Monday, March 22, 2010

Winning at Innovation through Cultural Diversity

On March 2nd, IMD and the IMD Alumni club of New York organised a business forum in Manhattan. IMD Professor Martha Maznevski, professor of Organisational Behaviour and International Management and MBA program director, led this highly successful and interactive session.

The event was hosted by the Ambassador to New York, His Excellency Christoph Bubb at his elegant Embassy residence. Mr. Bubb opened the event by greeting the many participants from all areas of business. He talked about the strong links between Switzerland and the USA and the excellent schools located in Switzerland which are often a positive criteria for US businesses looking to invest in Switzerland. He also made a parallel between the cultural diversity and innovative spirit prevalent in Switzerland and in New York.

IMD director, Lynn Verdina-Henchoz, then warmly thanked the hosts of the event and introduced the new IMD Alumni club committee – the club acts as a strong link between the local business community. She also introduced Professor Martha Maznevski and the topic of the evening. Martha Maznevski’s current research focuses on the dynamics of high-performing teams and networks in multinational organisations and managing people in global complexity. At the event, she presented much of her latest research on high-performing and innovative teams, with a focus on cultural diversity as a means of improving innovation.

New York is indeed a very culturally diverse city (“It has cultural diversity like Texas has oil”), but is this being used as a resource for high performance? In her presentation, Martha Maznevski explored the attributes of culturally diverse teams and how they can have great potential for innovation, although in many cases, they suppress the diversity to avoid problems. She also talked about Innovation and the processes used in high-performance innovation teams to reach a performance goal. Clearly cultural diversity can contribute to these innovation processes (in the divergent process of generating ideas for example), but means it is also harder in some aspects (for example in the convergent process of coming to a conclusion). Martha Maznevski then presented findings from her research (based on the Cultural Perspectives database) on some key elements that affect business culture – our relationship to our environment, the distribution of power and responsibility and accepted modes of action. This provoked some interesting discussion around country differences!

In order to make all of this more “real”, the participants were then asked to get into groups and discuss current business challenges that need an innovative solution. Martha used some of the groups’ examples to discuss ideas of how to optimize the performance of culturally diverse teams and how their differences can be used in innovation processes.

To provoke some thinking at the end of the session, Martha Maznevski talked about the disappointing results in many companies with initiatives around diversity. She believes this arises from a number of “fears” at play in an organisation that act as barriers and in fact can be driven even deeper below the surface if they are discussed directly. To address them, it may be a better idea to go around them and good innovation processes and culturally diverse teams could be a good way of doing that. If companies get cultural diversity working well for innovation, psychological safety for diversity in general will be created and overall benefits of diversity will start coming through.

The evening ended with a delightful cocktail organised by the Ambassador and
discussions went on well into the evening. Several positive comments about the event were received in the next days: “I would like to thank you and your team for this wonderful event! It really had the three magic ingredients – the host, the topic, the professor!”, “It was a fantastic event and I walked away from it not only with new knowledge about cultural diversity, but also a better understanding of what sets IMD apart from its competitors”, “We very much liked the format of the event, the mix of the audience and it was most definitely a privilege to listen to Martha’s interesting and interactive presentation”, “I found it very inspiring and would like to share the ideas with my colleagues”, “It got me and my colleagues thinking and made us take another look at our respective teams and their dynamics”,“It was an evening of warm hospitality alongside learning among professionals from various industries”.

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