No, I'm not referring to the politically-correct race/gender/age meaning of diversity -- although that's certainly important as well.
I'd like to take a bit of your time to discuss the importance -- and difficulty -- of establishing intellectual diversity: the power that comes from harnessing a wide range of opinions, perspectives, experiences and disciplines.
The natural tendency I've observed in any organizational culture is to be self-reinforcing over time. Inevitably, certain lines of thought become amplified. Others get filtered and attenuated.
As a result, the intellectual gene pool narrows and purifies until only a few choice DNA strains survive.
All may be well for a while, until a new environmental context is presented, and then the results can be disasterous to all involved.
Is intellectual diversity important? And -- as a leader -- what can you do to overcome the corporate equivalent of inbreeding?
What Brought This All About
Checking Twitter early this morning, I found I was referenced in a rather scathing post regarding another vendor.
While I prefer to distance myself from this sort of harsh critique -- and certainly didn't agree with everything that was being said -- I did find myself thinking about how some companies tend to self-reinforce their past behaviors, and others seem bent on a continual cycle of re-invention and innovation.
What might make the difference between the two?
Why Intellectual Diversity Is A Good Thing
Nature is full of plenty of examples of successful genotypes that were doing pretty well until the world changed around them. The Irish potato famine. The decline of the bee population. Dinosaurs, if you must.
One of my personal EMC heroes -- Jeff Goldberg -- used to say "when the rate of change outside the organization exceeds the rate of change inside the organization, the end is near".
True for organisms and organizations alike.
When a species goes through a rapid environmental shift, they either quickly adapt, or they are diminished. Same for organizations. We here at EMC work hard to thrive in one of the most competitive and fast-moving sectors on the planet: enterprise IT.
Many of our customers also thrive in their chosen, highly-competitive segments as well.
As I spend time with different customer groups, I do a lot of listening and observing. One of the things I'm now looking for is diversity of opinion and perspective as a good thing to be encouraged -- and not to be smothered or overridden with social pressure.
There are a handful of industries that appear to be going through comparatively violent structural change, for example: health care providers in the US.
Once the inevitable change in business strategy percolates down to the IT organization, you'll frequently find a cadre of IT leaders imported from different industries: finance, retail, etc.
They didn't have the required intellectual diversity, recognized the problem, and imported some. Smart move from where I sit.
I see consumer tech companies hiring high-touch retail experts, financial services firms hiring counselers and therapists, manufacturing companies hiring IT people from large law firms, and so on. There's a great deal of intellectual cross-breeding going on, if you know where to look.
Values Coherent, Perspectives Diverse
Intellectual diversity (a good thing) is not the same as value diversity (generally, a not good thing). For example, here at EMC, we strongly agree on shared values: customers and partners first, always aim to innovate and improve your game, respect others, grow the business, and so on.
However, we frequently get into heated and passionate discussions around the best way to do those things. Strong coherence on what's important; broad diversity through different perspectives on how to get there.
Personally, I relish those discussions (although they can sometimes be a bit frustrating) -- you get to see just how many potential answers there might be to a single issue.
A company comes up with a good product. They grow as a result. A self-reinforcing feedback loop inevitably sets in: these are the things that made us successful in the past; why would we ever abandon our roots? They devolve in attempting to relive the glory of their past, not realizing that their time has come and gone.
Another company comes up with a good product. They grow as a result. They realize that success is fleeting, and quickly go about extending their breadth and reach through heavy doses of both internal R&D as well as an aggressive M&A program. Not everything they attempt to do always works out, but much of it does.
While product and technology innovation is always important, they also see other opportunities to innovate: re-inventing how they organize themselves, how they partner with others, creating new business models, engage with customers, etc.
And -- as a result -- this company on a treadmill of continual re-invention. It's hard to pin down exactly what they're doing, because it's changing all the time. They don't fit neatly into any established category.
The Inevitable Apple Example
How would you categorize Apple?
A consumer electronics company? An IT company? An online media company? A cloud service provider? A marketing company?
They've been so successful -- and have grown so large -- they now defy any attempt at categorization.
The hard-core technologists will inevitably argue that Apple really didn't "invent" anything. For the rest of us, this is a painfully irrelevant argument -- they invented a new business model built on using technology in new ways. You don't really know what they'll be doing next, do you?
And you rarely see them wallow in self-congratulatory excess.
The EMC Example
EMC is certainly no Apple by any measure (don't we all wish!) but we've been marching to a different drummer for quite a while now.
Would you categorize EMC as a storage company? A virtualization company? A security company? A data protection company? A big data analytics company? A collaboration and content mgmt company? An enterprise IT cloud company? Yes, and yes, and yes ...
Once again, the hard-core technologists will inevitable argue that EMC really hasn't "invented" all that much. For many of us, this is once again largely irrelevant one way or another -- we're continually extending and re-inventing our business model, largely dependent on using technology in new ways. And I'd like to think we try and avoid the self-congratulatory excesses.
Underneath the covers, you'll find a mind-bending array of intellectual diversity here. We've acquired something like 80 companies over the last decade or so. We do business in over 80 countries around the globe, in every industry and segment you can imagine. Our potential intellectual gene pool is quite large -- if we can figure out how to harness it all!
New Behaviors Encourage Intellectual Diversity
Keep in mind, I was at EMC when we were a one-product company (Symmetrix) so I can compare and contrast the behaviors we used to have 15 years ago, and the ones we have today.
Back in the late 1990s, joining EMC was almost like joining a cult. Here is our world view, here is our culture, better get on board or find somewhere else to work. I don't care what the question is, the answer is Symmetrix!
Large quantities of corporate kool-aid were force-fed at every opportunity. Debate and discussion were very much discouraged. We were the quintessential biological monoculture.
Post dotcom bust, and our genotype wasn't doing so well. The world had changed rather quickly, we hadn't. Enter Joe Tucci, a new game plan, and the rest is history as they say.
M&A has turned out to be an excellent source of intellectual diversity for us at EMC. You're not really buying a product, or a market -- you're paying for really smart and successful people.
Sometimes, these acquisitions are seen through a lens of what we call "adjacencies" -- e.g. security, document management, virtualization, big data analytics, and more.
But we're also not shy about injecting new diversity right into the very heart of our core businesses (e.g. Isilon, XtremIO)
Whether we hire externally, or gain new co-workers through acquisition, there are a set of observed behaviors that have evolved on both sides of the equation.
The first thing new arrivals notice is that this is a very big place, and not everyone shares their views on everything. The confident ones aren't deterred; there are plenty of forums to seek out like-minded people (e.g. EMC|ONE our internal social platform) where you quickly get an appreciation of just how intellectually diverse this place can be.
Hey, in a population of 50,000+ really smart people around the globe, there's going to be at least a *few* people who share your interests :)
All heartily encouraged.
Organizationally, diversity of perspective is now considered a good thing -- even though it can sometimes be a bit frustrating. We generally like working with people with different skills and backgrounds than our own.
Everyone can have a new angle or perspective to bring to the party -- if you take the time to listen carefully.
Sometimes, the people involved may get frustrated that their advice is not always heeded; but -- they are being listened to, and valued for speaking up.
One of the very cool things about my job here is that I get to work with dozens and dozens of internal teams. From where I sit, there appear to be no shortage of clever, cool and insightful ideas that are constantly bubbling up -- the hard work always comes from putting the idea into practice! The "innovation engine" here at EMC continues to hum along at an ever-increasing temp.
This innovative behavior has almost become a corporate norm -- institutionalized, if you will. Just ask Steve Todd. If you're involved in some group, it's sort of a given that you'll have a handful of big ideas you'd really like to put into practice.
Of course, the company can't act on all of them -- nor would our customers or partners particularly appreciate being at the firing end of the resulting heat blast -- but many of them do get acted on incrementally.
And, if not immediately, then when the opportunity presents itself. Patience is not an easy thing to learn ...
How Diverse Is Your Company?
I suppose the predecessor question is more important -- are you in a fast-moving, rapidly-changing industry? If not, this shouldn't be a problem -- or, perhaps maybe a sign of an even bigger problem, e.g. perceptual blindness!
Does everyone come from the same sort of places, say the same sorts of things, always come up with the same kinds of answers? Not good. Do you spend your time celebrating the past vs. thinking hard about the future? Also not good. Are new arrivals celebrated and valued for their new perspectives, or are you just getting different versions of the same genotype? Not good.
Organisms are collections of cells that thrive and adapt.
Genetic diversity is a powerful attribute in their long-term survival.
Organizations are collections of people that thrive and adapt.
And I would argue that intellectual diversity is an equally powerful attribute in their long-term survival.