How Truly Embracing Differences Drives Innovation

By Ron Carucci

Tuesday, January 17th 2017

Riaz Patel is a two-time Emmy nominated TV Executive Producer at Axial Entertainment. He is a Pakistani-American immigrant. He is Muslim and he is gay. And he approaches life with a profoundly uncommon perspective when it comes to people and ideas who are different: a locked mind is a great thing to waste. I spoke with Riaz after seeing his interview on Blaze TV and being deeply inspired by his unpretentious and direct approach to disarming biases and misinformed views of others who appear to be in staunch opposition.  Patel’s profound lessons from reaching across self-imposed boundaries to those who appear drastically different have important applications beyond finding creative ways forward and unifying a broken country. Every day, leaders must find ways to bring together deeply fragmented organizations, neutralizing turf wars and petty rivalries in order to uncover innovative solutions to problems, and breakthroughs to unlock competitive advantage. 

In this letter to disappointed voters, Riaz talks about an unprecedented trip he and his husband took to rural Alaska a week before the election. He’d heard about the plight of fisherman in Alaskan villages and their fear of future policies that could further erode their livelihoods. He says, “I needed to understand people so different than me. I wanted them to know me before we had a “winner.” How else would we ever understand each other beyond the exaggerated “black and white” labels we’d both been painted with since this campaign started?” 

Such ‘black and white thinking’ doesn’t just happen in the world of politics. It’s also extremely common in the business world. Supply Chain thinks Sales people are prima donnas who make unrealistic promises to customers that they struggle to deliver. Sales People think Marketing people are out of touch with the market, and have no understanding of the pressure they are under to drive revenue. Marketing thinks R&D just manipulates consumer insights to justify the irrelevant pet projects they want to bring to market.  For leaders sitting atop these intractable fissures, it’s maddening trying to mobilize an organization beyond passive-aggressive self-interest to a common good. Patel’s bold, unapologetic approach offers wonderful insights for such leaders. Here are four ways you can apply them in your organization today.

  1. Confront the ill will you think is there. Patel sat in diners and coffee shops with local Alaskan fisherman and small business owners and talked about very difficult subjects. His disarming question opened up channels of understanding that would have never been discovered. He asked, “I have a fear that people in your town fear me as a Muslim. Am I right?” Patel believes that negative biases are often formed by misinformed soundbites, rumors, and ranting opinions masquerading as data. He says, “We live in a post-fact world. We think because we read something, we know something. We forget that everything on our social media feed has been curated for us. We’re only hearing what validates our existing beliefs. And we don’t realize that many of our beliefs have been forced.” So what did Patel find in Alaska? “I met lovely people. We had very intense conversations. But they didn’t see me as a terrorist any more than I saw them as racist. I don’t think my being Muslim, or gay, bothered them in the slightest. Some of them had never met a Muslim before.” As a leader, when you hear one part of the organization objectifying another part of the organization, justifying their contempt, force them to address one another directly.

  2. Bust out of echo chambers and invite dissent. If you are surrounded by excessive agreement, you are in trouble. Says Patel, “I never hire people who agree with me. I can’t stand them. I want people who can batter ideas around to make them better.” The election season is an ugly reminder of what happens when we only embrace one side of a story. Patel worked to break out of the echo chamber to learn more about those whose beliefs were different. “I found conservative call in radio shows all over the country and I listened to them. I listened to the voices, the vocabulary, the pain, of those who live, work, and think differently than me. When I sat down with people in Alaska, I didn’t sit down with hate, and neither did they. I didn’t find the locked minds I typically find with my liberal peers. We didn’t sit down with our “sources.” We simply sat down with an openness to learn.  When we think there are people who aren’t worthy of our engagement, we don’t see them. The left discounted the worthiness of the right, so never considered the merits of their voting power.” What data sources are informing the views of various parts of your organization? How are you intentionally inviting “dueling fact bases” into the room to force those with different views to truly hear each other? How frequently do you have people come into your office and tell you that they disagree with you? If you are surrounded with people who largely agree with you, it’s likely you are stifling innovative ideas from surfacing. 

  3. Deal with ego; be willing to be wrong about being right. Leaders who spend more time arguing the merits of their views at the expense of learning about those whose views differ aren’t “passionate.” They’re arrogant. Patel says, “When the need to be right obscures the need to learn, that’s about your ego. If you have a need to be right, it has nothing to do with the content of your conversation. We’re all insecure. We all want to feel validated and we will go to any lengths to get it. People look for a quantifiable ways to be right. We like simple answers that confirm we should have our way.” When leaders get stuck in false binaries, arguing the merits between just two views, the opportunity for innovation has been lost. There is no challenge or opportunity in the world for which there are only two options.  Once things have devolved to pitting two perspectives against each other, one has to be right, and one has to be wrong. The most creative views have been neutered. 

  4. Repel generalizations and embrace nuance. With the pace of information making our heads spin, it’s simply impossible to absorb it all.  So we capitulate to broad generalizations that eliminate nuance.  Says Patel, “All Muslims are not terrorists and all Republicans are not racist. The seductive comfort of oversimplified generalizations makes us feel like we’re informed. We’ve come to believe we have the entire world on our smart phones and we can simply scroll through the world to learn about it.”  Cognitive dissonance happens when we face disconfirming data. We accept the chaotic gradations of complex issues. You have to stay in messy conversations long enough to discover nuances. Patel says, “There are as many different Muslims as there are Republicans. But we don’t like that. We like all Muslims to be the same. We find false comfort in thinking all conservatives think the same. About 40 minutes into my conversations in Alaska, I could tell when someone’s guard dropped. Inside I could feel myself thinking, ‘Hello, nice to meet you. We’d been talking for 40 minutes but I knew we’d really just met.’“ In organizations, many leaders succumb to hyperbolic generalizations to persuade others. Arguments like “I’ve heard from my whole team that…” or “Our customers don’t want….” Or “The North America region always gets their way…” You dilute your credibility, not strengthen it. It takes intellectual discipline to surrender simplistically reduced arguments and engage the nuances of contradictory views.

Riaz Patel had the courage to take personal responsibility for the limits of his own views. He stepped outside all he knew to learn about what he thought he knew. Leaders desperate to bring greater cohesion to their organizations should heed his lessons. Organizational cohesion is not the result of sameness.  Uniformity is unity’s counterfeit. True alignment results from courageous and humble acceptance of differences. And differences are the raw material of innovation.  


This field should be skipped by humans.
Comments subject to review.