“The definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” That famous statement, which has been attributed to Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin among others, seems to me to summarize what we see in most teams. If you put the same five people (often, all middle-aged white guys) in a room, can you really expect originality?
While on a flight to Wisconsin, I was reading a series of articles in Scientific American on diversity (http://goo.gl/OW7bNY) when it struck me that we have a problem in engineering: we value being a “good team member” over diversity. I think most managers see a team as a group of people selected to do their bidding. I can’t recall how many times I’ve been accused of not being a “team player” or asked by a human resources (HR) manager if I was a team player. Of course, the “correct” answer if you want the job is an unblinking “Yes” — a smile sells it!
However, a team can gain significant strengths from diversity and a climate open to contrary views. A good team member has the courage to voice opinions and a genuine curiosity for those of others. What was interesting in the Scientific American articles is how science had shown that diversity spurs creative, effective problem solving.
In one example, a manager at Lockheed Martin noticed that a young engineer wanted to say something but was intimidated by all the older engineers in the room. She got him to talk. The idea spilled out of him. His solution to the engineering problem was risky but was heartily accepted by the customer. (By the way, the manager not only was a woman but also an African-American.) We need managers willing to coax out ideas and allow them their day.
This series of articles in Scientific American indicated that teams packed with diversity — in age, ethnicity, gender, job description, political leanings, etc. — tend to be more productive. Scientists for a long time have known that men and women perceive colors differently. Colors are simple. Imagine how differently a diverse group of people view complex ideas. There’s less risk of “group think” and more chance that concepts will be challenged. If people expect their ideas to be questioned, they will work harder to prepare them for consideration by the team. I remember serving on a design team with an archrival. We both did meticulous work that ultimately led to a better design.
Here’s the challenge. Creating a positive environment for diversity goes beyond putting a variety of people in a meeting room. You must deal with different personalities: http://goo.gl/w45Lu8.
Consider a project team. It may bring together: 1) project engineers; 2) process engineers; 3) production engineers; 4) sales engineers; and 5) design engineers. To over-simplify for our purposes: Project engineers don’t worry about people; they only want to build something. Process engineers are in love with the way things are being done. Production engineers just care about the product being made. Sales engineers are customer pleasers. Design engineers are fascinated by the new or the unique; they’ll become smitten with their simulation model and forget why they created it. Most types rub each other the wrong way. A process engineer working for a project engineer likely will get a daily thrashing for being too detailed. Project people don’t count the bodies in front of the pyramids — they spoil the view! The process engineer wants to reduce the number of bodies because skilled labor is hard to get.
One engineering company was overstocked with project engineers and sales engineers. So, its executives told HR to hire some design engineers and process engineers. The company got very creative — for about a year. Then, the new hires left. The entrenched project and sales people hated, I mean hated, the process engineers. The design engineers drove the old-line staff nuts! If you want diversity to survive, you must change the mix of people in advanced positions and you need ways for the new hires to escape persecution. The longer I live, the more I see success in companies that create a fertile soil to grow new ideas.
DIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing contributing editor. He recently won recognition for his Field Notes column from the ASBPE. Chemical Processing is proud to have him on board. You can e-mail him at email@example.com