Why gender diversity is crucial for innovation success

Johannesburg, 21 Oct 2019
Read time 4min 40sec
Ushal Moonsamy, Chief Solutions Officer, SqwidNet.
Ushal Moonsamy, Chief Solutions Officer, SqwidNet.

Innovation is the leading buzzword of the transformation era. Organisations of every size and composition are encouraged to innovate, using the traditional carrot and stick approach. The carrot is improved market access, better efficiencies and a healthier bottom line, whilst the stick warns of stagnation, lost market share and the eventual failure of the company.

But innovation is not a new concept. Businesses have had to be innovative since the dawn of commerce if they hoped to fend off competitors and attract customers. The change though, is in how much deeper and further innovation travels in today’s organisations.

Modern technologies and new workplace cultures are placing innovation capabilities in the hands of more people, which is having a profound effect. Concepts such as Continuous Improvement, Lean and Agile stem from innovation’s greater presence. Yet innovation will struggle if diversity isn’t encouraged and leveraged.

“Innovation is about ideas and those ideas taking some sort of commercial viability,” explains Ushal Moonsamy, SqwidNet’s Chief Solutions Officer. “The more diverse your staff or idea-generating engine are, the more commercially viable ideas you could end up with because it's a representation of the market you're serving anyway.”

The power of different perspectives

Let’s take a simple example: product innovation. A successful product appeals to the majority of a market while meeting different nuanced requirements. These can vary from customer to customer, hence effective innovation benefits from different perspectives. This is the crux of the diversity argument.

“By having diversity, you have different perspectives around the table,” says Moonsamy. “And with different perspectives, you have a more holistic view of the context you deal with. The problem is better understood and the solution is more viable than a closed approach.”

Diversity can be represented in terms of generation, culture or geography. But gender offers the most succinct demonstration of the dynamic between diversity and innovation. For argument’s sake, assume a product is destined for 100% of the market. Yet the development team only consists of one gender, be it women or men. That effectively means half the market isn’t represented.

We might be dazzled with innovation legends, such as the late Steve Jobs dunking phones in aquariums to prove his point. But even in those development teams, diversity of opinion plays an important role. You could even argue that Jobs’ heavy-handed approach is another example of needing different views and approaches to innovation. As General George Patton once quipped: “If everyone’s thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking.”

Evaluations of market performance agree. McKinsey has calculated that companies in the top quarter of executive-board diversity rankings were 35% likelier to financially outperform industry medians. Research by Cleverpop found that inclusive teams make better business decisions up to 87% of the time.

Diversity in the digital age

There is a clear case for encouraging diversity around innovation. This is a critical choice today because the digital age has expanded innovation beyond product teams. Innovation can now include improving specific processes, enhancing workplace cultures and exploiting customer feedback to its full value.

“Innovation can be something major, or it could be something incremental. It, therefore, applies to all possible organisational or functional areas. Whether you are in marketing, sales, finance, human capital, logistics… you need to be able to do things better to do things smarter. That often stems from understanding the context around a problem or opportunity.”

Organisations struggle with this idea because traditional hierarchies don’t naturally recognise people’s superior knowledge of their roles. Employees are to be seen, not heard. But modern workplaces embrace cross-silo teams and flexible management structures specifically to chase modern innovation in all its forms.

Yet there is a risk: since the movement is inevitably driven by digital technologies that put such capabilities in more hands, it can devolve into a technology-only strategy. Leaders might confuse technology with its output and assign the responsibilities to tech-savvy staff. This completely misses the point and damages the business’s talent pipeline, said Moonsamy.

“If you isolate innovation to the technology field, it'll only be those people that progress up the organisation’s ladders. Whereas if you extended innovation at all levels of the organisation, together with diversity at all levels, then you get a deeper pool of talent.”

This is a crucial point. Much is made about talent retention in today’s organisations. But not many realise that innovation is often the way talent can show off and build confidence. Your colleague in accounting might not know much about programming computer systems, but they could be a wizard at customer onboarding. Can they demonstrate that capability? Are they included in innovation culture?

Inclusive innovation cultures need to be encouraged and gender is the low-hanging fruit. If you can establish gender diversity as part of innovation activities, the results will support your strategy. Your wins will create momentum for even more diversity and innovation; the latter unquestionably being the force that is reshaping modern companies.

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