Culture, sometimes defined as “the way we do things around here,” is a powerful motivating force. We want to feel included and liked, so we do as the Romans do. Go along to get along, and all that. In the world of innovation and entrepreneurship, however, influence from the prevailing culture isn’t always a good thing. Often, the culture of any given group is a powerful de-motivating force when it comes to change. Even in a startup.
To execute on a plan, you do need a cohesive team and the ability to act quickly and decisively. You need trust, easy communication and to take certain things (many things) for granted. Most people feel better about their work when they’re sure what to do and equally sure about the outcomes. A strong group culture makes that possible.
But what about when you’re not sure what to do? When you’re confronted with new challenges that render current ideas, tactics and plans inadequate? (Or worse– reality is different than the group believes it to be, but no one knows it yet?) Is the same “in” group who was so invested in the way things were, properly equipped to reimagine the way they could be, and then set about changing them?
Divergent Thinking Requires Diverse People
Whoever comprises your group– a startup team, a department, a company, a town– the people who ascribe to your group’s culture are personally invested in the way things are. They don’t necessarily even mean to be, it’s just natural. They have their perspectives, too, which make it feel like the way things are is very likely the best way, or the only way.
Inside our own groups, we accept certain assumptions as facts. We discount outsiders’ perspectives, devalue their feelings, or dismiss their ideas because they aren’t ours. Ours are the best assumptions, perspectives, feelings and ideas precisely– but only– because they are ours. Of course, that’s not a good reason at all.
Liking an idea best because you and your group feel good about it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to recognize or consider new and better alternatives. Different people– outsiders to your group who are not like you– can inject wildly divergent new ideas into your culture that are necessary to innovate and change for the better. It’s not because they’re smarter (they might be). It’s not because they’re right (also possible). It’s because they aren’t constrained by the all the cultural rules, perspectives, assumptions and motivations you are. And that gives them unique powers.
1. Social Status Be Damned
When the shared point of reference among people is their membership in a group, everyone becomes acutely aware of their status in it. They don’t want to upset the order. Read: they don’t want to get knocked down a peg. Fear of rejection or embarrassment is among the most powerful psychological forces each of us deals with on a daily basis. Mostly, our habits and personal interactions are structured so we can avoid embarrassment and keep our current roles as we like them.
An outsider doesn’t have a boss in the room to impress, or her co-workers to judge her comments. Her point of reference is the problem at hand, not her standing in the group. So her thoughts and questions are less likely to be filtered or overly careful.
2. Factual “Ignorance”
What is true that the group takes for granted? Are these things really true? What else is unknown? Outsiders need to be educated about the facts that govern the group’s decisions, and the act of teaching them has a way of uncovering gaps in understanding or even a range of interpretations within the group.
This is not to say the outsider uncovers new facts or even has the expertise to be able to do so. That’s not the point. It’s the act of sharing and discussing “known” truths that rarely happen inside the group which is so useful.
3. Questioning What is Contestable
Every group operates under their own “theory of everything.” You see it in the narrative of a startup pitch deck, a nonprofit’s approach to charitable work, a political action group’s strategy or an established company’s marketing plan. Certain big ideas govern how their worlds work and often go completely uncontested by everyone in the group.
When no one is a skeptic, nothing is contestable.
The Age of Enlightenment began when scholars stopped depending on the “wisdom of the ancients” and started demanding proof. As hard as we try, rarely can we see how many of our own ideas are based on well-hidden superstitions or unproven assumptions. The act of contesting a core idea that everyone in the group believes is heretical. Sometimes, only outsiders have the social freedom and sufficiently different perspective to be heretics.
4. Thinking Beyond Right or Wrong
When big changes are needed, most new ideas will be wrong, because knowing what innovations will be successful is not predictable. But established organizations are built on their members being right (or right enough) most of the time. Their tasks are defined and they don’t make a lot of mistakes. Too many mistakes get people fired.
In the routine of work, there isn’t much room for being wrong. Heck, there isn’t much room for it in adult life. There are times, however, as in the development of a startup, or an innovation project, in which being wrong is necessary on the path to discovery.
Asking questions, generating ideas and running experiments is a creative process that is not judged by rightness or wrongness. It’s judged by the volume and speed of generation. You can’t be wrong generating new ideas and making new connections, but that doesn’t stop insiders from being scared of it. Outsiders don’t have the cultural debt that makes them prejudge everything they ask or wonder, which helps them see beyond right and wrong.
5. Lived Experience with Different Information
So far, I’ve talked about how outsiders help simply by not being a regular member of a group. In that regard, anyone can be an outsider. Some of the most powerful insights, however, are often contributed by people who are also different than most members of the group.
Gender and ethnicity provide two of the most obvious ways to inject diversity into your group culture, but opportunities to find divergent perspectives are everywhere. How might you include people with disabilities? Different socio-economic standing? Political views? Buying habits? Geographical location? Family composition? Age? Education? Industry experience? Different career goals?
Your job here is not to bring in a person to act as a representative of women or people of color, or new Americans or whomever. It is to recognize that you don’t know how they see the world differently than you do. You don’t know what their experiences are like. You don’t know what they could teach you. You don’t know what you’re missing when your group culture is insular, rather than inclusive.
Breakthrough insights, no matter how big or small, are often triggered by expanding your thinking. There is no better way to expand your thinking, than to expand the circle of people you involve in the process.