A Systems Perspective on Diversity

Solving complex problems is the main course on the systems engineering menu. No longer reserved as a delicacy to be consumed by a few adventurous diners, complex problems are daily fare for the working engineer. It is the easy-to-solve, simplistic problem that has become rare.

This situation has a wide range of implications for our world. One of the most interesting resides in its impact on how we view and handle diversity. Fortunately for us, the answer to that is driven by systems principles which we well understand — or should.

The human tendency when looking at diversity is to seek the familiar and distance ourselves from differences. We are all naturally more comfortable around others who are like us. Differences create awkward interactions and failures to come to common understandings. We generally seek to minimize those by seeking uniformity (often accomplished through conformity) especially in our organizations. This treats diversity as a “problem” in and of itself. If, instead of seeing diversity as a problem to be solved, we look at it through a systems lens, we can see that it has the potential to be a lever in our work with complex problems.

The fundamental definition of a system (“A system is a construct or collection of different elements that together produce results not obtainable by the elements alone.” INCOSE) holds the essential clue to the value of diversity. The value of a system is that it can “produce results not obtainable by the elements alone.” Our problem-solving teams are systems that we create specifically so that they can “produce results” (solve problems) not solvable by individual members working alone.

The system works its magic through relationships created between elements. Where the elements are different from each other (as opposed to “cookie-cutter” duplicates), there are more possible ways of relating to each other and to the task at hand. For example, people solve problems by creating representations or “models” of the problem and possible solutions. People from diverse backgrounds represent problems in different ways. This provides a wider variety of ways of thinking about a problem and its possible solutions.

But diversity isn’t finished at that point. As the system begins to work (elements interact), the diverse elements process the ideas differently and the exchange is enriched, further expanding the pool of possible solutions. An expanded pool of ideas ultimately leads to higher quality solutions. Diversity turns out to be the gift that keeps on giving.

In a famous example of this principle, the Bell Labs facility at Murray Hill, NJ was constructed with long hallways along which were arranged the labs of engineers and scientists of varying disciplines. Anyone moving from one place to another in the building would have to pass colleagues from other disciplines working on a variety of problems. These halls were intentionally set up to promote interaction among a diverse group of professionals with the idea that their thinking and work would be enriched through the interactions.

Elements that are diverse bring to bear differences in the problem analysis and idea generation processes. They contribute different ideas and process the products of the team’s thinking quite differently. This feeds nicely into the system principle that the system results exceed the aggregate of those possible from the elements on their own.

Understood in this way, it becomes clear that the systems perspective should drive us to promote diversity in our teams. Differences in background, experience and education can be strong contributors to the quality of our solutions over time. Often the human tendency to seek uniformity is broken by the recognition of its limiting effect on opportunity for those who are different. We are encouraged to embrace diversity to provide an equal chance to everyone regardless of their differences from the “mainstream.”

Our systems orientation should provide us with a different perspective. We can and should see diversity as a lever promoting high quality solutions to complex problems. Someone bringing to the table different views, experiences and ways of approaching the world is thereby bringing power to the team. By making the connections and integrating them into the team, we are expanding the power of our team to solve complex problems. For us, diversity is not a burden or a problem, but a real potential source of advantage.

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