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?
- 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:
- Am I choosing what is expedient now over what is best for the long term?
- When I make requests for others am I asking people to be more efficient, effective or both?
- Can I explain the difference in specific situations?
Consider the people you surround yourself with and seek input from and ask yourself:
- Am I consciously spending time with people who don’t think like me?
- 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?
- 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.