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How to Create a Diverse Team and Make it Thrive

Bastian Bergmann

These days, everybody wants to make diversity work – but few really know how. And with the Stanley Cup Finals set to start tonight, look no further than the winning hockey teams in the NHL.

Remember the Detroit Red Wings? From 2001 to 2008, the Red Wings cemented their position as a dynasty in the NHL: The best record in 4 of those 6 seasons. 6 trips to the playoffs. 2 Stanley Cups. What made this team special? Diversity. With around 48%, the Red Wings had one of the highest shares on non-North American players on their roster. So was it purely birthplace diversity that helped greats like Steve Yzerman, Niklas Lidstrom, and Pavel Datsyuk lift multiple Stanley Cups? Not quite. General Manager Ken Holland built diversity carefully, selecting mainly Swedish and Russian-born players, whose predominantly technical finesse complemented the physical style of play of their North Americans teammates. The Detroit Red Wings’ recipe to success: Diversity for sure, but carefully built and well managed.

We applied this intuition when one of us set up WATTx, a Berlin-based innovation hub. For WATTx, building thriving teams capable of conceiving new, creative outputs is crucial. When we recruited our top talent, we looked for people capable of bringing diverse perspectives to our challenges in the IoT and smart climate space. The result: you will find 11 different nationalities among our 20-person team. Recently, 2 US Americans, 1 Croatian, 1 Russian, 1 Polish, 1 Portuguese, and 1 Irish put their heads together and built a working prototype for a cutting-edge IoT product. The solution will hopefully soon increase energy efficiency in many smart office buildings around the world.

Yet, being diverse is neither our nor the Red Wings’ only answer to winning. It is about making diversity work towards the purpose of your team. In creative challenges like product development or consulting, this means building a diverse team that generates creative energy and drive from this diversity. How do we make it work for us? Over the course of our careers in strategy consulting and at WATTx, we learned five key lessons that we’d like to share with you.

1. Create it – look for diversity in perspectives

Remember, your objective is not to look more diverse on paper, but to make your team think more creatively through diversity. This means you need to go beyond counting diversity in ethnicity, nationality, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or age.

Let’s assume your team is typical for teams in many European or US companies – it’s likely not diverse enough. Why are we so sure? Remember, your objective is not to look more diverse on paper, but to make your team think more creatively through diversity. This means you need to go beyond counting diversity in ethnicity, nationality, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or age. Establishing diversity along these dimensions is important in its own right, yet what makes it so valuable is the embedded mix of views and perspectives, or as academics call it, the problem solving heuristics your team has. Your first order question thus becomes: What facets of diversity in views and perspectives do I already have, and which am I missing? This is a hard question to answer.

Here is a tip: Look at the dominant mode of reasoning and communication in your team, and think of the polar opposite. Then do the same for other strong defaults that you observe. Then test your intuition: review as many applicants as you possibly can and test-drive their mental defaults. Would these candidates change the mix, or reinforce what you have? A mini-case or an open-ended question can help you get a feel for this. When making a decision, check your gut instincts: Do you favor a candidate because you “feel comfortable” with her or because you “know what you’re getting”? While we sympathize with you – we have been there – this is a warning sign. Your warm feeling indicates you’re falling short of your diversity objectives. To be scientifically sound and solid, don’t shy away from psychological profiling to find the best mix of personalities either.

2. Never stop building it – yet don’t do it for the sake of it

Yes, there can be too much of a good thing, and diversity is one of them. This goes back to our NHL example: a greater share of European players means more wins, yet great diversity amongst the Europeans actually increases your chance of missing the playoffs. As Ken Holland, the Detroit Red Wings General Manager said: “It wasn’t a master plan to come up with all these Swedes, but once you do have a certain player, it makes sense to complement him with a similar type of player.”

So when you’re hiring, balance diversity with avoiding potential frictions among your team members. How? Ask yourself: how can we use this candidate’s skills and perspectives fruitfully, and who can she make better? Admittedly, this question is often impossible to answer. Hence, accept that your team will never be perfect; it needs to be built in a trial and error fashion. This means continuously reflecting about your team and its productive and non-productive interactions, and re-configuring it if need be. This can mean reducing diversity and subsequently increasing it in another dimension. How much and what type of diversity you need also depends on the game you play. Research shows that diversity is more valuable in creative tasks and less so in efficiency oriented ones. This explains why the Detroit Red Wings aimed at limiting it to 3 nationalities on the ice, whereas we see higher levels of diversity in consulting and at WATTx.

3. Fuse it – a diverse team knows no ‘my idea’

Diversity needs a currency to thrive: ideas. Once you have your diverse team in place, you should establish a key ground rule to guide the interaction among team members and with leadership – the currency of your discussions should be content and ideas. Yet, mint this currency wisely. Have you ever been in love with one of your ideas?

Creative and idea-driven people often define themselves through the ideas they have. We have certainly been there ourselves.

“Owning your ideas” sounds great before you think about it: first, owning makes them invariably worse, because you are not tapping into your team’s diversity, and impactful and novel ideas typically stem from multiple different, yet uniquely fitting pieces. Second, it creates false incentives. Having an idea is good, working with one, especially “if it was not yours”, is then often not as highly regarded. There is no ‘my’ idea. It took us quite some time to figure this one out. As a result, we have told people to not only discuss ‘their’ work with others, but to actively work together. We have seen substantial jumps in quality when people applied this working model. Perplexingly, such a working model is often not the norm. Take consulting: Young consultants are told to ‘own’ their work streams, and deep collaboration mostly happens vertically with the project leader. Yet it does not have to be this way. Our best ideas are known by many names, like many of the best Beatles songs are still known as “Lennon&McCartney” (don’t get us started on their solo careers – you get the point).

4. Mix it – experiment with creativity formats

Diversity is nothing without exchange. As much as your individual team members differ, so will the ways in which they best express and share their ideas. This is a topic even in homogeneous teams, yet even more important when your team is highly diverse. Therefore, try different formats so that everyone’s voice can be heard and skill-sets be seen. At WATTx, we established two other formats we’ve found to work well for us: fireside chats and our pitch night. Fireside chats do not follow a strict schedule, but we aim to do 1-2 per month. It’s a very casual format in which team members or externals talk about their ideas, their research, or their current project. The casual atmosphere significantly reduces the barrier to ask “obvious” questions. Many new ideas for us have sprung from that.

Our quarterly pitch night serves a different purpose. It invites team members to pitch their most promising idea to the entire team – if successful, it is likely to land a spot on our topic road-map for the following quarter and receive dedicated support to turn it into a real-life prototype. To make it challenging and ensure people have thought hard enough about what to pitch, we have adopted an idea from Astro Teller, the Captain of Moonshots at X (Alphabet’s famous innovation factory): people need to bring a list of the 10 ideas they scratched during the process of arriving at their best shot.

5. Keep it alive – align in the end, not the beginning

Diversity has a habit of disappearing. Even the most diverse group of people will naturally gravitate towards a center of norm after having spent enough time together, and in this process become more homogeneous.

Diversity has a habit of disappearing. Even the most diverse group of people will naturally gravitate towards a center of norm after having spent enough time together, and in this process become more homogeneous. This adaptation can be beneficial: If your team’s mission becomes more efficiency oriented, a certain degree of group think may be healthy. Yet often it’s not; and the effect of this is losing most diversity benefits you so carefully tried to build. Regularly re-assigning people to different tasks and collaboration arrangements is one intuitive response to this.

But we kill diversity in many ways. Here is a popular one: Do you catch yourself using telling your team “let’s align on this” a bit too often? We certainly sometimes do. What’s the matter? See the need for alignment as what it is: An attempt at convergence, a clean-up of the ambiguity arising from the diversity of different perspectives. Again, this can be helpful – sometimes, at the end of a creative process. But too often we collectively fall into the trap of aligning too quickly, failing to keep productive diversity of viewpoints alive.

So what does this mean for you – and all of us?

Let’s be frank. None of these 5 lessons is revolutionary in its own right, yet applying them consistently is remarkably hard. We think it’s actually so hard that it should not only be a job for executives or team leaders, but all of us. It won’t work unless the entire team, like the Detroit Red Wings, fully buys into it. This means tapping deep into our personal being and surfacing surprising new viewpoints to improve on your teams’ collective ideas. Only then, we succeed in  keeping diversity alive and guiding it to its inherent purpose: Making our sports teams more effective, our firms more innovative, and all of us more prosperous.

Bastian Bergmann is the founder and COO of WATTx, an innovation hub in Berlin focused on chasing moonshot innovation projects in the IoT and smart climate space. Previously, he was a Strategy Consultant with The Boston Consulting Group in Hamburg and New York.


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