Lessons on Diversity from a Six Year Old
My husband’s family heritage is Norwegian. Mine is English. We moved to San Diego a few months ago and our six year old son Miles is being exposed to a much more diverse group of people here. The very blond haired Miles came home from YMCA summer camp last week and asked if he could fix his hair to look like his camp counselor who is African American with a big afro. That question resulted in some laughter and then launched an interesting dinner conversation about race and difference. At the end of dinner Miles announced that having lots of different kinds of people at camp is cool. Thank goodness, now I don’t have to go to bad parent timeout.
Difference or “deliberate diversity” is also a hot topic in the world of business strategy.
A well known source of research in this area is Scott Page. He was at the University of Michigan when he published his book The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. His research initially used typical sociological observation but he expanded that by partnering with economist Lu Hong from Loyola University. They used mathematical models to prove that diversity trumps ability in complex problem solving.
The basic idea is that similar people with similar backgrounds tend to approach problem solving in similar ways. When the problem is complex and they get stuck, if they are paired with someone that has a different background and different way of looking at the world, then that different person brings a new pattern of problem solving to the table. Together a diverse team has more tools, more ways of solving, and more ways of thinking about problems. Since Page’s book was published in 2008, this idea has swept through the business community. Companies are looking for ways to enable greater diversity on their teams, not for affirmative action reasons, but because it is good business.
I moved my family to San Diego because I was offered a really interesting position as the director of +CULTURE, the strategy and physical UX (user experience) arm of Carrier Johnson +CULTURE. I knew that they did amazing work before I accepted the job but once I got here I realized that this company is working proof of the Page and Hong mathematical models.
Gordon Carrier and Michael Johnson figured out years ago that diversity drives creativity and set out to build an architecture/design firm around that concept. The 60 person company includes representatives from 18 countries. 36% of their employees were born outside the US and there a fluent speakers of 14 different languages. This is vastly atypical of companies of that size and even more so the white male dominated field of architecture. The leadership of Carrier Johnson + Culture consists of four men (two white, one black, one hispanic) and two women (one hispanic and one white). The workforce is fairly evenly distributed from college age to 60+ and has a much higher than usual percentage of women architects. The project types and client base are just as diverse. In everything they do, Gordon and Michael look for ways to create opportunities for a different point of view to be heard, believing that the real potential in any situation is more likely to be discovered when the team is looking at that situation from different points of view. It isn’t always easy but it works.
Difference is hard. It can make us uncomfortable and it sometimes takes work to make it work. Project teams are sometimes loud as we try to convince each other of our way of seeing the world. My son has to come to grips with the fact that he will probably never have an Afro. However, as Scott Page, Lu Hong, and my six year old have concluded, diversity is just better.