ANA Multicultural Marketing Conference '07: One presenter proposes the notion that diversity can enhance work productivity -- and drive innovation.
Posted Nov 7, 2007
BOCA RATON, FLA. -- As marketers here this week at the 2007 ANA Multicultural Marketing Conference were well aware, successfully connecting with the various facets of the world's mosaic will provide a competitive edge in an increasingly global market. By consciously taking just five minutes out of your day to brainstorm new ideas, suggested Michael Wheeler, president of consulting firm Organizational Effectiveness Strategies, you can do wonders for your corporation. Merely being creative, however, does not guarantee innovation, Wheeler said: "Innovation is creativity that is implemented." Implementing that creativity, he added, requires adherence to five stages of embracing diversity and mobilizing on the wealth of differing ideas.
Interior Beliefs: The first challenge to creating a culture of innovation is breaking down what Wheeler called "associative barriers." This can mean transforming entrenched attitudes or dealing with the common cross-department "What do they know?" skepticism. Wheeler suggested an interactive exercise that forces creative solutions when concepts we normally take for granted are disrupted: A restaurant, for example, has a menu, serves food, and receives money for delivering it to your table. What happens, he asked, when there is no menu to read, no food to deliver, and no money to collect? The resulting disconnect can lead to insight, invention, and innovation.
Inside Knowledge: Perhaps a more physically challenging exercise is Wheeler's next step: finding inspiration in fields and cultures outside of the familiar. Only by learning about how other people prefer to live and interact with the world, he said, can we begin to understand how to deliver what they want. This requires motivating people to exit their comfort zones and abandon their insecurities about being an unwelcome cultural intrusion. The knowledge produced will not only allow better interactions with the "outside," but stimulate beneficial changes internally.
Internal Resources: In order to foster innovation, Wheeler told the audience, you have to staff for innovation. Companies should create teams or even external networks that specialize in facilitating "outside-the-box" conversations. For most companies, this step is daunting -- focus groups, consultants, advisory boards, and other sources of outside input can strain already-limited resources. With Wheeler's guidance, however, conference attendees complied a list of other, more cost-effective solutions that companies could pursue internally: set up employee resource groups; watch cultural movies; hang out with people of different cultures; intermix teams; change venues; get out of the office to see what competitors are doing; or hire interns.
Inclusive Management: Leaders of this initiative, therefore, have to manage for diversity, Wheeler said. He displayed a graph depicting homogenous groups delivering more at the start of a given initiative -- but providing only a short-lived success that will plateau and ultimately have lower returns than will diverse groups who, as one audience member put it "look laterally, not linearly." Hence, it's up to management to promote openness, welcome difference, and encourage mutual respect and tolerance -- while at the same time encouraging the active and inclusive participation of all.
Intentional Synthesis: Finally, all of these previous steps would be insignificant if not effectively leveraged. By combining all the efforts of a creative team, a company will have the necessary tools to take a well-supported risk into the multicultural marketplace -- the size of which is soon expected to exceed that of the general market.
In a multicultural marketplace, it only makes sense that the companies serving the consumers be multicultural as well, Wheeler said. Although phenotypes -- the superficial visual markers that we often use to draw conclusions about ethnicity -- are hardly a safe indicator of cultural awareness, Wheeler said that he believes companies have to start somewhere: "If you don't have visible diversity in your room, you're not doing what you need to do," he said.
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