Diversity and Innovation: Part 1

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On more than one occasion I have found myself defending the television show South Park as one of the most important pieces of contemporary American literature.  Under the veil of nihilistic, seemingly non-sequitur humor and the perception that the show is just iterations of “Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo,” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have created a platform where they can openly discuss (and satirize) issues that almost no other publication is willing to touch. For South Park, no topic is off-limits, from advance directives, Islamic blasphemy, Scientology, to most recently a two-season story arc on the internet war between the PC (Politically Correct) Police and Internet Trolls. (warning the show is aimed at adult audiences and descriptions of the show, regardless how academic, inevitably have adult language). The freedom the series has from being seen as “just that show where the kids make dirty jokes” has allowed them to frequently highlight larger societal issues with greater honesty and accuracy than most media today.

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In the fall of 2015, South Park foresaw the election victory of Donald Trump well before he had won a single primary. The show was able make this prediction because the writers accurately recognized that the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election was merely a symptom of a much broader battle for identity; one which has only grown since the election.  Around the world, leaders and organizations are struggling with diversity.  Evidence broadly shows that diversity is essential to successful organizations, yet many efforts to institute diversity have been met with cultural backlash.

What does this have to do with innovation?

In a previous blog, I highlighted Oculus Rift creator Palmer Luckey as an innovator who successfully used Lateral Thinking.  As a teenager with little formal training or business experience, Luckey was uniquely positioned to attack the Virtual Reality problem from a diverse (i.e. different) viewpoint than the market leaders at the time.  Approaching the problem from a different perspective drove innovation that turned out to be worth $2 billion.

However, once Luckey was adopted into the mainstream industry, his competitive advantage disappeared (Innovator’s Dilemma much?).  HTC was able to quickly replicate and improve upon the Rift, PlayStation was able to leverage its gaming developer army towards creating a competitive platform, and Google (fueled by 20% time) was able to develop a much cheaper alternative.  Meanwhile, Oculus found itself embroiled in lawsuits over intellectual property and playing catch up releasing product updates months after the competition. Since being acquired by Facebook, the start-up momentum has all but vanished, being replaced instead with leadership from a seasoned executive, traditional sales goals, and uninspired marketing strategies; all of which have failed to bring value to the brand.

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The compounding missteps came to a head in March of 2017 when Facebook announced that Luckey would be leaving the company. Whether through coincidence or causality, Luckey’s departure was most likely triggered by his efforts to support Nimble America, a pro-Trump organization that many found to be promoting bigotry-laden (a.k.a. anti-diversity) memes and billboards.

It can be clearly shown then that a lack of appreciation for diversity both restricted Oculus’ innovation and disrupted, perhaps permanently, the career of its creator.

Diversity drives innovation by providing the greatest resource for divergent, lateral, and contradictive thinking – unique perspective.  This is the reason why innovation cannot be quartered off to a small group of PhD’s in an isolated corporate skunk works (unless of course, the PhDs create their own independent company). Innovation requires conflict, and conflict only occurs when differing backgrounds and viewpoints are brought together.  Examples of diversity driven innovation include:

  • Hollywood movie star Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil’s development of frequency hopping, which laid the groundwork for modern Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
  • Bicycle shop owners Orville and Wilbur Wright creating the first controlled powered flight.
  • Russian immigrant Sergey Brin working with Larry Page to develop Google.
  • California farmer Mike Yurosek creating the baby carrot machine.
  • And many, many others…
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Despite the evidence that diversity provides gains for leadership, innovation, and society as a whole, it remains a charged word with an immediate emotional response. Many believe that one’s stance on diversity had much to do with how Americans voted in the 2016 election.

So how can leaders foster diversity in their organizations (and harvest the many benefits) without harboring the resentment and “downside to diversity” that many detractors trumpet? 

The answer is surprisingly well defined in season 20 of South Park. But, much like its many viewers, you will have to wait until the next episode to find out how.

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