How can leaders leverage diversity to create a culture of innovation

Kerridge & Partners 2018 Leadership Conference opened with an address by Dr. Fons Trompenaars, the founder of THT and world-renowned business and culture consultant. Having spent 30 years helping Fortune 500 leaders to tackle their cultural issues, Fons questioned the audience on what dilemmas are facing the world at present and what these issues may mean for the future of leadership here in New Zealand.

From the original settlement of our country to the continual increase in immigration, Kiwis know what it is to experience a variety of cultures and ways of working. However, the models and theories on which ‘best practice’ leadership and approaches to innovation are based are rooted in cultural bias. The majority of these models are designed with Anglo-Saxon businesses in mind, and yet are used by 95% of the globe. Our idea of the traits that make a great leader have changed, shifting from a requirement for courage to the need for vision and strategic drive, but the models around which they operate remain the same. Approaches to business can either be centralised or decentralised, high thinking or high feeling, individual or collective and so on. Fons suggests that in order to be truly innovative, we must negate the bipolarity of these models – combining various perspectives to achieve a whole new point of view. Some of the worlds most successful ventures have adopted this method, with Apple mixing high functionality with a focus on aesthetics to produce world leading electronics, and Formula One combining safety and speed to entertain around the world. The best products and ideas are born out of this mixing of minds, and to innovate is to combine what is not easily joined.

Fons describes culture as an onion; on the outside are the manifestations of that culture, and on the inside are the norms and values. At the very heart of the onion are the basic and implicit assumptions that drive our decision making. These deeper layers enable us to solve difficult problems concerning human relationships, time and nature. When describing a dilemma in which you are the passenger in a car driven by your friend, who when speeding through a town centre hits a pedestrian, Fons demonstrated how varying cultures would reconcile this crisis. 97% of Swiss respondents would not lie to keep their friend from trouble, whereas only 37% of South Korean respondents would do the same. 89% of Kiwis would tell the truth, leaving their friend to face the consequences of their actions. These differences suggest that such a close relationship in New Zealand is not enough to eclipse the culture of integrity and respect for others. Similar patterns could be seen in other types of groups, with the marketing profession more likely to put their relationship first than the legal or HR profession. Culture is the result of these competing values fighting for preference, and our capacity to manage these conflicting values determines our ability to innovate and ultimately our success.

Culture is a risk when one value dominates its opposite and due consideration is not paid to an alternate view. There is no magic bullet to overcome this disparity and enhance innovation, but leaders can learn to provide their people with a different lens – considering an approach and its contrast. Fons’ suggests the adoption of ‘co-opetition’ in driving innovation, with businesses cooperating on several levels whilst competing on others. Kiwis are traditionally considered to excel in the production of new ideas, but there is much more that can be done to tackle differences in culture and issues of innovation

See Fons in person in Auckland on 27 September at our one day Masterclass “Leveraging Diversity and Inclusion to Drive Performance”. Click here for more.