Leveraging Diversity

Strategies For Leveraging Diversity 

The most universal quality is diversity.” Michel de Montaigne, 1588.

This is not an editorial about compliance with equal opportunity legislation. It is about the true nature and value of human diversity. No matter whether it is a group of simple cells or a complex collection of people, what is vital to current and future health is its diversity. We have known about the importance of leveraging diversity since Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859. Here’s a key finding from his disruptive manifesto, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.

Definitive proof of this came in 2013 from the University of Toronto:

Environments containing species that are distantly related to one another are more productive than those containing closely related species...What's going on isn't mysterious. Distantly related plants are more likely to require different resources and to fill different environmental niches - one might need more nitrogen, the other more phosphorus; one might have shallow roots, the other deep roots. So rather than competing with one another they complement one another.

This law of diversity is true in nature. It is also true in any human organization such as businesses and schools. The more distantly related the members of an organization are the more chances the organization will have of survival.

Fifty years ago Theo Dobzhansky, a founder of modern evolutionary biology, famously proclaimed that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. Recent advances have confirmed and solidified his pronouncement.

I believe the same is true of all human activities. So, nothing in education or business makes sense except in the light of evolution.

However, it is important to understand that individual organisms do not evolve, they retain the same genes throughout their life. When a population or organization is evolving, the ratio of different genetic types is changing – even though each individual organism within a population does not change. Leveraging the diversity therefore is a matter of how the various members of the organization work together towards leveraging their collective interests, and evolving in response to external change.

The members of the organization are not competing, they are complementing each other in striving for their organization’s ever-improving health.


It is important to understand that in people there are 3 kinds of diversity: Social, Experiential, and Intelligence.

1. Social Diversity.

I was born white, northern European and heterosexual and that’s my socio-biological classification. I will die with those same inherited social characteristics and genes. Lamarck was wrong. My life experiences since the moment of birth and the kind of intelligence I possess are my other kinds of diversity, however, and that’s what we all bring to the party.

In any endeavor –life or business–, if I surround myself with people of identical social experience I am lessening my overall chances of survival. There is a reason why from ancient times we figured out that marrying sisters and brothers or cousins was not a healthy choice for the group going forward: the offspring of incest were not fit and did not reproduce.

If everybody in the orchestra is from Sri Lanka and only plays the cello the conductor is going to have a hard time making the sound palatable enough to get paying customers. If the members of the military are all white infantrymen… well, you get the picture! Diversity matters!

The rule of diversity as outlined by Darwin leads to evolution and that means survival and prospering. We ignore diversity at our peril: On the other hand if we harness diversity we are implementing the law of leverage - maximum results from the least effort. The longer the pump handle the easier it is to draw water. The more diverse the backgrounds of a team the easier it is to find a solution. Homogeneity is the enemy of leverage.

The closer group members are socially and experientially the less chance we have of collectively being productive enough to survive.

You and I are biologically one of a kind – sui generis. Your iris, the contours of your ears, your lip-print, your tongue-print, your voice-print, your foot-print, your teeth, your retina and of course your fingerprint, even your gait, are unique to you and can identify you as you and no one else. Every individual’s DNA –our genetic code– is unique, but is only 0.025% different to all other humans. Vive la difference!

A caveat. Chemically we are not unique. We are all composed of stardust. Our bodies are made of the remnants of stars and massive explosions in the galaxies; still falling to earth at the rate of 40,000 tons per year. Only in this regard are you identical to all other living things on Earth.

But of course taking you as a whole: You are uniquely you. You are not anyone else.

You are uniquely you and you are dependent on others who are uniquely themselves. You need those that are not you to survive. Even more you need those who are not you to prosper and evolve. You certainly need others to send your death-defying genes into the next generation, in which you, or rather your genes, will play an important but decreasing part.

Selfishness is at the heart of our uniqueness. If you are starved for food or out of oxygen you cannot help others. But, after selfishness, collaboration with diverse kinds of people is the next most important consideration. And collaboration implies a combination of selfishness and collaboration. Lots of quid pro quo – something done in turn for something received; a bargain for mutual benefit. That’s life!

But collaboration is much more than a cynical bargain – it’s survival. Except for a hardy few who can live alone and off the land, we all depend on people unlike us in many ways, and they too depend on us in a virtuous circle. When the circle is not virtuous things can break down in a hurry. If the behavior of someone we depend on for lawful or normative behavior instead becomes predatory – deliberately stepping outside the law or accepted norms – collaboration becomes unwieldy and the structure of the collaborative bargain breaks down. Think of the banks’ lending practices in the early part of the new millennium. The bargain was broken, and the results widespread, chaotic and long-lasting. If we do not learn from this example of predatory behavior we will repeat it.

2. Experiential Diversity.

Experientially you are unique also. No one has had the exact same life experience as you – even if you are identical twins. I have two friends who are identical twin men. One is gay and has diabetes. The other is straight and does not have diabetes. Go figure!

No one has the exact mix of needs, ethnicity, age, native language, gender, academic experience, socio-economic experience and belief system as your unique life experience, which has formed and shaped you into uniqueness.

Experience happens. We cannot help the specific circumstances of our early life. We are shaped by those memories that altered our outlook. But experience itself has no real intrinsic value; it’s what we do with experience that matters.

However, we all possess another quality: mind over matter. You can react to experiences in adulthood either by instinctively responding to the imprinted behavior patterns of earlier years, or by thinking before reacting by asking if the imprinted reaction is a correct one. What you chose to do with your experiential history is important. It is a major factor in developing an understanding of the world.

You cannot create experience. You must undergo it.” Albert Camus, 1962

3. Intelligence Diversity.

My intelligence is no better than yours. But it is different. All of us have diverse intelligences. Since the early 1980s it has become generally accepted that we have seven in all: and all of us possess all of them, just in different proportions.

By 1981…I was claiming that all human beings possess not just a single intelligence… rather…we human beings are better described as having a set of autonomous intelligences.” - Professor Howard Gardner in his book “Frames of Mind”

Simply stated, we all learn in different ways. Gardner’s work pluralizes the notion of intelligence, and encourages us to teach our students and children or instruct our employees to use their entire arsenal of intelligences to learn.

Dr. Thomas Armstrong writes in his book, 7 Kinds Of Smarts, “The theory of multiple intelligences challenges old beliefs about what it means to be smart.  Gardner believes that our culture has focused too much attention on verbal and logical thinking—the abilities typically assessed on an intelligence test—and neglected other ways of knowing.

1. Linguistic Intelligence.

This is the intelligence responsible for the production of language, the understanding of language, and all its complexities. We have to understand metaphors, grammar, syntax, spelling, and other rules before we can use language to think about abstractions such as truth, beauty, numbers, patriotism, loyalty and justice, or concrete objects such as sunsets, pets, plans and loved ones. Linguistic intelligence is awakened by reading and writing, and is then used to make sense of what we read and write. We use this intelligence to convince ourselves and others of a point-of-view, to describe an event, or tell a story. Writers and poets are obviously people for whom this intelligence predominates. But all of us possess this skill, and we should use it. It is a vital skill for employers of all kinds: inadequate linguistic skills cost businesses billions. Read more here.

2. Logical And Mathematical Intelligence.

Most of us would immediately think of scientific thinking when we read that phrase, and we would be right. However, this logical mathematical capacity also has to do with our ability to recognize and to work with patterns or abstract representations such as numbers and geometric shapes. Logical and mathematical intelligence allows us to see relationships between things that are not letters of the alphabet—such as shapes and symbols—in order to solve problems that are thought of as scientific. People such as programmers, architects, mathematicians, and statisticians need this skill most; but we all have it to some degree and use it to learn. Read more about our logical and mathematical ability in a business setting here.

3. Visual And Spatial Intelligence.

This is the intelligence that involves our ability to see or comprehend space and get around in it. Space is interesting. It exists in three dimensions, represented since Euclid (330 BC—260 BC) invented geometry and indicated space as being enclosed by straight lines known as the x-, y-, and z-axes; or more simply—up, down, and forwards/backwards. Think of a picture of a horse painted to appear as if it is about to gallop out of the picture and head right towards the viewer. The painting and the feeling of action looks real, partly because it is painted realistically using the z axis as a perspective, which disappears into a vanishing point. Of course, the viewer knows that the horse will not burst through the glass and run him over. The forward motion part of the forwards/backwards axis—or z-axis—is limited by the glass in a framed picture. However, in the three-dimensional space that we all occupy we can move the whole space forwards, taking all three of our axes with us through time. So time becomes a dimension also: the fourth dimension.

What is astonishing is that somehow we come into this world with this gift to travel around in a four-dimensional space/time universe; even babies can navigate and understand this space. In order to navigate our space, we use our eyes to see the space, but we also must be able to imagine what space is, and what it looks like. We can do this even though space can also deceive us: mirages appear and disappear, distances and images that exist in space can appear closer, further away, or not real. Architects must have the gift of imagining how they can control, enclose, and modify space, and graphic artists and video-game developers must also have the gift of visual and spatial intelligence in abundance. Again, we all have this intelligence; it is just a matter of how much of it we have.

4. Bodily/Kinesthetic Intelligence.

Have you ever thought about the magical intelligence involved in knowing where the various parts of your body are in relation to all your other body parts at any given moment? If you did not know the exact location of your limbs, you would be stumbling about and unable to handle objects. But this same ability to know where our body parts are relative to all other body parts and space and time, allows anyone to express an emotion; through dance or a tantrum, for example. We call it body language for a reason. Athletes are telling us something about themselves and their ability when they perform, and so is an actor or dancer. If this is not a form of intelligence, then what is it? Our body also seems to be able to memorize physical activities so that we can do such things as perform repetitive activities or walk without really thinking about it.

5. Musical/Rhythmic Intelligence.

We all probably learned our alphabet with the musical/rhythmic A-B-C song. The two visionaries who founded the KIPP schools know full well -and have proved- the value of rhythmic clapping and recitation in a sing-song manner as an aid to memorization. The ancients told stories though dance, and modern ballet dancers and mimes can still do that today. As Lazear observes, “Our bodies are very wise.” The body knows things in a way that the mind cannot. If our body is not a form of intelligence, then we would not be able to play the parlor game where one person is given a phrase and has to mime it until an audience member guesses it correctly. Rhythm alters our consciousness like none of the other intelligences.

6. Interpersonal Intelligence.

As you might imagine, this is the type of intelligence that allows us to work co-operatively with others in a group setting such as a family, a classroom, or a business meeting. It is a person-to-person faculty. Clearly, this skill must involve an innate ability to sense (or read) the abilities, limitations, moods, and intentions of other members of the group; and to imagine what it is like to walk in their shoes. Remarkably we can all guess what another is thinking and mostly get it right. “Who then can so softly bind the wound of another as he who has felt the same wound himself?” Thomas Jefferson. Read more about interpersonal intelligence in a business setting here.

7. Intrapersonal intelligence.

Whether we react appropriately to our input from the group -or not- is to a large extent dependent on our level of intrapersonal ability. If we do not have a good sense of our own self, trouble may surface. And, in a society dependent on relationships for progress to occur, trouble can be both contagious and infectious. An understanding of our feelings, the range of our emotional responses, how well we think about things, how well we think about thinking, how well we can step back and see ourselves as others see us, how well we can transcend our self and control it, is going to be a measure of how well we do in society. It is the most private of the intelligences, and needs all the other intelligences to both express itself and to learn from its inputs. It is person-to-person communication; the difference being that both persons exist in the same body, brain or mind. Read more about intrapersonal intelligence in the business world here.

The Importance Of Leveraging Diversity

Knowing that we differ socio-economically, experientially and according to our intelligence is an important first step. Knowing how to leverage that knowledge is the more important step. And collaboration is the key.

A single arrow is easily broken, but not ten in a bundle.” - Japanese proverb

If I am alone, thinking and working, I can only leverage my own socio-economic background, experience and intelligence: I can only reference the experience and intelligence of others through reference to their work. But at the end of the day working alone is inherently limited. Diversity is best leveraged in groups.

One reason is the ‘Network Effect.’ If two people are working together there are two bi-directional relationships. John to Jane. Jane to John. If a third person joins the group there are now six bi-directional relationships. A fourth member joins and now there are twelve bi-directional relationships, a fifth member joins and now there are sixteen bi-directional relationships. As new members join the growth in connections becomes exponential. At a certain point the group becomes unmanageable of course as ‘noise’ creeps into the discussion. There is an inflection point at which the diversity of the group is too much. My experience indicates that five or seven is the right number.

Diversity enhances creativity. Being around people who are different makes us think differently: or at least be open to the possibility. If all members of the team are white male electrical engineers from private school backgrounds the chances for innovation are diminished. Similarly if all the members of a team are Asian-American women teachers the chances for Groupthink (agreeing for the sake of perceived unity) rather than challenging ideas are increased.

Being in a diverse team also encourages a more diligent approach to the task: no one wants to besmirch the reputation their identity represents.

Diversity in a team makes for sound decision-making. If the team that is tasked with improving customer service is made up of only same race, age and gender customer-service representatives, the company is less likely to get a good decision on how to improve customer service than if the team is made up of a variety of customers, tech support, product managers, sales people from diverse socio-economic and experiential backgrounds.

Diversity makes us all smarter. It does so by improving the odds of novel solutions being uncovered through seeking new sources of information, which leads to new perspectives, which leads to better problem-solving and decision-making.

Just being in a diverse group makes all members expect opinions and new ideas that would not be found in a homogenous group. That leads to innovation.

The goal of leveraging the diversity of a group is symbiosis: A mutually beneficial relationship between different people or groups.

A Practical Solution

Another word for a group is a team. Teams operate best when they are following a method: prescribed sets of procedures. The Houses of Parliament or the US Congress might look messy when making laws. Imagine how much worse it would look if there were no procedures.

The fact is that if you want to build teams or organizations capable of innovating, you need diversity and rules.

So, as an exercise ask seven individuals from diverse backgrounds to write down in isolation their ideas for improving customer service. You will be left with seven opinions; not a coherent well thought-out problem identification and recommended solution.

Ask those same seven individuals to sit round a table, appoint a leader and follow this Ten Point Terego Method and you will get an outcome that leverages the diversity of the group but unifies them in a suggested solution. How?

  1. Write the main word of the prompt (Customer Service) in the middle of your White Board and begin examining the context of that word. (Zooming Out First - Getting The Context Right)
  2. Carefully define the word and insert the definition below the prompt.
  3. Look up antonyms and synonyms and write beneath the definition.
  4. Ask and answer the question “What is the idea contained in this prompt a part of?” Do this at for at least two levels above main word contained in the prompt.
  5. Divide the diagram into six segments.
  6. Write the words Who, What, Why, Where, When, and How in each of the segments. (Zooming In To Examine The Detail)
  7. Ask and answer as many questions as you can beginning with these words. Who, What, Why, Where, When, and How.
  8. Write the best answers in the appropriate segment.
  9. Decide by vote on which of the best answers are most suited to a thesis statement.
  10. Write these answers down and create a thesis statement from them.

When people are brought together to solve problems in groups, they bring different information, opinions and perspectives.

Here is a PowerPoint demonstration video of exactly how the Terego Method works on any issue leveraging a diverse group to focus on a problem. I chose a generic one that we all can relate to: Customer Service.  Click - Nine minutes of your time to see how critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration and communications can be structured for optimal results. You will solve the right problem and all members will buy-in to the solution.

The handbook on the Terego Method can be purchased here: Terego Enterprise Training

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