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The case for building more diverse teams in Asia: Agility

Everyone is familiar with the Indian story of six blind travellers that come across an elephant. Each man creates a unique — although limited — perspective on the animal as he latches on a different body part. Originally used to illustrate how different subjective perspectives could all be equally valid, this fable which originated from Asia is a fitting paean to diversity today. What if the blind men were led by someone who could see how each one was, in fact, correct? And that together they formed a perfect portrait of an otherwise hard-to-pin-down reality?

This idea that diversity enables teams to have a 360-degree view of reality holds up a case for diversity as a promoter of agility. Recent research is showing that diversity and agility are correlated. Agile teams tend to be diverse, and diverse teams tend to be agile. While diversity isn’t some elixir of success that directly causes agility, there are undeniable benefits when organizations intentionally seek to build diverse teams and leadership. This is probably not foremost on Asian managers minds, considering that not a single Asian company made it to the top 20 of Thomson Reuters’ 2018 Diversity and Inclusivity Index Ranking.

For Stefano Zordan, one of the Center for Asia Leadership’s Teaching Fellows from Harvard, the link between agility and diversity is undeniable. The editor of the Italian edition of The Practice of Adaptive Leadership believes that agility and diversity are deeply related and intertwined. Stefano, who also did talent and organization analysis with Accenture, a firm known for its “agile transformation services,” says: “The more diverse a group is, the more it is able to comprehend, to integrate, to respect [others]… then the more the group becomes agile.”

A 2015 McKinsey & Company report examined data from 366 public companies and found that companies with higher ethnic and racial diversity are 35% more likely to have better financial returns. Meanwhile, organizations with higher gender diversity are 15% more likely to be more profitable than their average industry counterparts. Today, companies can no longer ignore the call to be open to talent from whatever part of the world — and that includes Asian players. Here’s why being conscious about diversity creates an environment where agility can thrive:

     1. ‘Productive challenges’

It is possibly diverse teams’ struggle to adapt to different cultural values, communication styles, and a complex group dynamic that cultivates agility. Aside from having the tendency to lull people into conformity, homogenous teams tend to fall into more patterns of group think and confirmation bias.

A diverse workplace can encourage more thought-provoking discussions and shared “productive challenges,” leading to better over-all performance. A 2016 Harvard Business Review article mentioned having diverse teams can push employees out of their comfort zone and into the realm of productive collaboration.

     2. Hello, innovation

What happens when you’re constantly “culture-shocked” at work? For organizations that are leveraging on the professional and cognitive discomfort of working with people of different ethnicities, age groups, and gender, the results are surprisingly out-of-the-box and quite possibly leading-edge.

“Groups that not only accept diversity, but encourage the expression of multiple opinions, visions, value sets, multiple beliefs that co-exist are better equipped to deal with adaptive challenges,” explains Zordan. True enough, a 2015 study on 7,600 London-based organizations conducted by Economic Geography discovered that diverse teams are more likely to develop product innovations compared to homogenous teams. This is a welcome insight for the region, which despite being a hotbed of innovation, still has countries which lag behind the innovation frontrunners like Singapore, Japan, and South Korea. According to the Global Innovation Index 2019 report, countries like Brunei, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh need some serious catching up to do.

   3. Training for change

Employees exposed to environments populated by unfamiliar characters and dynamics are trained to anticipate and react to changes and challenges better and faster. A 2017 HuffPost article says people who are part of diverse teams are more dynamic, more agile, and more well-prepared. The mere presence of one person in a team whose background and way of thinking is different influences the group to go beyond what seems to be the immediately obvious solution – office politics aside, of course. Day in and day out, people in diverse teams are provoked to see the world with a different lens. Zordan further notes, “When diversity is seen as a gift, that means the group has done the work of self-understanding that is necessary to undergo moments of change and uncertainty.”

In today’s economy of highly volatile market forces, many Asian organizations probably share the blind men’s “groping in the dark” feeling. Increasingly complex problems show that no one person or department can claim to have a monopoly of 21st century business acumen.

If you are all blind and obsess over the same animal body part, your perspective is as limited as your confidence in what you know is overblown. And it is probably in the light of this reality that diverse teams shine — through a supersized point of view and a stellar range of skills, network, and experience.

For organizations that are looking to learn interventions and frameworks to promote agility regardless of how diverse and inclusive their teams currently are, there are training programs available like the Center for Asia Leadership’s upcoming “Adaptive Leadership: Leading an Agile Workforce for the 21st Century” program in Manila, Philippines on September 12-14, 2019.

For more details:

To register:

By Nirva Delacruz & Lee Jeannie