This reflection is an expansion on a theme from the upcoming book, Everybody Innovates Here, coming at the end of January. To read more excerpts and get news about its launch, check out econogy.co/blog. This reflection is also cross-posted at that location.
Human diversity and inclusion are two of the most powerful tools we have to solve the tough problems that have been eluding us — for the simple reason that no one person can have all the information and experiences and insights within her or himself alone to crack through the barriers that have been blocking us. Whether social, political, environmental… we are in desperate need of paradigm changes, and we know from history that paradigm changes don’t come from the insiders.
But our skill sets for capitalizing on diversity and inclusion are among our worst, overall. We do a terrible job of using those benefits. Our deep-seated assumptions about who has relevant knowledge and who doesn’t, whose voice should be heard and whose should be held in a box labelled “input or “research, “ who should make the decisions and who should accept them and go along with them….
Our assumptions are outdated. They have been wrecked by poor use. They lack legitimacy in a world that senses, that knows, that there is a big something missing.
But we don’t have the skills and the language and the systems to pull that something missing out into the open.
So the block continues to grow, and the problems continue to fester, across nearly every aspect of the modern world.
- Corporations seeking big breakthroughs find very few of them, despite millions of dollars and hours spent chasing them.
- Small businesses and entrepreneurs flounder in mental isolation, spending precious years on solutions that don’t accurately fit the kind of problems that matter.
- Nonprofits and other organizations that are trying to solve tough problems cannot get past twiddling at the edges, or they limit their impact to one small corner of the world and fail to spread to the extent of the actual need.
- And governments, everyone’s favorite whipping post, struggle to provide what they need to provide in a poisoned environment, in part of their own making.
In a world that has so many unmet, acute, urgent needs — needs that solving would unlock real value — why aren’t we doing it?
Some pundits may pin it on human self-centeredness, or Machiavellian political urges, or the fact that new ideas are just hard. But we’ve done hard and noble and groundbreaking things before. We’re doing them now — just not enough and not fast enough.
The root source of our current blocks isn’t technical — we have technologies that our grandparents could not have imagined. It’s not strictly political — governments have driven great strides in human health and well being in the past 200 years. And it’s not that people have somehow fundamentally shifted from effective to floundering: despite the hand wringing in the daily news, we know that there’s nothing new under the sun in human behavior and morals. Across the millennia to today, what we’re seeing is mostly variations on a theme.
The core difference now is that the issues that bedevil us lie beyond the scope of what we could address with our Industrial Era tools — specialization, hierarchy, efficiency, professionalism. The biggest issues facing us cross a range of scientific or technical bailiwicks, demonstrating the most need at the intersections of the topics that we have carefully divided from each other by degrees and professional memberships.
And increasingly, the division between the human mind and heart — the emphasis on rational solutions over intuition, intellectual solutions over the human need for solidarity and stability, analytical and design-informed methods of problem-solving — all of these create magma domes under our collective rational exteriors. Those divisions threaten, they sow fear, they further block real solutions, they twist decision-making and solution-doing in ways that can undercut more than they solve.
The core challenge in front of us in the new economic/social/cultural era that is dawning is to take apart our no-longer-necessary blocks and learn to harness human creativity, human learning, and the full range of human insight in ways that we have not before. This means that our basic methods for how we do the work of advancing humanity is going to have to become very different, just as the skills we used to harvest rye in the 1600s bore little resemblance to the Ford assembly line of the 1910s. That’s the kind of profound everything-change we’re going to have to undergo.
But we don’t have a few hundred years to fight through the transition this time. Between global warming and global urbanization and a host of other significant challenges, our window for a successful transition is a whole, whole lot shorter.
I don’t know how to solve those global challenges, but I have learned that the best way to find genuinely new solutions is most clearly seen at the opposite end of the scale from the global: in groups of people who bring the most diverse possible range of skills, experiences, outlooks and perspectives to work together in in true collaboration — I often say co-creation. These are the kinds of teams that find, understand and figure out how to use the treasures in the spaces in between our individual domains.
But we don’t do that by the seat of the pants. We aren’t genetically wired or culturally acclimated to work with people who are different from us. Both our in-bred defensive mechanisms and our cultural learning actually pushes, hard, against that kind of openness. We came up as tribal people, after all, and Us vs. Them lies deep in our psyches.
But us vs them looks pretty likely to take us all out, if we don’t learn to work around it.
We’ve done this before — agriculture, formal education, social niceties, riding a bicycle, all required us to work around our urges and assumptions and long-learned behaviors from earlier eras. And often those long-learned behaviors had to do with fear of others. We can certainly do it again.
But co-creation with diverse people is a learned skill, not an innate talent. If we truly intend to capitalize on our potential, to find the solutions to the tough problems, we can’t keep doing it the same way. We need to build, learn, teach and use new ways of working together. And we have to replace our old methods with the systems, the processes, the paradigms that reinforce this new approach. And that’s not just an exercise for the classroom, or the corporate office, or for the city council chambers. It’s in all of them, across all of them.
We can do this. But we have to start. As soon as we can.