When it comes to teamwork, diversity prevents myopia

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by Stephen Hawley Martin

Cross-functional teams can be extremely effective, particularly in tackling a specific challenge or opportunity. But what’s the best way to set one up and to organize it to ensure the maximum chance of success?

Team members should be chosen by a team leader appointed by management. Giving the leader the authority to choose the team will heighten his or her sense of accountability for getting the task done. But the leader should be cautioned to be sure the team has the diversity of members it needs. The following example demonstrates why.

For example, a team was formed in response to a reader survey that had evaluated a newspaper’s entertainment section. The paper was one of several competing in a large metropolitan area. The team included representatives from editorial, production and distribution. No one from advertising sales was asked to participate.

The team decided to integrate national entertainment news with local art events, plays and concerts. What looked to be a lively and dynamic new section was created. But after a few months the team was reconvened. The product had minimal advertising support.

This time, the team pulled in a representative from advertising. Prospective advertisers for the section were surveyed and the problem identified. The new section was in a tabloid format, which uses full newspaper pages turned on their sides and folded to make a dimensionally smaller section than the rest of the paper. Since there was more than one newspaper serving the area, this required advertisers to design specific ads to fit this section, or to rescale existing ads that had been created to run on full-size pages. Many of the advertisers surveyed did not want to go to this trouble and expense.

The section’s design was changed to a full-size format and immediately began attracting more advertising. If the team had included a representative from advertising in the beginning, it might have avoided unnecessary work and loss of revenue.

This underscores the value of diversity on cross-functional teams. Diversity should not be just about race, gender, age, or sexual orientation. According to William T. Monahan, former Imation CEO and author of “Billion Dollar Turnaround: The 3M Spinoff That Became Imation,” when it comes to finding innovative solutions, diversity of thought is as important as other differences. He points out that the Myers-Briggs system for categorizing personalities contains sixteen basic types. Imagine how myopic a team would be if all its leaders had the same one.

The old saying “birds of a feather flock together” is true. Unless cautioned to do otherwise, it is human nature for leaders to pick team members who resemble their own personality type.

Studies show that diversity engenders creativity. The more diversity of personnel on any given task, the better the final product will be if differences are respected, authenticated and integrated. Communication must also be open.

With many different points of view, projects may take longer to accomplish, but the end result will have more people committed to it because more people had a chance to influence the process. Also, a strong leader will have the opportunity to listen to all points of view, then to choose and move aggressively and quickly.

At one time or another most managers have been through the management training exercise in which they are lost at sea or a desert after a crash. All that’s left are a handful of specific items, ranging from a case of scotch to a small mirror or a piece of cheese. Then managers must rank the items in terms of their importance to survival.

In this exercise each manager must independently come up with his or her own rankings. Then groups of managers are assigned to arrive at some consensus. This process parallels real-life group decision making.

The final scores in this training exercise are usually set against some “expert” criteria. Repeatedly, groups that have the widest diversity of knowledge — a group ranging for example from a former Marine who’s an expert in desert survival to an accountant who’s never spent a night under the stars — will come up with the list most closely aligned to the “correct” answers.

Stephen Hawley Martin is a former principal of The Martin Agency in Richmond and author of more than a half dozen books including his newest, Lead Enterprise Leader: How to Get Things Done Without Doing It All Yourself.

He is editor and publisher of The Oaklea Press, a book publishing business dedicated primarily to helping business executives increase productivity. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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