David Livermore on “Driven by Diversity”: An interview by Bob Morris

LivermoreDavid Livermore has written ten books on global leadership and cultural intelligence including Leading with Cultural Intelligence and his newest release, Driven by Difference: How Great Companies Fuel Innovation Through Diversity, which further addresses the practical ways to leverage diversity to fuel innovation. Livermore is president of the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan, a visiting scholar at Nanyang Business School in Singapore, and has worked with leaders in more than 100 countries.

Dave averages 35 international speaking engagements annually, addressing an average of 7500 leaders over a year. He also serves on several non-profit boards.

Dave and his wife Linda have two daughters, Emily, a film student at University of Southern California and Grace, a high school swimmer. Some of their favorite activities are traveling (fortunately!), hiking, and discovering new foods together.

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Morris: Before discussing Driven by Difference, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Livermore: Undoubtedly my parents. While my view of the world is significantly more global and inclusive than theirs ever was, they taught me what matters most—my faith, caring for others, and living a life of integrity. In addition, they encouraged my insatiable curiosity which has followed me all throughout life.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Livermore: I’m hard pressed to come up with one. But one of the first who comes to mind is Dr. Soon Ang, my research colleague and friend at Nanyang Business School in Singapore. She’s a world-renowned scientist and scholar yet she’s one of the most engaging, personal people you’ll encounter and is deeply committed to using our research to make the world a better place.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Livermore: Actually, there have been many. One of the first that comes to mind is when I was representing my U.S. organization in South Africa and I told our South African partner about a new leadership model that we wanted to roll out globally. He gently but kindly confronted me with my assumption that this very Westernized model was going to be effective in South Africa. And over a series of days, he began to confide in me the things said behind closed doors about many Westerners who march in without first seeking to understand.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Livermore: It’s huge! I never expected my graduate degrees to give me all the practical how-to’s that can perhaps only be learned through the school of hard knocks. But the exposure to such a broad range of theories, research, case studies, and diverse faculty and students has forever shaped the way I see myself, my community, and the world!

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Livermore: Most people probably become more jaded the longer they work in the world of work. I’ve actually become less jaded. Sure, there are people who are out to take advantage of others and some who are merely putting in their time. But most of the people I encounter in the work place are desperately trying to make a difference and what to be effective at their jobs.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Livermore: I’m inspired in many ways by Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching. And I resonate profoundly with this quote. To me, this is the essence of cultural intelligence—seeking to understand others and empowering them to succeed.

Morris: From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Livermore: Love it. Particularly since a “no” is a “yes” to something else and vice versa.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Livermore: For me, the key question is what’s behind the dangerous idea. If it’s simply to stir things up and appear radical, I’m not interested. But if it’s done with a quest to learn, evolve, and improve the quality of life for people everywhere, I’m on board. And may we all beware lest our innovative ideas appear very cliche before we even blink.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Livermore: Ouch. I’m obsessed with efficiency. And there are some tasks I need to just leave alone. And there are others — like an evening with one of my daughters or my wife — where I need to toss efficiency aside and simply be in the moment.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Livermore: Maybe but I’m not sure. I do think stories are one of the best tools for communicating across any number of cultures. But I also thing there are wildly successful leaders who are introverted, disciplined, lead via spreadsheets and goals, and might not “appear” to be a great leader…but in retrospect, made a massive impact.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Driven by Difference. When and why did you decide to write it?

Livermore: I usually write books pretty fast. But this one took a few years. Not the actual writing itself. But mulling over the research and how to most effectively communicate the ideas in a way that would be relevant to others. I wrote it in early 2015. And I did so because our research revealed some important but troubling results — homogenous teams outperform diverse teams unless they’re managed right. I was compelled to ensure those findings didn’t simply sit in an academic journal article but instead, found their way into the hands and minds of leaders who can actually do something about it.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Livermore: I was initially more focused on describing what kinds of psychological factors going into working effectively with diverse colleagues (i.e, issues related to trust, dealing with distractions, the physical environments where you work etc.). And it was only as I got into it that I began to see how this specifically tied to the innovative process. I would regularly read tips for how to foster innovation and in so doing, I was struck by the assumptions being made that wouldn’t necessarily fly with a culturally diverse team.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ [begin italics] significantly [end italics] from what you originally envisioned?

Livermore: This book was significantly different in final form that what I first envisioned. It started as almost a self-help book…helping those of us who continually work in diverse environments to cope personally with the conflicting perspectives coming at us. But the end result was more specifically focused on how to translate those psychological concepts into working with others to come up with more innovative solutions.

Morris: I am intrigued by what seem to me to be the almost unlimited applications that are available for the “5D Process.” What differentiates this process from all other approaches to fueling innovation through diversity?

Livermore: Thanks Bob. Quite honestly, the 5D process is remarkably similar to what exists in many sound approaches to innovation — whether it’s the design thinking model that comes out of Stanford or Clay Christiansen’s work on disruptive innovation. But the differentiation is in addressing the specific adaptations necessary when innovating with a diverse team and/or for a diverse set of users.

For example, most any innovation process talks about the importance of identifying with the user (aka “empathy” or “perspective taking”.) But the very ability to empathize with a user requires that I have an understanding of that user’s value and needs. This is what leads to many product fails. The individuals developing the innovation don’t actually use it. So all five steps in the process are specifically addressed in terms of their relevance to culturally diverse groups.

Morris: The process has five components or phases: Define, Dream, Decide, Design, and Deliver. Which of them seems to be the most difficult to complete? Why?

Livermore: The good news is, they get easier as you go. So I think the hardest is the first one—Define. This seems like such a simple step—define what it is you’re trying to accomplish. But there are so many assumptions that go into that process. So what one individual means by “develop cost-savings measures” may mean something entirely different to another team member. Clashing expectations are what most consistently derail any team, and especially a culturally diverse team. So if you take the time to “define” the goal carefully upfront, you’ve addressed one of the most difficult and important parts of the innovative process.

Morris: When implementing each of the five components of the process, what are the most important dos and don’ts to keep in mind for each? First, getting various expectations in proper alignment

Livermore: The most important part of aligning various expectations (DEFINE) is to clearly describe the problem you are trying to solve and identify at least three different ways diverse users experience this problem. The more diverse your team, the better you’ll be at doing this.

Morris: Next, generating diverse ideas

Livermore: Generating diverse ideas (DREAM) requires being clear about the kind of input needed and creating multiple ways for diverse team members to share their ideas (e.g. use more than just a brainstorming session).

Morris: Selecting and then selling your idea

Livermore: This part (DECIDE) means you have to decide which idea to pursue and write down alternative pitches for at least three different groups of users. Developing an explicit decision-making process upfront for how you will make that decision will help alleviate conflict and gridlock when you actually need to decide.

Morris: Creating and testing for diverse users

Livermore: In the DESIGN stage, you need to account for diverse tastes and identify the diverse users who will test your prototype. If you’re using outside designers, be sure they’re adept at accounting for a diversity of preferences. For example, the preferences of a user when navigating a website is strongly shaped by his/her cultural background.

Morris: Finally, implementing global solutions

Livermore: At the point of implementation, write down an explicit process for decision-making and conflict-resolution. This is valuable for any team but is critical for diverse teams.

Morris: Presumably references to “global” could involve initiatives that organizational (i.e. throughout the given enterprise) and/or multi-national.

Livermore: Absolutely. Even an organization that doesn’t do much work internationally will benefit from a culturally intelligent strategy to innovation. Working across different generations, business units, regions, and functions are all factors that can also influence the innovation process.

Morris: What do you mean by “diversity” insofar as globalization is concerned?

Livermore: The two most important forms of diversity when it comes to innovation are visible diversity (typically skin color, age, gender, etc.) and underrepresentation (anytime someone is less than 15% of the majority group). Other forms of diversity are also relevant but these are the ones that psychologically play the most role in how someone engages with the innovative process.

Morris: These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me. For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as [begin italics] the most important point [end italics] or [begin italics] key take-away [end italics] in each of these?

First, The Diversity of Diversity (8-14)

Livermore: As we’ve already noted, diversity goes far beyond nationality and ethnicity. On the other hand, if diversity includes every form of difference (different opinions, different personalities etc.) it can end up meaning nothing. I welcome a very broad definition of diversity. But the book is primarily focused on the challenges and opportunities for innovation related to cultural diversity.

Morris: ROI of High CQ for Organizations (22-25)

Livermore: Our research finds several proven results for individuals and organizations that improve cultural intelligence, including profitability and cost-savings, more effective multicultural teams, speed and efficiency, becoming an employer of choice, and much more. The bottom line is—given the increasing diversity among customers and employees, organizations that attend to cultural intelligence are more successful.

Morris: Redefining Innovation (30-31)

Livermore: I wanted to be sure the book not only applies to big audacious forms of innovation like space travel and the next iPhone but also everyday innovations—like more efficient processes (see—there’s my obsession with efficiency).

Morris: Culture Shapes Your Attention Priming Your Subconscious to Innovation (33-34)

Livermore: As you know from reading this section, there’s some fascinating research that speaks to the power of attention. Have you ever noticed that once you buy a silver Honda you start seeing them everywhere? That’s the power of attention. And the same thing is true for culturally intelligent innovation. When you start paying attention to diversity, you notice it (and notice its absence!). And based on the culture of your upbringing and the culture of your organization, you may or may not be primed to think consciously about innovation.

Morris: Corporate Culture Trumps National Culture (42-44)

Livermore: Some have erroneously said that cultures characterized as “high uncertainty avoidance” aren’t innovative. That’s a term referring to a culture’s desire for things to be predictable and planned, such as Germany, Singapore, and Israel. These are some of the most innovative countries in the world. What really makes the difference in innovation is whether the corporate culture is paying attention to innovation. There are highly innovative companies in the U.S., Germany, and India. And there are many stories of companies that failed to innovate in all those countries. This is good news because it means, regardless of your cultural background or where your company is based, it can become innovative.

Morris: The Danger of Minimization (52-54)

Livermore: Minimization is what happens when we take the “world is flat” idea too far…and act as if people everywhere are the same (and thereby minimizing the differences). It’s a default response some people have to a discussion of cultural differences (i.e., “Can’t we just focus on what we have in common). And I’m asked repeatedly by business leaders, “Isn’t the world pretty much becoming more similar than different?” If you primarily fly business class and stay in global hotel chains, it’s easy to think that. But when you jump on a city bus or roam the streets off the major thoroughfares you’ll quickly learn that we have as many differences as similarities. And therein lie the greatest opportunities for innovation—our different ways of viewing the world and coming up with solutions!

Morris: How to Improve Perspective Taking (61-66)

Livermore: Perspective taking is taking on the perspective of others. It’s what we do anytime we buy a gift for someone else (“What would they like?”). So it means breaking the golden rule (“Treat others the way you want to be treated”) and instead, acknowledges that others may not want what you want. The best way to improve perspective taking is to see users up close. Liffey from P&G insists on doing a home visit when he travels internationally. He wants to watch a family interact with their household products in Santiago or see a woman wash dishes in Istanbul so he gets a first hand account of her her perspective. Other companies work hard to listen to their customer service representatives because they often have a much closer read on the perspectives of customers than those sitting in the C-suites do.

Morris: It Starts with Self-Control (70-77)

Livermore: The distraction, particularly of technology, impedes the innovative process. And when you add to that the distraction of working with colleagues who are in different time zones and/or who have a different approach to urgency and distraction, the potential for losing focus is abundant. So becoming a culturally intelligent innovators starts with something as basic as exercising self-control. Learning when you will and won’t respond to emails. Disciplining yourself to work on a tough project for 90 minutes and then giving yourself a 10 minute break, and similar strategies that are covered in the book.

Morris: Problem Finding (79-82)

Livermore: Daniel Pink says that today’s customer, armed with Internet searches on their smart phones, can find the answers to problems easily. The bigger challenge is identifying the problem in the first place. The more diverse your team, the better you’ll be at identifying what a diversity of users perceive as problems. IKEA learned from their Chinese staff as well as observing Chinese customers that many of them sat on the floor against their sofas rather than on the sofas. So that required a sofa with a different design. The better you work to find the pain point and problem facing a diversity of users, the more clearly you can DEFINE the goal when you implement the process for culturally intelligent innovation.

Morris: Universal Influences on Development of Creativity (88-90)

Livermore: A great deal is being written these days about the power of one’s physical environment on creativity. The research is compelling that nature is good for all of us. When we’re exposed to trees and other natural settings—even within the city, it fosters creativity. In addition, natural light consistently fosters innovation, as does the avoidance of disturbances from noise and extreme temperatures. The challenge becomes how to effectively develop spaces that account for the many differences that exist among a diverse team (i.e, one who works best in extreme quiet vs. others who need some stimulation).

Morris: Calculating Trust (110-117)

Livermore: Trust is consistently seen as a make or break component of innovation—particularly because the freedom to fail is an important part of innovation. The ways you build trust are strongly shaped by your cultural orientation. Many Westerners see follow-through and reliability as the most critical factor in how they calculate the trustworthiness of another individual. In some other cultures, who you know and how you’re related to other individuals is the most important variable. And for others, it may be as much about your reputation and what others have said about you. Culturally intelligent leaders will not assume they know what will build trust with clients or staff. Instead, they’ll discover what’s most important for communicating and building trust.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Driven by Difference, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Livermore: Large companies tend to be very diverse simply because of their global scope. Smaller companies are often more homogenous. Don’t simply increase your diversity because of the social pressure to do so. Instead, realize that hiring a more diverse team will give you a whole new repertoires of innovative ideas. And then develop a strategy for effectively using the diversity of your team.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?
What’s the one thing you hope readers will take away from the book:

Livermore: It’s my hope that all of us will slow down the impulse to view a different perspective as threatening, wrong, or inferior and instead, to see it as an opportunity for growth. In those moments when we see things differently from those around us, we have a few choices: We can hold on to our views, defend them, and argue for their superiority. We can let go of our views and entirely acquiesce to the views of others. Or we can allow our perspectives to be broadened, enriched, expanded, and deepened. Culturally intelligent innovation begins with changing our impulse from Why can’t you see it like I do? to Help me see what I might be missing! Together, we can work together to come up with innovative solutions to solve problems big and small.

* * *

Dave cordially invite(s) you to check out the resources at these websites:

Please click here for more information on Dave’s books including the first chapter of Driven for Difference which you can download for free.

Please click here for more information on assessments, training, and other resources related to cultural intelligence, innovation and global leadership.

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