Who’s in the room when businesses solve problems – and why it matters

Sep 9 / Rachel Baker

We all know that a great business idea is one that solves a problem. We see an issue and offer the perfect solution. And solving problems remains just as important throughout the lifetime of a business. Whether it’s creating new products or overcoming obstacles in day-to-day operations, problem-solving drives innovation and moves things forward.

But a key question we all need to be asking is: who’s identifying and solving these problems in our businesses?

The solutions we create to solve problems are people powered. But people’s thinking is always affected by context – their age, race, gender, social status, etc. This means that the people in the room have a huge effect on what problems we’re addressing and how we solve them.

Diversity of thought

According to Harvard Business Review (HRB), teams solve problems better when they’re more cognitively diverse. This means that a range of different personality types and thinking styles help teams approach the problem from various [EH1] angles to find the best one.

This is down to something called mental sets. A mental set is a tendency for the brain to solve problems in the same way they’ve solved problems in the past. If you take a group of people with similar backgrounds, the combination of similar mental sets and groupthink can mean a limited ability to solve problems. You’ll be lacking fresh perspectives and different types of problem-solving.

According to the HRB study, cognitive diversity (a range of people who think in different ways) had a more significant effect on problem-solving than demographic diversity. However, as mentioned, this isn’t just about how we solve problems. It’s about what problems we’re solving in the first place.  As purpose-driven businesses, when it comes to measuring impact, we need to consider our effects on all areas of society. And this is where diversity is really key.

Who’s in the room right now?

Throughout society, we can see examples of a lack of diversity leading to less-than-optimal decision-making. Let’s take the example of toilets (not the most glamourous, we’ll admit). Caroline Criado Perez, author of Invisible Women, explores why the queues outside women’s toilets are always longer. Women need more space, use the bathroom more frequently and take longer (due to changing period products, pregnancy, being accompanied by children, etc.). Yet women’s toilets are usually allocated the same amount of space as men’s when buildings are designed. And why hasn’t this problem been noticed by architects and planners (who tend to be men)? According to Criado Perez, "If you don’t experience it you don’t know about it."

Or we can also consider the fact that photography technology doesn’t show dark skin as well as light skin, because white people were always used as the baseline for developing cameras. In the white-dominated tech industry, many people won’t even notice that this is a problem.

If we look into the structures of organisations, we can see that there’s a diversity problem at the top of most large firms. Around 40% of UK management boards are completely white, and that number intensifies in certain industries. Just 1.5% of Black employees in the UK hold senior roles.

This means that when it comes to solving and making strategic decisions, the interests of these communities are likely to be unrepresented.

Opportunities for greater impact

When companies are aware of social problems, they can harness the power of innovation for positive change. And often it’s people from affected communities holding decision-making positions that identify these problems and push for change.

Let’s take the example of tech company VIVIDA. They create learning and training experiences for companies using tech like virtual reality (VR), as well as working on cyber security. But founder Simeon Quarrie has gone a step further. As a Black man, he was able to see an opportunity to harness his innovative technology to help challenge everyday racism. His company also creates immersive VR experiences that let people experience what it’s like to move through the world as a Black person. In 2019 he teamed up with EY to create one of these VR experiences for their employees.

And of course, intersectionality is key to solving many social and environmental problems. Take climate change, for example. The causes and effects of carbon emissions and pollution vary across the world, and we need to be aware of all of these in order to fight climate change.

It’s often women of colour who are on the frontline of these challenges. Their perspectives are therefore needed to identify innovative solutions. For example, Indian chemist Nidhi Pant, founder of S4S Technologies, saw the struggles of landless women farmers in India. She created an innovative solar dryer to help reduce food waste and carbon emissions from rotting food and create additional income for farmers in India.

How to increase diversity for a greater impact

So clearly, it’s important to get a diverse range of people in the room to identify and solve problems. But how exactly do you go about that?

How you address diversity in your business depends on the size of your business as well as the industry you’re in. However, there are several key principles that can be applied across most companies.

·       Hire diversely

And at all levels of your business. However, pay special attention to the top levels of your business. Final decisions about the direction of the company fall to the board and upper management, so it’s essential that voices from all communities are heard at these levels. What’s more, according to research from Deloitte, “inclusive leaders cast a long shadow”. They found that inclusive leaders increased employees’ feelings of psychological safety by 70%.

·       Listen and learn

If you’re running a larger company, listen to your employees. Invite them to put forward suggestions; ask for their opinions. They might just think of things you haven’t. And for companies of all sizes – listen to your customer base. Especially if your company is trying to have a social impact, anything you do needs to be based on the concrete needs of a group of people – as determined by the people themselves.

·       Engage middle managers

According to Deloitte, while we often see grassroots movements effect change from the ground up, and big-picture moves at the top of a company, these efforts can get lost if middle management isn’t sufficiently supported and motivated. Make sure everyone in the company understands your goals and vision, as well as their role in implementation.

Explore your impact

If you want to hear and discuss more ideas about inclusion, diversity and how companies can make a positive impact, why not join us for the Impact Summit on the 14th September? It’s an online event with a range of speakers at the cutting edge of what it means to be a value-led business in today’s world. Learn more and book your ticket here.

Impact Summit Online

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