Innovation Requires Diversity

There are no coffee refills in France.

For Americans visiting for the first-time this might seem like caffeine heresy:  What?  No carafe of stale coffee dropped off at my table?

No.  Instead of on-demand consumption, they offer on-demand creation, bringing you a fresh cup of coffee when you are ready for it.  The quality of the product is paramount to them.  What seems wrong to some seems only proper to the French.

And it begins to make you think differently about coffee, about customer service, about product quality, about timing, and more.  Or it does if you're someone like me.

Thinking differently.  It's one of the many core elements of innovation, one Franz Johansson nicely described in his book The Medici Effect.  He suggests innovation results from stepping into The Intersection, a place were ideas from different fields and cultures meet and collide, ultimately igniting an explosion of extraordinary discoveries.  In this TedTalk drawn from his new book, Where Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson echoes Johansson, stressing that many innovation results from combining seemingly disparate ideas or taking an idea or concept from one industry and applying it to the product or service of another.

But you can't think differently if you're not exposed to difference.  So here are a few simple ways to jumpstart fresh thinking and fresh perspectives.

Consume different media.
This is perhaps the easiest personal practice.  Simply scan publications, television program, blogs, and Web sites that address topics and feature perspectives that differ from your own.  Your field trips can be intentional and focused (I'm going to spend an hour today immersing myself in media women consume) or random using web site generators like StumbleUpon, following the top 20 or so search results for a broad category like "quality," scanning Tweets for of interest, or grabbing ten magazines off the rack at your local newsstand or bookstore.

Connect with different people.
It's great to develop a network of peers from your profession or industry.  Doing so may cause you to accidentally bump into some fresh thinking because each of your colleagues brings his/her individuality into your relationship.  But you also want to hang regularly with a group of folks who don't do the work you do, ones whose livelihood depends on a different set of skills or values.  Talking about your ideas or concerns with them automatically elicits a different response because they don't look at your situation with the same mental models or lenses that you do.

Expose yourself to contrary opinions.
Over time our belief systems can harden into rigid walls powerful enough to reject any alternative viewpoint that tries to get past them.  That's a problem.  Author Meg Wheatley writes about the importance of allowing our belief systems to be disturbed.
"We won't necessarily have to let go of everything we believe and know, but we do have to be willing to let them go. We have to be interested in making our beliefs and opinions visible so that we can consciously choose them or discard them."
 We need to intentionally cultivate out ability to listen and attempt to understand the very viewpoints we find irrational, radical, ridiculous, or untenable.  In doing so, we'll make our mental models more permeable and open to the fact that what is true for us, often is not true for others.

Collect interesting questions.
The answers we get depend on the questions we ask.  In his book The Design of Business, author Roger Martin suggests that innovative thinking often occurs because someone approaches the same problem but with a different initial premise.  A more diverse group of individuals is likely to ask a more diverse set of questions, resulting in a more comprehensive exploration and understanding of a situation.  As you interact with others, pay attention to the questions they pose, particularly ones you would be unlikely to ask.  Collect those questions and file them away for future use.

We can't think differently if we're not exposed to difference.  Such an obvious statement, but still one filled with great potential for individuals and groups.  How are you cultivating your own exposure to differences and what strategies (beyond hiring) might organizations want to consider?