What We're Into: Diversity, Problem Solving, and Ketchup

Photo by Flickr user jeffreyw

When people talk about the need for diversity and inclusion in the workplace, the rationale tends to boil down into two major points. One is that diversity is simply the right thing to do: Everyone deserves a fair shot at employment in their chosen field and recognition of their talents. But the other speaks to the fact that diversity boosts the bottom line: Having a variety of opinions, influences, and experiences leads to more and better ideas.

The idea that diverse teams tend to be more successfully creative has been demonstrated by research. But the best example we've heard yet came from a podcast episode that originally aired early in 2016.

Reply All is a podcast about the Internet and digital culture from Gimlet Media, which also produces the podcast Startup — we sang that show's praises earlier this year, too. In January, Reply All interviewed Leslie Miley, a black engineer who grew up in Silicon Valley and who has worked for major tech companies including Twitter. He left Twitter, in fact, after being frustrated by the company's lack of willingness to take meaningful action to hire and support more minorities, particularly black and Hispanic employees. For Leslie, it's a no-brainer that a valuable mix of perspectives comes from including people who aren't white and male, and that diversity leads to better results.

Reply All then interviews Scott Page, a professor of complex systems at the University of Michigan, who affirms that teams of people from different backgrounds, who bring different lenses and experiences to their work, are better able to solve problems. And here's where he offers our new favorite analogy: the ketchup metaphor.

Some people store ketchup in the fridge; others (who tend to be from the South or British) store it in the cupboard. If you run out of ketchup, the condiment you substitute will depend on where you keep your ketchup — if you keep it in the fridge, you're likely to use another fridge item, like mustard; if you keep it in the cupboard, you might use something like malt vinegar. So the way that you approach and solve the "problem" of having no ketchup is influenced by who you are as a person.

And having more options for how to solve problems is a good thing. If you have a group of people who all tend to use the same solutions to common problems, you might run out of solutions quickly. But a diverse group will come up with more ideas, different angles, new possibilities. 

Making companies and industries more diverse is the right thing to do, but it shouldn't be seen as charity or a diversion — it's a critical component of innovation and success. And we might just start carrying a bottle of ketchup around to make our point.