Diversity: A Key to the Innovation Engine

Posted by Thom McElroyon July 15, 2011

Perhaps my favorite concept in business is the idea of synergy — the thought that the whole of our ideas is greater than the sum of their parts. It only stands to reason that as leaders bring a variety of ideas, background, experience, and personal history together, the outcome is being able to outpace the competition. Emerging from a world where diversity was about “leveling the playing field,” many companies today are realizing that just the opposite is true — diversity is about raising the bar for the whole organization; it is about gaining competitive advantage.

Over the past year my team interviewed roughly 50 diverse executives in my marketplace — consumer business and retail. The stories we heard were about how their companies are turning business resource groups (BRGs) and diverse teams within their organization into a source of innovation. In one example, a manufacturer of charcoal briquettes found its brand dying — people were switching to gas and electric solutions. But the Hispanic BRG at the company pointed out that that in their culture, outdoor cooking with wood was popular. The company refocused their marketing efforts on this segment and gave the brand a second life with the fastest growing consumer segment in the U.S.I spend a lot of my time watching trends in my industry, and I watched over the past 10 years as the concept of “sustainability” moved from an initiative for the greater good to a cultural phenomenon that is focused on driving value. The messages given by companies 10 years ago about how they improved brand perception have now changed to messages about how they saved millions of dollars while helping to save the environment. It is a value-driven message that the whole organization can get behind — it engages the majority.Last week I was speaking to our Diversity and Inclusion team in my business segment at Deloitte, and they asked me, “How do we get more people like you, the average guy, involved in diversity?” My advice back to the group was that, as with the sustainability conversation, what we need to do is focus on Diversity as an engine of innovation — of business value. Looking at diversity in terms of the value it brings to the table can have a much broader impact on the organization by demonstrating that we all benefit from diversity, not just the diverse population.

Last week I was speaking to our Diversity and Inclusion team in my business segment at Deloitte, and they asked me, “How do we get more people like you, the average guy, involved in diversity?” My advice back to the group was that, as with the sustainability conversation, what we need to do is focus on Diversity as an engine of innovation — of business value. Looking at diversity in terms of the value it brings to the table can have a much broader impact on the organization by demonstrating that we all benefit from diversity, not just the diverse population.

I think you will find that the best leaders both within my organization and in my clients’ companies are already bringing diverse talent to their tables. When I assemble my own project teams, I love bringing new people into the mix rather than taking the same people to every job. I know the previous team members will add value, but I like to see how we can change things, bring new ideas in, and get to the next level. You don’t do that sticking with the same clique.

Innovation from diversity — I have watched it come to life through the teams that have joined me in tackling my clients’ biggest business opportunities. The synergy achieved by those teams has led to business solutions that capitalize on the collective experience and diverse backgrounds of our talented people.


Thom McElroy is a principal with Deloitte Consulting’s Consumer Business Industry segment for Human Capital. In his current role, Thom leads Deloitte Consulting’s Retail Human Capital service area, helping national and global retailers transform their businesses and deliver superior results.

As used in this document, “Deloitte” means Deloitte Consulting LLP, a subsidiary of Deloitte LLP. Please see www.deloitte.com/us/about for a detailed description of the legal structure of Deloitte LLP and its subsidiaries. Certain services may not be available to attest clients under the rules and regulations of public accounting.

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