The high tech diversity problem’s bottom line

-September 25, 2015

An Internet search on diversity in high tech leads to hundreds of stories about the disproportionate number of white men who hold high paying jobs that produce a great deal of wealth. Tech workers in Si Valley are about 60% white and 70% male, with less than 7% coming from African or Hispanic heritage. The resounding impression from every stripe of the media—from the Wall Street Journal to the Washington Post and from Fox News to The New Yorker—points to an issue of social justice centered around entitlement and prejudice.

Intel recently announced its goal to have a workforce “more representative of the talent available in America” and plans to spend $300M on the problem.

Beneath the headlines, buried in a tiny fraction of the media coverage is another, more bottom-line focused reason to increase diversity:

Diversity is key to a group’s ability to innovate.

When it comes to innovation, discovery, and creativity, we know one thing for certain: great ideas emerge when people apply ideas from one field to another. Innovation emerges from lateral thought.

Making sense of the world is essentially a signal to noise problem. As infants, we begin with a mess of sensory input. Infants have 2-3 times more neural connections than three-year-olds. Neural pruning removes useless, absurd, and redundant connections. That is, we reduce the noise by trimming away contradictory, paradoxical thoughts and ideas.

About when you start crawling around and getting into trouble, the reality you construct from the constant stream of sensory data starts to jibe with the realities that other people reconstruct. You never reach the ideal of objective reality, but you get close enough that we can agree on what’s going on around us. Maybe you see a tuck and I see a fumble, but we can agree that the grass is green and the snow is white, even though we have no way of knowing if we experience “green” and “white” the same way.

If we didn’t ignore absurd ideas, we’d never get to this point. If we considered every thought, every perception with equal influence, we probably wouldn’t be capable of distinguishing data from different senses. We’d hear color and taste sound.

We learn from every school—K-12, universities, and hard knocks—and the process of making sense of the world continues at higher levels of abstraction. From sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll to Ohm’s Law to credit ratings, we learn to ignore ideas that fail us. In so doing, we build up our prejudices—prejudice in the largest sense of the word: prejudice against certain types of ideas, idea-prejudice. By inhibiting great swathes of thought, we also inhibit the range of our personal perspectives.

The inhibition occurs at the cellular level. Inhibitory neurons transmit signals that shut down certain neural networks.

For example, groups of people tend to favor ideas that come from their members and disparage ideas that were “not invented here.” NIH idea-prejudice wastes time by encouraging people to reinvent wheels and wastes innovative power by rejecting ideas without due consideration.

Innovation occurs when we think big and broad. That is, when we increase the diversity of our thoughts. When I left particle physics research and joined the electrical engineering community, I brought data analysis techniques that were old-hat within high energy physics but new to signal integrity and, for the better part of fifteen minutes, I gave the illusion of genius. Steve Jobs famously applied his design background to creation of the Macintosh. I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences. Our genius springs from everything in our backgrounds.

As an individual, you can increase your innovative prowess by looking at the world from as many perspectives as you can muster and by lowering your inhibition to ideas that, on first glance, might seem crazy. We can do the same thing in groups by including people with widely varying perspectives and then opening up to their ideas.

If your team needs someone with the skills of an electrical engineer, then hiring someone with a completely different background, say, a historian, wouldn’t make sense. Though that historian could probably provide innovative solutions that wouldn’t occur to an EE, the process of conveying the technical nuances of the challenge presents too great a challenge in itself. So, rather than hiring people with widely different skills, the easiest way to broaden the group’s perspective and enable it’s ability to think laterally, is to increase the group’s cultural, ethnic, and gender diversity.

People with widely varying idea-prejudice—different musical tastes, different tastes in food, different ways of perceiving the world—see the world differently, approach problems differently, and that is the essence of lateral thought, the nucleus of innovation.

(The concept of idea-prejudice comes from my next book, The Left Brain Speaks, but the Right Brain Laughs: The neuroscience of innovation, discovery, and creativity, which will be published in Fall of 2015 by Viva Editions.)

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