I found myself recently spending almost three days with an extraordinarily diverse group. Of the eight people with me, there was someone from Canada, America, Argentina, Japan, Indian, China, Germany and the UK; we ranged in age from 27 to 58; and in terms of specialism there was a psychiatrist, an international ice hockey coach, the head of HR for a global IT company, a couple of entrepreneurs and the provost of a major design college. I cannot image a more diverse collection of people spending time together.
What had brought us from all corners of the world was the World Economic Forum in Dubai, where more than 1,000 experts had gathered to consider a range of global challenges. The focus of our specific council was the rather ambiguous question about the future of leadership. This extraordinary and rather frustrating experience gave me an opportunity to reflect again on what research has helped us to understand the power of diversity. For, while the experience was indeed deeply frustrating at times, the outcome of our time together was without doubt deeper and more profound than it would have been if we were a group of similar people.
Here are the lessons I took away from my experience:
- Diversity comes at a cost. Our council had been speaking virtually for some time, yet when we met we still struggled to really understand the unique framing each brought to our conversation. My previous conversations with a bunch of psychologists like me was a great deal easier than the conversations in Dubai. And my guess is that was true for the psychiatrist and the ice hockey coach. It’s significantly easier to establish a way of working between people who have the same mindset and experience. So be aware that if the question is ambiguous and the team diverse then they are going to really struggle.
- The power of suspending judgment. So it’s important, given the struggles to understand each other, that each tries to suspend their judgment. In our own group we were helped enormously by a chairperson who frequently asked each of us to reflect on what we were thinking. That means that in these circumstances, being prepared to suspend judgment and simply to listen to each other is crucial.
- Staying with it. We had committed to spend three days together – in the same room, talking about the same subject, with the same people. That’s an extraordinary commitment and one that I know few people are prepared to give. But what we found was that, without that commitment, it would have been impossible for us to truly make some of the breakthroughs in our thinking. We simply had to get through the barriers to bridge to each other and this took time and being present. For me, the point here is that it takes a significant time commitment to make any sort of breakthrough when working on ambiguous questions.
- Focus, Focus, Focus. We had come to the WEF meeting to talk about one question, and one question only: How will our models of leadership have to change over the coming decade? We each had our own perspective on this question – drawn from our professional experiences and what we had learnt in our own countries. This focus was crucial to our coming to any breakthrough thinking. Without this, our individual experiences and perspectives could have led to us simply passing by each other with no real connection. Getting the question right is crucial to pulling the disparate ideas of the team together.
Will I be doing it again? Absolutely! But for the moment I am spending the next month with people just like me!