"Near-Far," photo courtesy of Steve Shepard

Cultivate Diverse Perspectives to Strengthen Your Organization

July 19, 2021 Leadership
mary slaughter
By Mary Slaughter LinkedIn

The longer I work, the more interested I become in other people’s points of view. It’s a combination of being weary of my own thoughts as well as appreciation that cognitive dissonance is a good thing.

The intersection of differing perspectives is often where real insights — and new friendships — emerge. I love being confident in my own expertise while simultaneously being crystal-clear how little I really know about the world. Experience should teach us that the power of collective minds can be far stronger than any one individual’s point of view.

When building high-performing teams, I prefer to gather people around me who are similar in values but highly differentiated in their perspectives. As the old management adage goes, “When two executives always see things exactly the same way, one is unnecessary.” The research also shows that while diverse teams may generate healthy friction and debate, they also produce higher fidelity results as they mitigate similarity biases through their diverse perspectives.

Back to the values component, differing perspectives on values is a recipe for disaster. Strong relationships are built on shared values, be they personal or professional. They are the underlying principles and assumptions that guide our decision making, and the filter through which we see and experience the world. Of course, alignment on values does not guarantee agreement, but it does foster trust and psychological safety, which in turn acts as a catalyst for healthy debate.

When I approach gathering perspectives, it's helpful to have a mental construct to guide my thinking. Building a leadership team, structuring a project or simply seeking to fully define a problem that needs solving, all of these organizational needs benefit from having differing perspectives.

Here are three important lenses I use to gather perspectives: 

1. Time: Long term vs. short term

Be clear about what needs to happen quickly (in days or weeks) in contrast to the longer term goals (months or years). Whether it's internal goal setting or external stakeholder expectations, there’s always a time dimension. Having individuals who represent both views will safeguard you from trading long-term well-being for short-term gain.

2. Expertise: Generalists vs. specialists

An over-rotation towards either can lead to really bad outcomes. Years ago, by total happenstance, I had dinner with the rocket scientist who designed the O-ring for the Challenger Space Shuttle. Her description of how the shuttle's disastrous accident happened was essentially about flawed decision making. Her “specialist” input regarding the performance standards of the O-ring was discounted, and the results were tragic.

Granted, most business decisions are not life and death but the quality of investment decisions depends on both the detailed view of a specialist and the integrated view of a generalist. Organizations perform best when the details are managed and the puzzle pieces fit together as seamlessly as possible. That means engaging with people who can think both deeply and broadly.

3. Focus: Strategy vs. operations

Think of this as the why vs. how continuum. Strategy should guide what you will and will not do. Operations will guide the approach you take to bringing your strategy to life.

Gathering perspectives from those who can envision as well as those who can execute will help you discern the right path to take. One idea may be great, but there's no way to execute. Another may be easy to execute, but completely off-strategy. Both of these are dead ends you want to avoid, so having solid input on both the why and the how is essential. 

When building a team, you can use these same filters to assess talent. Too much or too little of any of these dimensions will weaken your team’s performance, so each talent decision can be made in the context of the other team members, especially on leadership teams. Make a concerted effort not to surround yourself with people who are overly similar to you or others on the team. The more diverse the perspectives, the better the outcomes will be.

Steve Shepard, Founder of Shepard Communications Group
Dr. Steven Shepard is an author, educator and keynote speaker who works to bridge the gap between human and digital worlds. More on his work can be found at ShepardComm.com.

As a sometimes-professional photographer who specializes in images of the natural world, I often find myself faced with the dilemma of choice: Do I pick the wide-angle lens, or do I go for the macro?

The wide-angle lets me see the bigger picture, but the macro lets me zoom in on the details. Both are interesting shots, but they give the photographer, and the viewer, different information. The same can be said about organizations. They need both specialists (the telephoto view) and generalists (the wide-angle view), particularly as technology becomes an increasingly powerful force.

One of the effects of the pandemic was an acceleration of digital transformation, a trend that was already fast-moving. Contrary to what many believe, digital transformation is not a product or technology-based service. It’s a philosophy — a way of thinking about technology as an enabler of organizational transformation and competitive advantage. Technology can be used to uncover micro details as well as to understand the macro landscape. 

Near-Far, Photo Courtesy of Steve Shepard
"Near-Far"PHOTO: Steve Shepard

Here’s an example. The city of Los Angeles installed cameras on its garbage trucks to enhance safety and ensure that trucks were running on schedule. But, they soon realized that those cameras were also recording something else of value: potholes. They used artificial intelligence to enhance their video analysis, allowing city managers to determine which of the potholes posed a hazard to motorists on high-traffic routes, which ones could be left alone, which ones needed to be fixed, which ones were growing and how quickly, and so on. Not a particularly sexy application but a profoundly important one, and an application that could potentially save the city millions in repair and maintenance costs.

How is this example relevant? Specialists added the cameras. Generalists asked the "what-if" questions that led to a broader application of the technology. Each perspective had transactional value, but when both were taken into account the impact became transformational. 

About the Author

Mary Slaughter is the Global Head of Employee Experience at Morningstar, an investment research and management firm headquartered in Chicago, IL. Prior to joining Morningstar, she served as a managing director, People Advisory Services at EY.

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