The Food Ark and Other Diversity Issues

You may be wondering “what the heck is a Food Ark?” I first heard the term last night while reading an article titled “Food Ark” in the July 2011 issue of National Geographic.  It refers to a structure that houses a vast diversity of seeds for long term safe keeping.

According to National Geographic “A crisis is looming. To feed our growing population we’ll need to double food production.  Yet crop yields aren’t increasing fast enough and climate change and new diseases threaten the limited varieties we’ve come to depend on for food.  Luckily we still have the seeds and breeds to ensure our future food supply, but we must take steps to save them.”

The article goes on to say: “The irony is that the dangerous dwindling of diversity in our food supply is the unanticipated result of an agricultural triumph.”  In 1944 a plant pathologist named Norman Borlaug created a hybrid variety of wheat that resisted an epidemic threatening the food supply of India and Pakistan and nearly doubled the yield.  It saved a billion people from starvation.  Yet roughly 90% of wheat grown to feed the world right is now threatened by a mutation of that same fungus.  Reducing the diversity of wheat varieties we rely on has made us incredibly vulnerable.

While this may be interesting to some and potentially alarming to many, you may now be wondering: “so what does this have to do with diversity initiatives in organizations?“

Consider this: while homogeneity of people and perspective may be more immediately expedient and productive in the short run, it is dangerous to the long term sustainability of the system it initially served or even saved.

This is not just true of our food system or our any ecosystems in general.  It is true of our human systems as well.

The industrial revolution enabled unprecedented increases in production and economic growth and prosperity.  We could produce more and more, faster and faster.  Yet for the industrial model to function, it required ruthless attention to repetition and speed. And if you have too many different types of elements (i.e., parts, processes, people, etc.) in the mix you impede efficiency.  In other words diversity has proven to be at odds with efficiency, at least in the short term.

Leaders in organizations learned to design structures and processes that to the extent possible remove the human element that is often so frustratingly unpredictable.  Could it be that in our drive for efficiency in our human systems we unwittingly fostered homogeneity not only culturally, but of thought and belief as well?

After all…

  • If people think the same then getting agreement is much more efficient.
  • If people just do what they are asked/told without question the job gets done much more efficiently.
  • If people look, live, think and talk just like me I am more comfortable and can trust easier and doesn’t trust make us more efficient too?

Yet it could be that we are now seeing the down side of our belief that efficiency rules.  This belief may well be putting the well being and future our organizations at risk, just as planting only one kind of potato ultimately led to the Great Potato Famine in Ireland.

The issue of diversity initiatives in our organizations today may have started as a stand for human rights with a focus on Equal Opportunity, but the imperative for diversity has become one of viability and sustainability for business today. In his article Why Workplace Diversity is a Fraud William Powell points out the prevalence of misguided attempts to address diversity in a meaningful way.  He points to one of the main costs of this – unengaged employees – and makes the case for Cultural Pluralism.

While important I think the problem is far more serious  than unengaged employees.  A lack of diversity, not only culturally, but also in terms of thought, practice, values, etc., fundamentally impedes innovation, flexibility and adaptability.  Perhaps the continued prevalence of misguided attempts to address diversity in the form of a “check the box/meet your quotas mentality” continues to live on because of our obsession with efficiency. We can’t make something efficient unless we can control it and we can’t control people so what choice do we have?

Our obsession with efficiency may just be the enemy of diversity – the key to sustainability whether it applies to our food supply or our companies.

I am not suggesting we abandon efficiency altogether, but I am suggesting we can no longer afford myopically focusing on it as individuals or as leaders or we will be left behind.

In the Food Ark article the challenge is articulated this way:  “The challenge has been to show it is possible to increase productivity without sacrificing diversity.” When I think about this challenge in human systems this is what I see:

  • Until we truly believe diversity isn’t at odds with productivity as it applies to food production or the productivity of people a short term mentality with a focus on efficiency at all costs will prevail.
  • Unless we truly see diversity as essential to our viability and future sustainability because we both understand it’s value and the long term costs if we don’t tend to it, too many diversity initiatives will be hollow attempts to make the numbers.
  • Unless we learn to deal with the complexities that diversity in all of it’s dimensions introduces to our human interactions we will perpetually seek to become more efficient in the short term at the expense of our future.

The goal of efficiency is about faster, better and cheaper.  The goal of effectiveness is making smart progress.  It’s not about choosing either or but rather determining how we can achieve both.  And to progress our thinking on a both/and approach we must embrace diversity in it’s many forms or we will fail to think beyond what we know and can control. To embrace diversity we must first address the extent to which we are driving for short term efficiency at the expense of long term progress and ultimately our viability and sustainability in every dimension of our lives.

How can you as one person impact the larger belief system?  By confronting your own beliefs and behaviors head on.

Here are two suggestions – the first focusing on efficiency and the second focusing on diversity.

With every decision try asking yourself these 3 questions:

  1. Am I choosing what is expedient now over what is best for the long term?
  2. When I make requests for others am I asking people to be more efficient, effective or both?
  3. Can I explain the difference in specific situations?

Consider the people you surround yourself with and seek input from and ask yourself:

  1. Am I consciously spending time with people who don’t think like me?
  2. Are people consistently challenging my thinking in a way that has me see things in new ways and causes me to change my mind on occasion?
  3. Are the people I surround myself with, especially those who inform my decisions and my leadership, reflective of homogeneity or diversity?

As always I would love to hear what you think and what you might discover from asking yourself these questions.


Enter A Comment

William Powell   |   27 July 2011   |   Reply

Quite a thorough post Susan. I think the idea of efficiency and diversity being diametrically opposed is somewhat of a false distinction.

While it may be true on certain occasions, I don’t think it’s a hard and fast fact. Making this assumption, in my opinion, by leadership is business-speak for attempting to excuse and justify a poor and selfish decision.


Susan Mazza   |   27 July 2011   |   Reply

Thanks for sharing your perspective here William.

I agree that efficiency and diversity by their nature are not diametrically opposed. And I don’t think most people even make a connection between the two. I certainly didn’t until this article got me thinking more deeply.

I think it is more of a blind spot. Now if someone uses the need for efficiency as an excuse for not pursuing diversity in earnest I think you are absolutely right – that would not only be poor leadership but I’d venture to say that line of reasoning wouldn’t hold water at all with any reasonable person.

But when you see the same phenomena take place in different contexts it’s gotta make you wonder what is it that we really believe that would drive us to behave in ways that are contrary to what we say we believe and continually lose sight of the big picture.

“Efficiency rules” is the belief I considered here. Our beliefs around cultural pluralism as you point out in your article are another. What else haven’t we considered that would ensure we break through the paradigm that is keeping us stuck once and for all?

And perhaps the leap I made here in drawing a potential connecting the two was too big!

Frank Sonnenberg   |   27 July 2011   |   Reply

Well said Susan! I agree that we cannot afford to myopically focus on efficiency –– or there may be unintended consequences. In my mind, a great company must build an organization with passionate employees; create an environment that stimulates creativity and innovation; focus the company’s resources in areas that provide the greatest potential return; provide service excellence to customers; build an organization that adapts to a changing marketplace; recognize that speed provides a competitive advantage; build a flexible organization by collaborating with other organizations; understand that a foundation of trust between an organization and its employees, suppliers, and clients is what brings and keeps people together. Thanks again for your sage advice.



Susan Mazza   |   27 July 2011   |   Reply

Thanks Frank. You eloquently show us the complexity of what leaders must consider and tend to if we are to be successful. And I still see so many people in leadership and management positions with such an intense focus on efficient production of work that they can’t even see they are neglecting the other things you list.

Anne Perschel   |   28 July 2011   |   Reply

Wow Susan – How clever and creative you are to discuss diversity via food. You’ve also raised a different perspective on this topic – the tradeoff between diversity and efficiency. Someone else commented on this point at Hack Management eXchange ( in response to an article I wrote calling for a paradigm shift in business to be achieved via diversity). Having worked on diverse teams he state it takes longer, is more productive and diverse teams need more time to gel. He concludes that the diversity needs to fit the problem/situation o team is working to solve, including the time frame they have to solve it.

To read Frank’s full comment go to http://www.managementexchange.com/hack/better-not-bigger-any-more-paradigm-shift-paradox-power

Susan Mazza   |   05 August 2011   |   Reply

Thanks Anne for your kind words and sharing this link. There is so much we can see more clearly when we look outside of our usual field of interest. Discovering this article was a reminder I need to spend more time reading outside of my usual “box”!

Rich   |   28 July 2011   |   Reply

I have always felt that if we observe nature, there are many incredible learnings that will reveal themselves to us. Your latest post demonstrates this perfectly!

I had a research and intelligence business about 15 years ago and my business partner and I had a saying that fits into your theme.

“If both of us agree, one of us isn’t necessary.”

We realized the importance and value of a diversity of opinions and how that diversity . . . or even conflict . . . led to better thinking, creativity and results.

Keep up the great writing and observations, Susan!

Susan Mazza   |   05 August 2011   |   Reply

Love this: “If both of us agree, one of us isn’t necessary.” And yes, there is so much to learn from obsering nature including what happens when we mess with it!

Thanks for sharing your insights Rich.

Rob Peters   |   02 August 2011   |   Reply

Many of our businesses have been lead by highly analytical thinkers driven by efficiency and financial metrics. In this emerging social business age. We needs cooperative teams of individuals creating new ideas and innovations. The foundation of this cooperation and collaboration is TRUST!

Susan Mazza   |   05 August 2011   |   Reply

Absolutely Rob. Trust is essential. And it’s not something that will just happen – we have to consciously build it, especially with those who are not like us or don’t see things the same way as we do or we will be unable to tap the diversity of knowledge, thinking and perspective available.

I just posted an article this week called Choosing Trust on the Lead Change Group blog – http://leadchangegroup.com/choosing-to-trust/

Dawn Morris   |   05 August 2011   |   Reply

What a clever connection you have made here. The nature of people and the planet are far more complex than the majority of us are willing to believe, as you illustrated perfectly. It is up to each of us to protect what we will never be able to fully understand.

Money and science will never replace people and nature, and it seems that so very often, the former destroys the latter. American leaders must change this paradigm if it hopes to stay competitive and regain the respect of the rest of the world.

Companies like Seventh Generation understand the value of diversity for all living things, as evidenced by a quote they write on each of their product labels:

“In every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” -from the Great Law of the Iroquois confederacy

I challenge today’s leaders to think and ask all the right questions before they make decisions. A guiding quote like that forces all levels of employees to think about the long term ramifications of their decisions. Those are the people and the companies who will take this world to the whole new level it needs to function on.

The first step in thinking long term and “outside the efficiency box” is to rethink hiring practices. All too often these days, people are hired based upon who they know, and not for the unique value and experience they can provide. Many so called leaders tend to hire those who think and act like themselves, which makes it easier in the short run, but disastrous in the long run.

We can do better!!!! It’s all about asking more questions. Profit will come to those who seek to give to the world and not just take away.

Thanks, Susan.

Susan Mazza   |   05 August 2011   |   Reply

Thanks Dawn for sharing your insights and pointing to Seventh Generation. They are a great example of a company who operates in a contexts that considers the long term view.

As you point out, unless we operate with a long term context the “obvious” choices will serve efficiency and productivity now at the expense of long term viability.

Linda Fisher Thornton   |   06 August 2011   |   Reply

Thank you for this post and for your fresh perspective on leaders using long-term thinking and avoiding unintended consequences. In addition to efficiency, I think that convenience, predictability and habit may also be reasons why leaders may be tempted to hire people who think just like they do. The easiest way to make decisions is to ignore the broader impact of the decision and act based on what benefits us the most. The more responsible way to make those decisions, though, is always to consider the broader, long-term impact. Thanks for your insights!

Susan Mazza   |   11 August 2011   |   Reply

Excellent points Linda! Convenience, predictability and habit are often at play in causing short term thinking to prevail. It is so challenging to resist the incredible pull to think and act short term and fully consider the big picture and the long term view. Yet as you point out it is the responsible choice to do so. Thanks for sharing your insights.