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Diversity in innovation: does it matter?

Written by , Intern

Diversity in innovation, what does that mean? Why am I thinking about it? Last year, I worked on a conference innovation in social policy, with a particular focus on how public sector innovation could fit into all facets of social policies. It was an  amazing opportunity where I could delve deeper into an understanding of ‘innovation’ and interact directly with innovators charged with making a difference.

At first, the conference felt like a breath of fresh air. Change in government seemed imminent. Even though I was drawn to the public sector because I wanted to improve people’s lives, I  sometimes secretly wondered if  my future would just be grey days in a cubicle, working on some unimportant document, awaiting my pension…

Although I worried about that possible future, the world of innovation promised an out. My first glimpse of it through the conference showed me a ‘public sector Narnia’: one step through an open door would take me a magical land where people were fearless but strategic risk-takers, change-makers, and disrupters. And, they were actually praised for being so.

So, it was decided.

I was going to be an innovator!

My journey in diversity in innovation

My first step in this journey had me think about the current problems my team was working on. Working in a team that was mostly made of males and middle-aged people, I knew that I could capitalise on some of my diversity, being a young, freshly graduated, indo-Canadian female, to help me shape a solution that not only my team had perhaps not thought about.

At the time, we were looking at ways to heighten user-centricity on our communication platform to draw more young people to innovation. We wanted to develop a social media campaign that could help achieve this goal. I felt like this was a perfect opportunity for me, as I had previous experience working in social media and I was also a young professional (precisely the kind of person they were trying to attract). Therefore, after a few days of thinking and running some ideas by colleagues, I finally felt like I was ready to voice my opinion at the next meeting.

The 2pm team meeting came around and I was ready to offer my perspective. When it came to my time to speak, I made my point with confidence, using my experience to illustrate what I meant. The idea I proposed came from a personal reflection, it came from a thought process that took into consideration my various backgrounds, from being a female, to a young graduate, to even looking at the problem from my background of being an ethnically-diverse person.

It was met with blank stares and confusion.

I knew my point wasn’t weird. It was relevant. Yet, it was easily dismissed. I knew deep-down this feeling was not right. I also knew that perhaps I was not the first person to have these feelings either.  I wanted to understand why different opinions, from people who might seem ‘different’, were so readily dismissed.

So, I started to think about what I may have said that may have seemed so strange. But, I started to slowly realise that perhaps this was the paradox of the current ways teams are ‘doing’ innovation. Even though innovation aims to change and question the status quo, the people undertaking are not always willing to turn that critical eye on themselves. Even as progressive and transformative innovation seemed to be on the outside, innovation teams or the people who got to be recognised as innovators looked a lot like those who had always had power and influence…

Diversity in innovation: old problem, new arena?

Can innovation achieve its ends of progression and transformative change if it continues to be dogged by the conventional problems of dealing with equality and equity as any other domain?

I’m probably not the first person to offer a viewpoint, from personal experience, in a meeting and have it fall on deaf ears. Or the first to look at the lauded ‘change makers’ making waves in the field and see that they don’t look like me. Or the first to organise or attend a conference where the voice on the lectern microphone doesn’t sound like mine.

Representation and participation matters.

If we care about innovation being about true change, from the inside out, then we need to start asking questions about this.

Join OPSI’s diversity in innovation group

I see the point of increasing diversity within innovation as a form of innovative practice in itself. Diversity is a complex term with differing and different interpretations. For me, diversity is not only about increasing the representation of people but it is also about ensuring that people with different backgrounds are given the same amount of time, opportunities, and equity when working towards a common goal.  Public sector innovation is not an empty buzzword or abstract concept. At its most elemental, it is a practice; a way of seeing things and a way of working. Like with any human activity, it has social dimensions. Their influence on the way we ‘do’ innovation and, significantly, who gets to be recognised as an ‘innovator’, has consequences on innovation’s impact and import. I intend for my research to enrich our understanding of this social element of public sector innovation.

As part of my summer internship project at OPSI, I want to delve deeper into this broad topic, by looking at its gender element.

Specifically, I am conducting research on how governments can better support women who want to enter the world of innovation. I am interested in investigating:

  • How governments encourage diversity in pubic sector innovation projects
  • the possible significance/ influence of diversity on innovation practice or outcomes

The research is in its planning phase and I’d like your input. Do you have an experience or thoughts to share?

I am looking for interview subjects who would be willing to discuss (on the phone or via email):

  • What links do you see between diversity, particularly gender, and innovation
  • Any personal or professional experience on this topic
  • Any case studies or projects where government are currently undertaking to help drive women within innovation

If you are willing to have a conversation with me, to inform the preliminary scoping of this research project, please

  1. Sign up to OPSI’s community platform
  2. Once signed up, join the public ‘Diversity in Innovation’ group on the OPSI community platform
  3. Post in the group that you are willing to participate in an informal interview when would be convenient to chat with me

If innovation is really this magical land that I once thought it was, then I believe we need lots of different people with different backgrounds to help open that magical wardrobe door. Let’s start the conversation to help lead the way!

  1. Innovate, innovate, innovate! No matter who you are or where you’re from. Very insightful observations Supriya, I am happy to see you’re making such positive contribution to OPSI – congratulations! Your story of joining OPSI is a an example of possibilities I often quote when speaking with young people I meet. Your brave leap from Ottawa to Paris is an inspirational story that perhaps merits a more in-depth blog post of its own.
    Also, I’m glad to see this new group on the OPSI community platform.

    • Diversity in Innovation does help in bringing fresh and different perspectives to the table. It enables the shaping up of ideas through heterogeneous ‘lenses’. I could sense this when I participated in the OECD OPSI conference at Paris on “Innovation in Government: The new normal”, in November, 2017. I appreciate your efforts in this area and look forward to collaborating with you. Congratulations Supriya !!

      • Thank you so much Raja. Apologies on the delay in responding. I think as much as innovation is about the cool and emerging trends, there is very much a social context that needs to be addressed as well. Would be happy to have a conversation if this is a topic of interest for you!

  2. The lack of reaction and respond to your idea is, perhaps the worst type of creativity killer. No response is worse that hearing some excuse for not supporting an idea.
    In terms of your exploration of diversity, you are limiting this to gender? It sounds like it. In the innovation body of work, there is also a vast amount of focus on cognitive diversity. Just because you have a balanced group (race, gender, or whatever categories) sitting around a table does not ensure diversity of ideas. You could have a diverse group of people who think alike. You could also explore work by people like Dr M Kirton (www.KAICentre.com). His research on adaption-innovation (and those who used this body of work, did a lot of studies in the public sector. I have as well.

    • Ed, your passion for innovation is great. I think this topic is of interest to many in this space but it may take some time to gain the momentum — online engagement takes time. Let’s give this group a chance to get the traction it deserves. I’ve noted my LinkedIn post announcing the group has received a lot if attention (hopefully this will bring more users to this group). Feel free to share a link to the group on other channels and encourage those interested to bring their conversation here. Cheers!

      • Thanks yet I wonder which decade it will be before we start to notice cognitive diversity is a very powerful form of understanding. I have worked with concepts like Kirton Adaption-Innovation theory since 1997. Basadar also has great work stretching over many years. At some point, we will need to appreciate that diversity defined by color, race, handicap, geography etc. can lead to a situation where you have a perfectly balanced group with the same thinking style. Do you have diversity or a group of people who think like?

  3. Thank you Supriya for the points you made. Based on your experience (and mine) I think that sometimes, innovation in process is also needed. An example would be Meeting Process. It sounds like there was no good model in your meeting or no norms in the group about how people respond to each other. A well-known example of a meeting norm is to allow time after each contribution for reflection – time in which nobody says anything. Then time for responses. Or a norm in which all responses must start by acknowledging something about the contribution that has been made. Good meeting chairing and agenda setting also helps of course. This sounds a bit pedestrian but is very much about respect for each voice.

    • Interesting point. I agree. I also think sometimes meetings are structured to quickly find new solutions and this perhaps takes away from the ability to properly process all the information that is said. But this then also alludes to another question about “inclusive leadership” and what this means for innovation team. I think as much as my focus will be on diversity within innovation, there is a parallel conversation to be had on inclusive management. What I have learned so far that as much as diversity is a personal topic, it can only flourish within a well-structured organization that is willing to differ from their conceptualized status quo.

      The “meeting process” seems like it could be a skill or a way to ensure that everyone in the meeting room is properly accounted for and that no perspective is downgraded or felt as if it is neglected. Would love to hear your thoughts on this and thank you for commenting!

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