Friday, July 20, 2012

Diverse Thoughts and a Sustainable Global Economy - a Message from Jin

Diversity is a box most companies check. There are incentives, banquets, and swag parties that comes with checking those diversity boxes. But what is the real value of having a diverse workplace? Why should companies push for meaningful and diverse workforce? What does diversity have anything to do with our sustainable global economy?

The companies that are just checking the diversity boxes know no answers; those who are checking boxes and tracking value-added to their companies know there is something there. Yet, no one seems to be able to quantify what diversity really brings to the table. Diversity, as it is colloquially used and tossed around like a cheap whore, mostly is just another excuse to have meetings and cocktail parties; all the while, the unlucky-lucky few who are “diverse” become the focus of the high society swaggers and are pushed to the top, given opportunities, yet remain clueless as to what makes them unique and how they can add value to the things that really mattered.

The real value of a diverse group is its diversity in ideas and thinking. I grew up in China, served a combat tour in Iraq, worked in anything from lab experiments to emergency medical services to non-profit recruiting to new media development. I know the ways I think are different because of my experiences, but the disadvantage is when confronted with standardized tests I often fail for not knowing how to narrow the many ways to interpret the standardized questions. I often have to force myself to be narrow-minded on those things, and I walk away with a marginal success at conforming to the standardized answers. Having passed the gatekeepers of standardization, I wonder if the places I worked and studied really appreciated what I brought to the table as an out-of-the-box individual. Some surely did, but they are the ones that coined me as “creative” or “artistic” and never checked my diversity box. Some did put me in a category, checked their box for me along with all the other “diverse” folks. Those were the ones that wanted me to conform to the way they thought of the whole big world and when I refused, I was in trouble.

At the end of the day, diversity may be something that can add value, but I’ve come to learn that it is the deep introspection and understanding of what “diversity” really means that will solve problems. It is the diverse thinking of a group that adds value to problem-solving. If one is diverse according to a box, but has not thought about how and why that diversity makes them unique, about how that diversity reflected their out-of-the-norm thinking style, about what it is they can bring to the table as a diverse individual, it means nothing to check that box. This circles back to the question on how diversity really adds value to a company or a global problem. If we are only looking at the appearances of a “diverse” group, we fall to the trap of bringing in just a rainbow of people but with similar backgrounds and thinking styles. They will still sit around the table, looking all “diversed” yet still agree on a single path to solve a complex problem. The real interests of a diverse world is not represented, the poor are still the poor. The companies are still at-risk of having only marginally considered their options and alternatives. In this globally complex economic environment, this kind of “diverse” competitive bar is still low. The companies who are really looking at diversity outside of the proverbial boxes will manage to out-compete the single-minded box-conformists.

A low competitive bar means low success rate in addressing real complex problems. Our sustainability crisis is one that is complex and multi-dimensioned because it is globally connected and based in many different interest groups. Without the kind of really diverse thinking that matters, no company stands to take advantage of the new demand for sustainable growth; no sustainable growth is meaningful. The old model still persists and the old shapes of board rooms still runs the course of no exits. Companies that can think outside of the boxes are able to focus on not just diverse cultures and languages but on diverse experiences and thoughts. These are the companies to watch for and they are the ones to lead the next generation of global sustainable development because they are capable of bringing solution that matters to the problems.

So, if we are just looking at the differences and only embrace them in boxes and cocktail parties, we will have failed. If we are actually paying attention to how someone has thought about their differences and engaged in those differences in a way to bring meaningful advantages to the table, then “diversity” in that sense really means “diversity” and we stand a chance to solve our complex and diverse sustainability problem as a whole.

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