How to use diversity to create 'good friction’
I think we’ve all heard it by now: diversity in teams and in leadership is good for business. But why is this so, and how can we use it actively in our strategic, tactical and daily business to nurture and encourage ‘good friction’?
In a business world that is affected by disruption, technological and societal development, and a vast amount of constant changes, staying relevant to customers and employees has taken a pole position.
There are new expectations in terms of delivery methods, convenience and mobility for customers, and wellbeing, leadership support and personal development for employees. These new expectations require us to constantly innovate, develop and move our business and culture forward. And we clearly need to be creative to achieve this.
Traditionally, there are two ways of doing this: being the best in the crowded competition of the red ocean or finding a new blue ocean to develop or conquer. Both approaches require competitiveness, either based on efficiency or adaptability. (Read more on the ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’ by Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim)
In both cases, new thinking, new approaches and new ideas are needed, as are creativity, complex problem solving and critical thinking (all of which were named as the top three skills in the future by World Economic Forum in 2016).
Together with invested effort and C-suite encouragement, this creates innovation that will lead to competitiveness – in terms of your products and USPs, as well as your company culture and HR – allowing you to stay relevant to your customers and your employees.
We need to avoid the totally frictionless business culture, because good friction is a source for inspiration, new angles and new answers to old questions.
A major learning from my observations of leadership and modern organisations over the past decade is that in order to survive and be a modern, future-oriented organisation, you need to be innovative with your products, processes and leadership. Innovation is not reserved solely for products, distribution channels and application of technology.
Because of this immense desire for innovation, we need to encourage and cultivate it to happen everywhere in our organisation, and not only in special innovation labs or in the research department. This outdated thought of ‘the innovation team’ or ‘the innovation function’ must be eliminated and replaced with a movement and investment towards innovation everywhere, by everyone.
This is where the call for diversity and ‘good friction’ emerges.
Good and bad friction at work
We meet friction all the time at work, when writing emails, filing documents, taking part in meetings, debating solutions with colleagues or rethinking a strategy. Bad friction holds us back, hinders action, makes us perform suboptimally and creates misunderstanding.
Take for example the classic ‘let’s go around the table’ status meetings, or ‘go fix this for me’ delegation mechanisms from so-called Teflon managers. Bad friction is a cause for irritation, nagging and bad mood.
Good friction on the other hand makes us rightfully stop, ponder and learn. ‘Good friction’ in a business context was first described to me by the Danish psychologist Anders Colding-Jørgensen in our podcast discussing automation and technology in the workplace.
Diversity creates good friction. And good friction creates innovation.
We need to avoid the totally frictionless business culture, because good friction is a source for inspiration, new angles and new answers to old questions. In all cases friction slows us down, but the good friction will show us new paths, and pave the way for Blue Ocean culture and competitiveness.
Nurturing the good friction is a culture, HR and leadership task. It requires three things: One, a culture where voicing critical thinking is encouraged and accepted; two, mechanisms to purposefully address problems and suggestions in a way that uses lateral and vertical thinking; and three, diversity, that is, people who come from different backgrounds and generations, with different cognitive skills and experiences.
Diversity leads to staying relevant
I’ve seen too many management teams consisting of only males in their forties. Or only females. Or people with the same academic background, same kind of experience or same cognitive thinking patterns. If we want to stay relevant in the future, we need new answers and new approaches, and we need diversity in our workforce.
Here are three ways you can nurture diversity, good friction and new ideas in your workplace:
Try reverse mentoring and be the mentee to someone who is 15 years younger than you. Take time to lean from that person about their use of technology, their understanding of society and fairness, and how they generate ideas and make decisions.
When forming teams, seek someone out who is different from you. Very typically, when we form teams to solve problems or deliver services, we choose those that we’re used to working with. Try someone else, deliberately, to create new ideas.
When solving problems, use lateral thinking techniques like ‘6 Thinking Hats’ or ‘Category Stealing’ to both see new angles and to build a habit.
It’s important to note that these strategies will not create results without a culture that allows and encourages this kind of approach. In the beginning you’ll make mistakes and learn, and it will steal time away from the expected, habitual and predictable productivity. However, within a few months you’ll experience better solutions to the existing problems, and a workforce that feels heard and involved.
Of course, diversity is rooted in the variety of the employees, meaning that you must put focus on your hiring, promotion and allocation mechanisms on the long horizon. HR plays a vital role in keeping this on the agenda, all the time, to make sure that employees with different backgrounds, gender, cognitive thinking patterns, education and experiences are deliberately sought.
Diversity creates good friction. And good friction creates innovation, which in turn creates competitiveness both in the marketplace towards customers and when attracting and retaining talent. The good friction will help you to stay relevant in a constantly changing world.
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Erik Korsvik Østergaard (b. 1973) is partner in Bloch&Østergaard, which he founded in 2013. He holds a degree as Master of Science (M.Sc.) from the Technical University of Copenhagen with a thesis in chaos mathematics, and has an EBA in cross-cultural project management.
Erik has worked with leadership, digitization, strategy, change...