Diversity is a source not only of creativity but also of resilience
The magazine Nature features an unusual lead article about the parallels between the recent financial near catastrophic failure and the spread of diseases in natural eco-systems. This is no joke or provocation: not only is Nature a serious scientific publication but the article is written by Andrew Haldane, executive director of financial stability at the Bank of England, and Robert May, a theoretical ecologist at Oxford University and former chief scientist of the UK government. Both the method and the conclusions offer at least two insightful lessons for the innovation practitioner.
The first one, focussing on the method, is well known, but worth emphasising one more time: innovation does not happen right at the heart of a domain – be it in science, art or finance – but at its edges. It is by taking the risk to confront one’s viewpoint or expertise with that of others in adjacent and sometimes radically different fields that new connections can be made and new insights gained. To innovate get out! Congratulations to Andrew Haldane and Robert May for daring to step so conspicuously out of their fields of recognised expertise.
The second insight is more subtle. If we accept that diversity is a source of creativity, which is itself an essential component of innovation, then increasing diversity is a worthwhile goal. However, one of the lessons from the banking crisis is that diversification in the corporate world does not necessarily lead to diversity. During the pre-crisis years, all the major banks did diversify, but did so in the same way. For each corporation this created a perception that the risk was spread, while at the industry level there was in fact a great deal of uniformity, which bread fragility of the system as a whole. By contrast, ecosystems that are best suited to resist the spread of aggressive diseases present a degree of diversity that goes as far as generating modularity.
“By limiting the potential for cascades, modularity protects the systemic resilience of both natural and constructed networks,” say Haldane and May.
Going forward, the not-so-intuitive insight from the study is that, in a world of growing interconnectedness, corporations need to be careful NOT to forge too strong bonds between the different components of their organisations or value chains. They need to accept that a degree of divergence that feeds on truly-accepted diversity will be a source not only of creativity, but also of resilience.