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The Jazz Process: Diversity Breeds Success

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Singular biological dependencies expose ecosystems to potential collapse; a species may die out if its only food source does. Such co-extinction is like the collapse of an agricultural system that depends on a single crop, or a financial portfolio consisting of just one stock. Similarly, businesses can't put all their eggs in one basket if they want to survive challenging environments. Adrian Cho, author of The Jazz Process: Collaboration, Innovation, and Agility, explains how diversity can bring your organization new opportunities and capabilities.
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Don't Disregard Diversity

For thousands of years, humankind has struggled to deal with its own diversity. Variations in skin color, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, economic and social status, and political ideologies are just a few differences that people have found difficult to accept and integrate into their lives. When confronted with diversity, people may feel uncomfortable or vulnerable. If left unaddressed, these feelings can lead to resentment and intolerance; they may escalate to abuse, persecution, and violence. On a large scale, hateful aversion to diversity fuels horrific acts such as "ethnic cleansing," slavery, genocide, and war.

Living with diversity isn't always easy, as evidenced in German Chancellor Angela Merkel's 2010 declaration that her country's attempts to build a multicultural society have "utterly failed." [1] Fear is often at the root of the discomfort and vulnerability that people experience in response to diversity. People grow anxious when confronted with change. They may fear losing control, predictability, privilege, or order.

When differences are seen as a catalyst for chaos, the natural tendency is to ignore or reject those differences and pursue order by identifying and exploiting underlying unity. This tendency is also notable when disparate groups are collectively faced with a great challenge. For millennia, adversaries have set aside their differences and united on common ground when threatened by an enemy. Almost 2,500 years ago, the Greek city-states banded against the Persians. In the 1940s, the United States and the Soviet Union united against Nazi Germany. In 1955, General Douglas MacArthur told the New York Times that "[t]he nations of the earth must someday make a common front against attack by people from other planets." [2] While his prediction hasn't come to pass, it's easy to believe that we would put all our differences aside if we were attacked by the Borg.

Diversity Promotes Robustness

While short-term benefits may be gained by ignoring differences and unifying along common lines, diversity must be embraced and exploited in order to build and maintain robust teams and organizations. Consider the following examples:

  • In agriculture, biodiversity increases the stability and productivity of crops. Monoculture—dependency on a single crop or a small number of crops—has led to disasters such as those brought about by the collapse of the European wine industry in the late 1800s, the Irish potato blight in 1846, and the U.S. Southern Corn Leaf Blight epidemic in 1970.
  • Diversification is a proven technique for mitigating risk in financial investment, by reducing the exposure to any single investment.
  • In marketing, diversification can access new markets and increase sales.

When there is a lack of diversity in thought, people may look at situations primarily through the filter of their own viewpoint and fail to consider other possibilities. This can happen in teams that self-select like-minded people and exclude others who don't think like the rest of the team. It can also happen when team members are not bold enough to oppose a team's majority opinion with their individual arguments. When an entire team falls prey to this condition, known as groupthink, they may make huge mistakes.

Healthy teams achieve balance through diversity. Some musicians tend to play on the front of the beat, while others are known for playing on the back of the beat, and others squarely on the beat. If everyone plays at the leading edge of the beat, the ensemble will tend to rush. If everyone plays behind the beat, the performance will surely drag. A healthy range of these tendencies ensures a steady pulse, while giving the ensemble the flexibility to crank up the intensity or dig into the groove as needed.

In any group activity, certain people will be gung-ho, with a tendency to move quickly. Others will be cautious, often waiting for others to move first. If too many people in a team are predisposed to rushing in, the team may take unnecessary risks. If a majority of the team tends to hang back, the group may not be competitive. A well-balanced team should have a mix of both styles. When it comes to getting things done, some people are good at starting tasks and others are good at completing them. Without strong starters, a team may be slow to build momentum. Without strong finishers, the team may never cross the finish line. A mix of both skills helps to ensure a high degree of collective productivity.

Whatever the skill or point of view, the ability to run the gamut helps achieve balance. This capability reduces exposure to potential problems that may arise from relying too heavily on a singular technique or approach.

Diversity Improves Performance

A hallmark of any high-performing team is the presence of synergy, in which the combined efforts of the team's individuals are collectively greater than the sum of their individual efforts. Synergy plays an important role in the political domain, where the outcome of an electoral or legislative decision depends on votes. Individual politicians might not draw enough votes to win a decision, but by forming alliances they can aggregate votes and achieve their goals together. Rather than simply disregarding their differences, they instead exploit them.

This tendency can result in some surprising and odd partnerships. In the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Republican John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. The idea was for Palin to inject energy and excitement into his campaign and win votes from the conservative, youth, and women's groups that McCain was having difficulty courting. Similarly, Barack Obama, a junior senator, chose Joe Biden for his foreign policy experience, seniority, and familiarity to voters.

Synergy is often present when people combine complementary skills:

  • In the military, special forces teams are composed of soldiers with individual specializations such as weapons, engineering, medicine, communications, and so forth.
  • On a basketball team, each member plays a particular position and fulfills specific functions. For example, the shooting guard makes the long shots and often guards the opposing team's best player, while the small forward scores near the basket and looks for rebounds and steals.
  • In a small jazz band, each musician plays a particular musical role, whether playing the melody, providing chordal harmony, outlining the harmonic fundamentals, or acting as the primary timekeeper.
  • In cross-functional business teams, disciplines such as sales, marketing, research, development, and finance are all represented. This design ensures that informed decisions can be made early in development cycles with participation from all parties. In contrast, passing responsibility sequentially from department to department increases the likelihood that costly downstream problems may crop up, requiring backtracking in the development process.

By embracing their diversity, each of these different types of teams can leverage synergy to deliver the greatest possible performances from limited resources.

Diversity Enables Innovation

Innovation, the process of creating new ideas and applying them to specific situations, depends on two types of thinking. Divergent thinking, generally associated with the humanities and the arts, is the process of generating many possible solutions to a problem. This type of thinking answers questions such as, "How can we do this better?" or "How many different uses are there for this product?" Convergent thinking, generally associated with mathematics and science, is the process of selecting a single solution to a problem. Aptitude tests questions typically require this kind of singular answer. Logic plays a strong part in convergent thinking.

Innovation is a two-step process. In the first phase, divergent thinking generates many possible solutions to a problem. In the second phase, convergent thinking identifies the best of the solutions.

Jasjit Singh of INSEAD and Lee Fleming of Harvard Business School studied the success of individual inventors by analyzing the patent inventorship and citation data for more than half a million patented inventions. They found that diversity in thinking and relevant domain-specific experience is beneficial in both phases of innovation. Fresh perspectives can help to generate more unique solutions, while a wider range of experience and expertise can improve a team's ability to reject poor solutions. [3] The end result is that any selected solution is likely to be better. Without adequate diversity, a team may generate a smaller number of solutions, with less likelihood that one may be a desirable outlier. Additionally, they may fail to apply the critical thinking needed to weed out anything less than the best solution.

Diversity of Individuals Is an Asset

How can organizations build diverse teams? Most organizations have diversity programs mandated by law or societal norms. They typically focus on minorities, including those of specific races or sexual orientation, with the goal of ensuring that members of such groups are fairly represented in organizational operations. Organizations can reap additional benefits from such programs; for example, with the help of a diversity program, the organization may be better equipped to understand the market demographics of minority communities.

While these implementations are important and beneficial, diversity shouldn't be thought of simply along these broad lines. There is diversity in almost every element of collaboration. Yet, without intention, organizations can easily tend toward uniformity. In such "mirrortocracies," people tend to hire or promote others who think and act like themselves, instead of appointing those who might possess sorely needed contrasting skills or perspectives, as is the practice in meritocracies.

When faced with the prospect of introducing outliers into collective uniformity, teams should embrace these opportunities to increase robustness and performance. A team of young engineers may be inclined to give a veteran engineer the cold shoulder. Yet he or she may have valuable experience and insight that could help the team break through with innovative solutions to tough problems. An ensemble of well-pedigreed classical musicians could turn up their collective noses at a musician who is known primarily for playing jazz. However, he or she may possess a different "feel" for the music that could help the ensemble to interpret music and perform it in a manner unique enough to win a new audience. A basketball team might be apt to reject the unorthodox playing style of a newcomer, when that player's moves might be just what the team needs to confound the opposition.

The mantra "One person can make a difference" is often dismissed as motivational mumbo-jumbo. Yet unique individuals are more likely to make a difference to a team than any number of other people who offer skills and experience that the team already possesses. Build a diverse team of individuals, and you'll greatly improve your chances of surviving and succeeding in even the most competitive of situations.


[1] Melissa Eddy. "Multiculturalism in Germany 'utterly failed,' Merkel says." The Global and Mail (October 17, 2010).

[2] Philip J. Corso and William J. Birnes. The Day After Roswell. Simon & Schuster, 1997.

[3] Jasjit Singh and Lee Fleming. "Lone Inventors as Source of Breakthroughs: Myth or Reality?." Social Science Research Network (June 10, 2009).

A conductor, jazz bassist, and bandleader with over 20 years' experience in the software development industry, Adrian Cho has identified parallels between great artistic ensembles and high-performance teams in business, sports, and military operations.

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