Team Diversity – A Risk or Competitive Advantage?

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Is it better for a team to be a homogenous group of like-minded individuals who think in unison and act as an efficient powerhouse, or a heterogenous cluster of colorful personalities with diverse backgrounds and skillsets, where fresh perspective is in abundance?

Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but in my case when I started working at Viima, our team consisted solely of a few highly capable and witty individuals. All from very similar academic and personal backgrounds. Working in this environment was no problem for me, as being on the same wavelength with one another happened very intuitively. However, new and exciting, yet unfamiliar winds were blowing in the sails of our company. We were growing and expanding at a very rapid pace and took self-aware note of this change. Hungry for new perspective and expertise to get ready for what lies ahead, we expanded our team with people that weren’t exactly alike our previous team members, but rather from different personal and academic backgrounds. Through brave and colorful new visions and ideas, this ultimately gave us the drive and competitive edge we had hoped for.

Just like here at Viima, every company has their own set of obstacles which require different kinds of team structures to overcome effectively, and the size and structure of a company largely affects what kind of teams can produce results from within. A one-size-fits-all type of team model could never work since what works for one company could be disastrous for another.

Team Diversity

That said, there is no denying that having people who are on the same wavelength with one another can be a great advantage in many ways.

Why? Well, let’s look at it from this angle. What are the most common issues that many new companies or startups almost always have to deal with?

  • Resources are tight and daily operations are largely funded “hand-to-mouth”
  • Due to limited resources, wasting time is something that must be avoided at all cost
  • Decisions must be made quickly and without hesitation
  • The general mood of the work environment has the potential to fluctuate very easily
  • Single people have a larger influence on what happens in the company

If you construct a team that consists of even a few strong and “likely clashing” characteristics in hopes of getting a greater variety of perspective, you’ll probably end up digging your own metaphorical grave. Now, this is not to say that it will absolutely have a catastrophic outcome. I just mean that where there are people with clashing characteristics, they tend to bicker over details and decisions. This is it is often followed by: Wasted hours, wasted resources, a steep drop in overall mood, and ultimately concluding in a plateau or decline in progress and profitability of the company itself.

Efficiency in similarity

Now, if everyone is on the same wavelength, which often requires similar backgrounds and personalities, at best, a startup can work like a well-oiled machine. Everyone can agree on the larger direction of the company, as well as smaller decisions regarding daily operations, which brings agility and a very short response time to making changes. An aura of harmony and mutual respect permeates the office as everyone gets along and no-one wishes to step on toes.

If you had to choose one of these alternatives for your hypothetical company, most would likely go with the latter, since what use is outside-the-box thinking and perspective, if it’s at the cost of ever getting anywhere as a company. Well, for a startup, you’d likely have made the correct choice. However, you’d also be dead wrong if you think this would keep working as you move forward and the company grows.

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There’s more than meets the eye

This “picture perfect” team format may indeed sound like a foolproof strategy; a team which only has strengths and works efficiently any way you look at it, but as the company grows and the number of employees increases, there is a tipping point where similarity between employees starts to work against the company instead of for it. See, whereas diversity in its “having people with a wide range of characteristics” -sense is harmful for a small company, such as an early stage startup, it is actually vital for surviving the test of time.

You could even argue that team diversity needs to be directly proportional to the age and size of a company. The more the company grows and faces even more complex challenges, the more diversity becomes a necessity through the competitive edge that a wide range of perspective brings. In fact, even the most educated group of people will have a very limited spectrum of perspective if they are all too alike. This is why, although controversial, having different personalities in a team is such a hot topic in building innovative and effective teams.

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Adapting to change

So, to sum it up, in the beginning when a startup is essentially just a single team, too much diversity can do more harm than good in terms of progress. For the team to work well, they must be a united front that is willing to face all challenges together. For example, when one member of the team simply has too much work piled up on their plate, another one is willing to swoop in and cover the slack.

–  In a vast sea of succeeding and failing startups, this kind of mentality is required to get the boat moving into the right direction.  –

As the company starts to grow and accumulate increasing revenue, the team is bound to grow as well. When this happens, more and more like-minded people are often hired to further fortify the strong mentality that has been the driving force behind every success along the way. Now, this is indeed a competitive edge, but unfortunately only for so long. As even more growth happens, the company hires even more like-minded people and the positive feedback loop continues until, ever so suddenly, the entire company is comprised of people who can only think one way. Be it the most intelligent or academic way in the world, one person simply cannot take every angle into consideration. Such people simply do not exist. When everyone is more or less a clone of one another, a plethora of perception is left completely undiscovered and unattended. This leaves the company on a direct collision course with future disruptive threats.

Now, there is point in the early maturity of the company, where a conclusion to embrace diversity must be made to avoid an imminent demise. But how do you know when this “turn of the tides” starts to take place?

There are certain markers you should keep your eyes peeled for that may indicate that it’s time to add a little spice to the batter:

  • Fading of the spark: Employees start showing signs that the spark, which always made them go the extra mile, is beginning to fade.
  • Work becomes a means to an end: Employees start going to work in order to execute tasks, instead of trying to achieve goals. When you’re passionate about your job, it shows in the quality of your work, as well as your mood.
  • Formation of routines: Routines themselves are not a terrible thing and often make working more efficient. However, when routines start to become so hardcoded that changing them or straying from them requires significant effort, mixing things up is paramount.
  • Market is stabilizing: When the market that likely was in its infancy at the beginning of the company, starts to become increasingly stable, it is a sign that you should be on your way to adding diversity into the company.

Renewal pressure increases: When the external pressure to adapt to a changing market or consumer demand starts to put weight on the company, it is at least then when you are in dire need of new perspective.

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The monkeys did it first!

To crystallize the rather abstract, yet crucial point I’m trying to make, I would like to burrow into the very foundations of life itself and show you an example of the highest authority, evolution.

What plays a more fitting role in this analogy than our direct ancestor, the Neandertal. Let’s roll back 500,000 years when the rein of the two-legged, led by the Neandertals, was about to mark the beginning of an evolutionary crusade. This was a time when the extent of creativity and intelligence stopped at keeping fires ablaze for heat and creating basic tools for scavenging food and fighting amongst kin.

Now, what would’ve happened if even the smartest among the Neandertals had been the genomic basis for all future Neandertals. It sounds good on paper, but where would’ve that lead our ancestral species? The answer is, nowhere. The only reason that we ever evolved into self-aware supercomputers with emotional intelligence and capacity for pattern recognition, instead of grunting apes smashing stones together, is diversity. Very subtle and incremental diversity, but diversity nonetheless. With every petite change or “mutation” in the genome, something new appeared. A new trait that altered the individual to do or see something differently. This slowly became the cornerstone of our competitive advantage as the dominant species of the planet itself.

This article has been authored by Atte Isomäki.
Atte Isomäki is passionate about the topics of innovation and leadership. Being responsible for content creation at Viima, Atte has accumulated extensive knowledge on the topics.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are that of the author and not of the website or its management.

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