Painting of Galileo Galilei with a student

Diversity Makes the Business World go Round (Unless you Believe it’s Flat)

The final scene of the 20th century play, The Life of Galileo, finds a great mind in despair. Coerced by the Vatican’s moral and political authority, Galileo Galilei has publicly recanted the heretical theory that the Earth, along with all the other planets, orbits the Sun. He lives under the watchful eye of the Vatican’s Swiss Guard, for the church still does not trust him, and he is now chained and isolated, in a state of seething self-content and resentment.

Galileo’s contributions to scientific methodology and theory long outlived his forced denial of his understanding of the cosmos. He literally saw the world in a different light, resetting humanity’s placement of itself in the universe and capping a paradigm shift that had been centuries in the making. Galileo’s troubles stand also as part of his story: as testament to the will of the individual who–armed with evidence, and in the face of the prevailing culture–chooses to share a new truth with the world, whatever the cost.

Now, granted, all of this is rather epic and, naturally, your firm’s business and goals may be less grandiose. But Galileo’s dedication in the face of ridicule and persecution, along with countless stories of a similar theme nonetheless resonate because most of us can connect with elements of this experience. You do not have to catalyze a seismic shift in humanity’s placement of itself in the cosmos to know what it’s like to fight the dominant paradigm. To examine the way things are done and think, “…um?” And, then, to want to do something about it. Even just send an email, just “share some ideas.”

Challenging the corporate status quo carries great risk. Jen van der Meer of Reason Street, a consultancy that helps firms formulate effective business models, encapsulates the message that many a corporate squeaky-wheel receives:

“You can tinker with our product, spend countless hours investigating corporate ethnography, or design thinking exercises, drum circles, and lean-start-up experiments. That’s fine. But as soon as you mess with the way we’ve been making money, you will be escorted swiftly out of the building.”

The challenge van der Meer outlines is profound, widely experienced, and not just the result of simple inflexibility. It’s the result of what C.K. Prahalad and Richard A. Bettis famously labeled “the dominant logic” in a paper published thirty-five years ago. The “dominant logic”, as these scholars describe it, is composed of “the mental maps developed through experience in the core business”; it’s “a knowledge structure and a set of elicited management responses” that helps managers “categorize an event, assess its consequences, and consider appropriate actions…rapidly and efficiently.”

When you leave it at that, the “dominant logic” sounds great. It is great; as an effective set of learned shortcuts for doing what you do, well, the dominant logic is “dominant” for a reason. Toyota’s ethos of kaizen, Amazon’s continuous investments in efficiency and growth, and Walmart’s perfection of just-on-time logistics are all examples of “dominant logics” that are widely credited with contributing to, if not defining, these firms’ market status. The trouble is that, when these paradigms fail, they fail hard. As Prahalad and Bettis and countless scholars since have observed, many once-great firms’ demise can be attributed to a specific dominant logic being “applied inappropriately”.

Firms that grew on the back of a “dominant logic”, then fell when the world shifted, famously include cases like Blackberry, Kodak, and Blockbuster. It’s an evergreen problem. And it’s relevant *now.* But maybe not for the reason(s) that you’re thinking. As we’ve collectively stumbled through this global pandemic – sure, “dominant logics” have been challenged. Some will not revert back to our pre-pandemic reality. Collectively as a nation we have reluctantly come to terms with the inequality and racism that exists in our society. This structural bias throughout our society, bias that leads to both tragic and everyday crimes and misfortunes, is also at the heart of this management problem. Homogeneity of a team leads to homogeneity of thought. Rigid thinking and comfort with the status quo are the natural byproducts of broader social failures that see certain groups disproportionately represented in corporate culture generally and management in particular, while excluding other groups from these same positions.

A lot of managers and leaders discuss diversity: we want ‘diverse opinions’; we want ‘teams that reflect our wide customer base’. But how far do most firms go to really achieve that? How far do most managers go, in the end?

The good news is that, while lack of diversity is a competitive weakness, efforts towards greater diversity can of themselves help out with the fix. In a previous post we discussed the importance of managers taking direct strategic interest in their firm’s talent strategy; how important – and rare – it is for managers (even senior, experienced managers) to pay intentional, rigorous attention to both overall talent strategy and the day-to-day, high-touch responsibility of empowering and nurturing talent at the firm. It’s not about ticking boxes for specific groups, geographies, or professions. It’s about working at a management level to gather a mix of backgrounds, skills, and perspectives that will strengthen the firm’s present and future position, and then fostering the diversity of that mix in how you reward and define contributions.

As a manager, your role is to steward this talent, to foster your team’s capacity for adaptive change. It’s up to leadership to seek out individuals who will help assure that every problem gets examined from a range of perspectives; it’s up to leadership to empower and reward thinking that takes the time to double-check whether the dominant logics are being rightly applied. And yes, this means finding talented people from different walks of life, and beckoning these individuals to take their walks to a mutual gathering place – a place where they all belong. Most of the time, this state of ready self-assessment will entail small adjustments: tweaks to the course that your firm is sailing. But on the day when a storm brews upon the horizon, having a range of critical, empowered,…diversified perspectives may make all the difference. Many firms do not spot the clouds till the rain wets their decks; embracing diversity and self-examination can help your organization make a timely course correction – perhaps a dramatic one – and allow you to sail smoothly on steady seas.

1: “The Dominant Logic: A New Linkage between Diversity and Performance”, by C. K. Prahalad and Richard A. Bettis. Strategic Management Journal, Vol. 7, No. 6 (Nov. – Dec., 1986), pp. 485-501 (17 pages). Published By: Wiley. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2486135

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