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Short Read

Diversity, Innovation, and Canned Soup.

In light of a number of somewhat braying articles1 in the mainstream media suggesting excessive ‘wokeism’ is rife within the military, it seemed an opportune moment to investigate many of the claims of Defence surrounding the topic of Diversity and Inclusion.

By and large, there are now two common uses of the term ‘diversity’:

The first, more traditional usage is an indication of variety, used such as when highlighting the unrivalled diversity of life within the Amazon rainforest, or the splendid diversity of Heinz’ current soup range.

The second, social definition, employed more formally by Defence within this context, refers to an action, being “the recognition of differences between individuals or groups”. In relation to this latter definition, a second element is attached, that of ‘inclusion’, which the organisation characterises as “the effect of good diversity management ensuring that all individuals, no matter what their unique differences feel they belong [and are therein able to contribute effectively] to the wider team.” A prudent step, given that recognition alone without action would amount to no change.

Combined, Diversity and Inclusion within this context therefore seek to optimise the relationships (through inclusion) between all the members of the force, based off understanding and acknowledgement of each individual’s identified differences (Diversity). In this sense, diversity is seen as a start state, and inclusion a vehicle of action by which to optimise it.

Challenges?

This dual meaning of the word presents challenges when discussing diversity, as the two meanings are frequently conflated, or employed as if synonymous, which they are clearly not. For the sake of clarity this article almost exclusively refers to diversity in the traditional sense, referring to the prevalence of numerous assorted entities.

The ‘Defence Diversity & Inclusion Vision’ sees “Defence harness[ing] the power of difference to deliver capability that safeguards our nation…”. In so doing Defence relies upon variation to exploit a fundamental assumption: that ‘difference’ (traditional diversity) is ‘powerful’ (beneficial). This assumption is frequently rolled out within the often-used sentiment, or indeed statement, that ‘diverse teams produce better results’, that ‘diversity and Inclusion are operationally essential’, or any of the other combinations of similar words to the same effect.

The benefits of diversity

This article investigates the veracity of that assumption, finding, as one might expect, that ‘it’s a bit more complicated than that’, and that actually, poorly managed diversity can be a net negative. In so doing, a large number of academic studies have been interrogated to form this image, spanning numerous categories of diversity, including race, sex, ability, age, culture, cognition, education and nationality. In making a generalised and reductive summary the author acknowledges that some nuance between specific groups will inevitably be lost, however has endeavoured to summarise the literature fairly thus:

There are many, many benefits of diversity within teams, but also numerous downsides that should not be ignored.2 Most significantly, diverse teams typically3 outperform homogenous groups in finding optimal solutions to complex problems, especially those that require creative or innovative solutions.4 Whilst this sounds ideal, you still have to pay the piper somewhere, and the compromise is that the more diverse a team, the less effectively it communicates. Finding the ‘sweet spot’ can be challenging.5 Extremely diverse teams, being less cohesive and less coherent, are harder to control, and often take longer conducting both complex and simple tasks as a result. This all makes pretty logical sense, as people with increasingly different perspectives may proportionally struggle to understand each other.

By contrast, homogenous teams are generally much more effective at completing simple tasks or those with a clear, directed outcome where little analysis is required. Of interest, culturally aligned teams were also far more productive in repetitive roles (think factory workers and the like), which was in some cases attributed to the ability of such groups to exert peer pressure across membership.6 This produced desirous reinforcement of working behaviours through group expectation and universally recognised standards, which also increased group resistance to external factors causing confusion. This works both ways however, as by the same logic, a fundamental group flaw could permeate the whole organisation and with little deviation from the accepted norm, could thus be challenging to mitigate. The principal downside of homogenous teams, as the reader has probably already surmised, is that the quality of solutions to ‘wicked’ problems within these groups are generally lower than those delivered by those exhibiting greater cognitive integrative complexity, despite by and large being arrived at quicker.

The sweet spot

The challenge for any organisation is therefore to effectively manage traditional diversity in order to exploit the opportunities it offers whilst mitigating the downsides: to find the sweet spot. In this sense, Defence’s D&I model of understanding the variation we have and then ensuring that it can be integrated effectively is brilliant. However, the conflation of meanings of the word ‘Diversity’ is not helpful, and Defence’s stated outcome could therefore arguably be wrapped neatly into the term ‘Inclusion’ to avoid confusion and misuse.

There is no doubt whatsoever that ‘inclusion’ at any level will support the optimisation of the force. At the tactical level, this ‘included’ end state is of course achieved through effective leadership. Yet at the institutional level there remains an existential question: is Defence here to get simple things done under difficult circumstances or is the complex modern world now demanding an innovative approach to everything we do?

The implications of the answer to this question defines whether we should be seeking to draw in ever-greater diversity (variation, not understanding!) to our workforce, or seeking to align the way we behave and think to exercise maximum control in chaos and confusion. In classic DS style, I choose the fence, and suggest categorically and decisively that it’s a bit of both. At the risk of being deliberately contentious, a very simplistic model could seek diversity across the officer corps, and homogeneity within other ranks!

So how to achieve this panacea?

At one end of the spectrum, the Army has traditionally sought unity.  In doing so it has exploited homogenous cultural tropes, often artificially, yet very effectively through strong regimental identities that encourage unified behaviour. (That, and drill.) Developing cult-like affiliation to our various capbadges or arms is both proven as a cross-cutting unifier, and nothing new as a concept. But this article isn’t about homogeneity. Against the backdrop of the Director of the MOD’s Conduct, Equity & Justice directorate stating that their role is to “Identify the positive things that we can do to make Defence more diverse…”,7 it is argued that Defence’s deliberate pursuit of diversification of the workforce is at worst, fundamentally wrong, and at best, poorly optimised- due in part to institutional bureaucracy, of all things.

Agreeing wholeheartedly with the element of the D&I vision that seeks to ‘deliver capability’, this article suggests that if it’s truly capability that we’re seeking to improve, we should seek exclusively functional diversity. However, without doubt, Defence’s approach is to seek this diversity by selecting candidates based on visible characteristics, rather than cognitive divergence. In this sense, whilst inclusion delivers tangible benefit to capability by unlocking what you already have, focussing on visual diversification essentially suggests that people who look different, think different: a gross assumption, which to my mind reflects the darkest exclusionary tropes of human behaviour. The so called ‘business case’ for seeking additional diversity, in the pursuit of benefit, based off people’s discernible features could be ethically questionable and logically debatable. Reflective representation within the Armed Forces, as sought in the D&I vision, does not necessarily achieve capability.

The proof that Defence has got this the wrong is twofold:

Firstly, few roles within defence are selected on the basis of a psychological or cognitive assessment. Indeed, it is rare that such tests are even conducted, meaning that we can’t hope to understand the functional opportunities within the variations that do exist within Defence (Diversity, in the social D&I sense), and therefore are shooting in the dark to effectively yield the well-managed endstate of ‘improving capability through inclusion’.

Secondly, given that studies overwhelmingly suggest the biggest yield of highly diverse teams is in innovation and creativity, Defence’s poor track record of adaptability and absent ability to enact innovative ideas quickly prevents the realisation of the principal benefits brought by diversity whilst continuing to endure any downsides. Just as tinned soup is very difficult to exploit without a can opener,8 so too are the main benefits of diversity inhibited without enabling the innovation that divergent thought brings. Therefore unshackling our institutional agility and adaptability to allow us to respond to creative inputs would yield greater functional output from our existing diversity than simply trying to add more sealed cans of ideas to the stockpile and calling it dinner.

Does our diversity equal innovation?

This sentiment flies somewhat in the face of the Deputy Director of Defence Innovation, who, in an internal blog in late 2023, assured us that ‘We ARE good at innovation’ 9, and challenged anyone to bring evidence to the contrary. The blog post concurrently provided evidence of Defence’s innovation through numerous examples of (mostly external) partners in the industry who delivered projects on Defence’s behalf. Why seek internal diversity at cost if, like carbon offsetting, we can outsource its benefits!? In stark contrast to the professed principles of being inclusive towards diverse ideas, my particularly helpful comments on that article (providing the requested evidence) were mysteriously deleted. In the absence of that forum, this one must suffice. At the organizational level, the Defence ideas gateway, ironically including the Army’s efficiency challenge, is not understaffed; it is unstaffed and therein unable to process any new ideas, meaning that institutional opportunities from the grassroots level are not being enacted.

At the tactical level, innovation funding, which supposedly enables ‘agile’ procurement of low-level ideas, takes, in my case, in excess of 18 months and 83 emails, numerous phone calls, and one SME inspection to procure a £2000 piece of equipment- both a pittance to defence and on such a timeline impossible to deliver if the idea is ‘had’ beyond the first quarter of a person’s 24-month posting. In Stephen Bartlett’s excellent video segment on last year’s Op TEAMWORK, he highlighted organizations that sought to implement novel ideas THE SAME DAY they were raised. I sense the incredulous sniggers and expressions of impossibility, naivety and ridicule from the associated readership that have made it thus far, but suggest in parting that for all the years that Defence has looked to business for best practice, such agility is not only possible but the greatest thing that we could learn to unseal the tins of our diverse potential. After all, ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.’

Soup, anyone?

Rupert Nurick

Rupert is an Army officer.

Footnotes

  1. I’m a white male – the Army no longer actively tries to recruit men like me (telegraph.co.uk) ; Defence Secretary Grant Shapps: A woke and extremist culture has infiltrated the Army (telegraph.co.uk) ; Review of MoD’s diversity policies ordered by ‘furious’ Grant Shapps | UK news | The Guardian
  2. Sanyang, Lang, and Khatijah Othman. “Work force diversity and its impact on organisational performance.” AL-ABQARI: Journal of Islamic Social Sciences and Humanities (2019).
  3. Aggarwal Ishani , Woolley Anita Williams , Chabris Christopher F. , Malone Thomas W. “The Impact of Cognitive Style Diversity on Implicit Learning in Teams” Frontiers in Psychology vol 10, 2019
  4. Kearney, Eric, et al. “When and How Diversity Benefits Teams: The Importance of Team Members’ Need for Cognition.” The Academy of Management Journal, vol. 52, no. 3, 2009, pp. 581–98. ; Mello, A. L., & Rentsch, J. R. (2015). Cognitive Diversity in Teams: A Multidisciplinary Review. Small Group Research, 46(6), 623-658.
  5. Mansoor, Sadia. (2013). Cognitive Diversity and Team Performance: A review. Journal of Basic and Applied Scientific Research
  6. Hamilton, B.H.Nickerson, J.A. and Owan, H. (2012), “Diversity and Productivity in Production Teams”, Bryson, A. (Ed.) Advances in the Economic Analysis of Participatory and Labor-Managed Firms (Advances in the Economic Analysis of Participatory & Labor-Managed Firms, Vol. 13), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 99-138
  7. MoD – Diversity and Inclusion | Civil Service Careers (civil-service-careers.gov.uk)
  8. But not impossible, granted…
  9. Green, William, We ARE good at innovation! (sharepoint.com) Defence Blog post 2023

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