the Author: Dr. Steve Robbins wears many hats as a highly sought-after national resource on issues of diversity, inclusion and cultural competence. He presents at numerous conferences and workshops across the nation inspiring people with moving stories, humorous anecdotes and powerful insight into human behavior. He is the author of the book, What If? Short Stories to Spark Diversity Dialogue.
Recommended Training Resource: The brand-new video training program, Inclusion Insights, features Dr. Robbins who simultaneously challenges and motivates individuals and organizations to be more open-minded, mindful and intentional about inclusion and valuing people for their unique gifts, abilities and experiences.