The power of diversity in collaboration

I found the recent webinar on “Smart Collaboration” hosted by RPC and CLL featuring Heidi Gardner, fascinating; it revealed insights that need to be taken into account when we collaborate with others, and even when we consider our own working patterns. In particular it was a salient reminder of the importance of ensuring there is diversity in collaboration.

Steve Bynghall on 16/06/20

Heidi Gardner is a distinguished Harvard academic who has also worked with multiple organisations and has researched and written extensively on collaboration in professional services, the legal profession and for in-house teams. I’m not from a legal background, but I have worked in Knowledge Management and online collaboration with professional services firms. The webinar’s core messages were relevant not just for in-house teams, but across other professions.

Here are my takeaways from the webinar that show why diversity is so critical for successful collaboration. 

1. Wide problems plus narrow expertise means we need diversity

Heidi presented a convincing wider context for professional collaboration; she talked about the combination of a highly unpredictable world (VUCA = Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) with highly complex problems, and the increasing specialisms and narrowing knowledge domains of professionals and experts. This means that to solve these problems we need a wider range of experts and perspectives to come together to collaborate to drive meaningful and sustainable answers to the difficult questions we face today.  At the moment there are some very difficult questions; when significant wide problems meet narrow deep expertise, we need a diversity in collaboration. 

2. Experts have blind spots

Gardner also pointed out that experts can have blind spots (the “expert trap”) citing research into chess grand masters showed how they could make mistakes when placed under time pressure and novel conditions that challenged their normal responses to situations. This “pressure” is particularly pertinent obviously in a crisis like the current pandemic, but also in the stressful situations that in-house legal teams sometimes need to work through with others. Again, this blind spot drives an argument for the need of diversity in collaboration. 

3. We need a diversity of collaborators

Gardner talked about there being different vectors of collaboration for in-house legal teams, a vector being a line with direction and magnitude. I felt this was a strong reminder of the need for the diversity of collaboration too. There are many people in-house teams can choose to collaborate with:

within their specific team
with their executive board
with other functional heads, including HR and procurement
with external providers including law firms, regulators and legal service providers.

This sort of framework can be applied to any internal function. 

4. Remote working in a time of crisis is not necessarily good for diversity

Gardner also touched upon the risk of remote working, particularly in stressful times, and the negative impact this can have on diversity. When under stress people to focus on those who are similar to themselves and reinforce the idea of a “group”, leaving out people who are dissimilar to us. As the pandemic goes on and we continue to work remotely, we need to ensure that we address any potential diversity issues that can emerge. 

Diversity is important

Diversity and inclusion matters in professions, within organisations and also in the way we work. It is absolutely key in collaboration. Reading Gardner’s work on smart collaboration or hearing her speak is well worth the effort and provides a thought-provoking context for not only how in-house legal teams work and collaborate, but other professions too.

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