I have talked about diversity several times in this blog. Those of you who know me well are probably not surprised that I keep returning to this subject. I was motivated to write this piece by commentators who refer to the aerospace-related efforts of Bezos, Branson and Musk (BBM) as billionaire vanity projects.
One could make the same claim about the space race efforts of the U.S. and the USSR in the mid-twentieth century, they definitely had their vanity components. And:
- While it is true, in both cases, I would argue that in both cases vanity was a secondary or even tertiary motive;
- In both cases the outcomes of the efforts are positive and far reaching, which is really the important point.
But I digress. As I stated in the first paragraph this post is about diversity. And the discussion around the BBM efforts pushed my diversity button. A couple of important points:
- The motives of BBM are different than a national space effort. And, differences in motivation are a key driver of diversity. The most significant difference being that BBM are driven by the profit motive. Be clear, all three of these men are in this venture to make money;
- The BBM efforts were not steeped in 40 years of NASA experience. This left them free to explore possibilities that were not open to the aerospace establishment, i.e. they were not constrained by the box that years of a single shared set of experiences construct around one’s understanding about what is and is not possible.
People and the way they think are products of their environment. They are different (or the same) because of four very broad sets of attributes that are acquired/developed as we mature. Some of these characteristics develop differently based upon skin color, geographic origin, sex or socio-economic positioning. But, they are environmentally driven.
Further to that point, I think of diversity in terms of:
- Skill—I have been told by people who have been through it that law school changes the way you think. I would generalize and suggest that lawyers think differently from accountants, who think differently from M.D.s who think differently from engineers. The training and skills necessary to be successful in each of these professions instills unique set of thinking processes. Good doctors and engineers tend to be skilled diagnosticians while lawyers and accountants tend to be good at making the best outcomes given the constraints. Engineers and accountants tend to be more process oriented. Lawyers and doctors more goal oriented. While there also similarities, the differences suggest diversity in the ways practitioners in each of these professions approach problems and that each group will have advantages and disadvantages depending on the character of a given problem.
- Experience—experience results from feedback generated by practical contact with real world situations. While skills can be acquired through training, the process of experiencing and dealing with a situation (which importantly includes failure) provides a different and potentially more profound impact on the way you think.
- Motivation—this defines the reason that one does what they are doing or does it the way that they are doing it. For instance, one can be motivated by delivering a common good, safety or making money. Each of those motivations will affect one’s thinking and even the order (if you are motivated by all three) will likely drive different outcomes— I will describe later.
- Disposition—this describes emotional outlook, mood, attitude, or world view. I have often noted that Amazon’s Managements’ disposition drives how they think about their workforce and how they treat them, i.e. based on how they run their business they do not seem to trust their employees will do a good job without strict (micromanaged) oversight. This results in a work environment that is less than optimal and could be improved if the management team had some diversity and thought about different, possibly more effective, ways of managing their workforce—but that is the subject of another post.
You might have noticed that the word “think” is repeated multiple time in the previous bullet points. Think in this sense is a verb which suggests an active effort that results in a thought. And it is the differences the way people think that generate differences in the results of their ideation. If everyone “thinks” the same, i.e. goes through the same process because they have the same skills, experience, motivation and disposition, they will more likely generate the same outcomes. On the other hand, a diverse set of individuals will look at the same problem and (more likely) come to different conclusions.
Let me provide an example. The folks at NASA were motivated, especially after the Challenger incident, to make sure that the vehicles they designed were safe. So, the NASA team was less motivated by managing timeline and lowering cost and more by ensuring safety, so they used tried and true methods and were less likely to look to innovations since they were largely happy to deal with minor improvements to the status quo.
The folks a Blue Origin, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic were motivated by profit. They know that if they can not make money their business will not endure. So, they innovated. They strove to reuse as much of their product as possible. With Blue Origin and SpaceX that meant reusable boosters and with Virgin Galactic that meant doing away with the booster and launching the spacecraft at altitude from a conventional aircraft.
I would not be surprised if the folks at:
- NASA laughed at these “amateurs” who would surely not get by the first stage (pun intended) of their efforts to provide commercial space services; and
- Blue Origin, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic did not know that what they were striving to do was “impossible” as they were not steeped in the homogeneous groupthink that drives the reasoning at legacy players like NASA, Lockheed and Boeing. And it was that lack of knowledge (i.e. being “constrained by the box” that I mentioned above) that allowed them to succeed.
Over the course of my career, breakthroughs have happened when a diverse group of individuals work together to understand each other’s thinking which is driven by skills, experience, motivation and disposition, i.e., their individual points of view, as noted above. This is not the easy way. I have been driven to distraction during these most successful endeavors because it is hard work to engage someone who thinks differently, keep and open mind, and forge the best solution which is often not the one that is obvious to me at the beginning of the conversation.
This happened at the beginning of my career at the University of Chicago where we changed the way the Booth School of Business did fundraising, and more recently at Textura where we changed the way payments were done in the commercial construction industry. In both cases, and many times in-between, the diversity of the working group resulted in solutions that were better than the best that had been implemented, by homogeneous teams, in the past. Diversity is a forge, heating and hammering at ideas, which strengthens the resulting product and makes is both resilient and remarkably fit for purpose.
— you can find this (days earlier) and other posts at www.niden.com.
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