Why diversity (and disagreement) are key for success

Guest blog

A chartered engineer, David Falzani is president of Sainsbury Management Fellows which was founded over 25 years ago by Lord Sainsbury to encourage better management skills in UK engineering. David is also chief executive of Polaris Associates which helps entrepreneurial companies develop and grow as well as a visiting professor at Nottingham University Business School where he teaches how to bring technology, innovation and entrepreneurialism together to create successful businesses. 

Diversity of engineers is a perennial subject in engineering and technology.  Gender diversity is the most common focus, but also race, religion, age and so on.  For example, the statistics around gender participation are indeed stark. According to WISE and EngineeringUK, whilst 37% of girls study STEM subjects at A level, only 13% of applicants for Engineering at University are female (compared to 38% females for mathematics degrees), and then 17% less female engineering graduates take a job in engineering and technology than males (51% versus 68%). Overall, today just 6.5% of the engineering workforce are women. I’m not going to theorise as to why this is the case. Instead, I’m going to ask: Why is diversity important?  Is it being imposed on the economy by a bunch of liberals trying to dictate their values, or is there something more valuable going on?

Diversity meeting
Davidchairs a roundtable meeting at SMF on increasing diversity

I’m reminded of the story of the Apollo Team Syndrome. In the 1980s experiments were carried out by Dr Meredith Belbin where teams were set testing challenges or tasks and their relative performance was measured against other teams. The so called Apollo Team was a tag given to the team of the brightest and most qualified individuals. The Apollo name of course referred to the NASA space program and it conjures the mental image of a group of experts.

The interesting result was that the Apollo team usually underperformed the majority of other teams. Although bright and individually capable, they could not work together as an effective unit, lacking the communication skills, the structure, and the “glue” to maximise their individual potential contributions.

At the end of the research, Dr Belbin concluded that diversity was important to achieve a balanced team, and diverse balanced teams tended to outperform other teams across a range of challenges. Dr Belbin went on to explain the different profile characteristics of the individuals within a team and how the diversity should be combined for greatest effect. All of this is probably not too controversial. However, there’s a flipside.

My view is that diversity increases the efficacy of output but can cause a more difficult process. An example of this is what I call the apocryphal agitator experiment. A team is achieving a certain level of performance. Then an agitator is added to the team, whose role it is to question, argue, play devil’s advocate and generally upset any status quo. The interesting but not entirely unexpected result is that the team with the agitator achieves a new and higher level of performance than it had previously. The decision making process is subject to more rigour and analysis. However, much more interesting is what happened when the team was then allowed to vote off one member. In the majority of cases the team voted off the agitator. In other words, the team removes the secret of its own success – presumably because the individual is regarded as a pain. I’ve seen similar dynamics in boards of directors, where contrarian thinking is massaged away in return for a quieter life and (over) certainty in the established view. In past CEO roles I have to admit feeling much more relaxed when all the other directors share the same views as my own. There’s a natural tendency to prefer people who think like oneself. I wonder if this bias hinders diversity – and thereby success?

The purpose of diversity is exactly the opposite – it’s to encourage better results through a process that encompasses different perspectives and insights, not ignores or side lines them. There’s a correlation between positive team stress and level of performance – up to a point at least. Shaped a bit like a bell curve, when taken too far it can be chaotic and destructive.

I’ve worked with people who are pain to work with, in several countries and cultures, but the individuals have undoubtedly added more value than the pain they’ve caused. The stress level in the group increases, but undoubtedly this has led to a better result.

However, diversity doesn’t necessarily have to lead to increased pain in order to be a source of value. It can also be a source of creativity and support. There’s no added value from having a team of 5 all with same analysis and opinion. It reduces the creativeness and husbandry of the process of the work. I’m not sure this is widely understood.

I haven’t chosen to tackle the question of why there’s not more diversity in engineering (it’s widely covered by others), but given the currently low levels, there must be a substantial opportunity cost to UK plc. I think it’s a safe bet that we should start explaining the advantages of diversity and highlight the actual deliverable benefits to UK industry. It might surprise a few people, and would at the very least put forward a business case to help enable the agents of change.