Orchestrating Diversity

 I recently heard something fascinating at Lincoln Center – and it wasn’t the music.

Gustavo Dudamel, the 34-year-old maestro of both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, was describing the value of “blind auditions,” in which nobody knows the age, ethnicity or gender of the auditioning artists. Dudamel’s advocacy of access to music for all has inspired countless kids from the barrio in his native Venezuela to play classical music – proving the power of making music available to anyone. His approach to building an orchestra without regard to station offers a fresh and compelling image of the power of diversity.

By both essence and necessity, an orchestra must be diverse. But to enjoy the richness of oboes playing with bassoons, and pianos with violins, it isn’t enough that each instrument be different. To create transcendent music, all performers – no matter their instrument – must be reading from the same sheet of music and following the same conductor, blending disparate timbres and harmonies into a whole that exceeds the sum of the parts.

Just as no orchestra could function with clarinets only, no organization can thrive with a single kind of team member. Likewise, just as no orchestra could make music from different scores or different conductors, the key to a diverse team achieving its potential is being on the same page. Diversity isn’t an end unto itself.

Using the imagery of an orchestra, one can see what works and what doesn’t when it comes to organizational diversity. In the 1960s, affirmative action was on its way to becoming an equal-opportunity employment imperative and seemed more rooted in notions of “social justice” than in the power of actually harnessing diversity. But by the late ’90s, the argument had evolved. The consulting firm McKinsey published “The War for Talent,” a report that underscored the need to find and retain the best people. According to management guru Peter Drucker, this lens focused on the emergence of “knowledge workers” – talented people who by definition came from every race, ethnicity, religion and background, including the barrio in Caracas or wherever.

It wasn’t simply about checking the right boxes, but taking advantage of what the different boxes brought to an enterprise. Businesses and institutions everywhere began harnessing the multicultural influences reflected in diverse work groups. Leaders got better at embracing diversity – and in turn new leaders from diverse backgrounds started to play roles as conductors. Indeed, the celebration of diversity often became a source for innovation in the workplace and in the academy.

Diverse teams frequently produce better decisions because people with different lenses see more complete solutions to problems. This reality has become apparent in the war for talent across global markets. The right kind of diversity encourages respect for conflicting viewpoints, and when it operates from the “same sheet of music” under the direction of an inspired conductor, workplace diversity creates its own music in the form of better thinking and better decisions, avoiding the “groupthink” that can kill innovation.

On occasion, I’ve seen diversity’s downside. If and when a multiplicity of opinions itself becomes the goal – regardless of the validity or utility of the opinions – the result may be more indecision and less productivity. The trick is to harness the benefits of diversity without fixating on the diversity itself.

The image of an orchestra combining to create sublime music from disparate instruments in the hands of different musicians – under the direction of a Gustavo Dudamel – is a model to inspire all of us to strive for the kind of diversity that brings a richness of harmony and a depth of sound to our organizations.

By Joel Peterson