This article is part one in a two-part series about why homogenous organizations stifle innovation.
There I was, sitting in an empty office in San Francisco, waiting for my interviewer to come through the door. I was fresh out of college and I had been doing a lot of interviews, trying to find my first post-college job. It was 2011, so the job market wasn’t great, and this final interview was not one to take lightly.
After about five minutes, two men in their late 20s walked in, laughing and talking about a recent game of pickup basketball they had played. I stood up and introduced myself in my friendliest voice. They both had firm handshakes and big smiles on their faces. The two of them sat down across the desk from me and took a quick peek at my resume, which they had in their hands. Finally, one of them asked me, “So, would you say you’re the kind of person who is very smart but doesn’t work very hard or the kind of person who works very hard but isn’t that smart?”.
I pondered this question for a few seconds as it seemed like the kind of question that didn’t have a right answer: Either answer would reflect negatively on me. I had to come up with something though, so I cleared my throat and told them that between the two options, I was someone who worked very hard but wasn’t that smart. I explained to them that when I transitioned from public to private school, I had trouble keeping up at first and had to put in considerable effort in order to keep up with the others. At every stage in life, from middle school through college, I always felt that I was surrounded by brilliant people but through hard work, I was always able to keep up with them.
Following my answer, they looked at each other with concerned looks. The man who asked the question said, “Look Matt…we really try to have a laid-back culture here rather than a workaholic one. We’re really more a company of really smart people who don’t work as hard as we could.”
The interview didn’t improve from there. I had been pegged as the uptight guy who wouldn’t be fun to work with and I could feel it for the rest of my time with them. A week later, I received an email informing me that they had decided to make the offer to a different applicant. When I thanked them for the opportunity and asked them why I wasn’t selected, I was simply told, “We didn’t feel like you would be a good culture fit.”
We’ve all heard this excuse before in some form or another. At face value, not hiring someone who doesn’t fit your culture appears to make sense. People spend most of their lives at work, so it’s logical to think that being around people who are like you will make the experience more pleasurable and keep your team cohesive. However, it could also be holding your organization back.
Frans Johannson, CEO of the Medici Group and author of The Medici Effect, has extensively explored the relationship between diversity and innovation. While innovation is challenging to accomplish, Johannson has proven that it can be fueled by building diverse teams. How? Innovation typically follows a process of identifying opportunities, brainstorming ideas, selecting the best of those ideas, and then implementing them to hopefully bring your business to the next level. Homogenous cultures may move fast when executing familiar and non-innovative tasks, but when it comes to exploring new and unknown territory, to pushing boundaries, diverse teams come up with better ideas and execute them faster and with fewer resources. Teams that fail to cultivate a diverse culture will eventually hit a ceiling, unable to adapt and innovate quickly, causing them to fall behind their competition.