A Recipe to Enhance Innovation

By Freeland, Chrystia | International Herald Tribune, November 16, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Recipe to Enhance Innovation


Freeland, Chrystia, International Herald Tribune


Recent research suggests that the ability to comfortably integrate different identities is the key to success for diverse teams and people who straddle two cultural worlds.

For America, 2012 will go down in history as the year of the Latinos, the blacks, the women and the gays. That rainbow coalition won President Barack Obama his second term. This triumph of the outsiders is partly due to America's changing demographics. And it is not just the United States that is becoming more diverse. Canada is, too, as is much of Europe.

That is why it is worth thinking hard about how to make diverse teams effective, and how people who straddle two cultural worlds can succeed. Three academics, appropriately enough a diverse group based in Asia and America, have been doing some provocative research that suggests that our ability to comfortably integrate our different identities -- or not -- is the key.

In "Connecting the Dots Within: Creative Performance and Identity Integration," Chi-Ying Cheng, of Singapore Management University, Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, and Fiona Lee, also at the University of Michigan, argue that ethnic minorities, and women in male-dominated professions, are most creative when they have found a way to believe that their "multiple and conflicting social identities are compatible."

"We tried to see how people who have to deal with seemingly in- conflict culture or gender identities cope," Dr. Cheng told me. Their conclusion was that people who have found a way to reconcile their two identities -- Asian-Americans, for example, or women who work in male-dominated jobs like engineering -- are the best at finding creative solutions to problems.

"Those who see their identities as compatible, they are better at combining ideas from the two identities to come up with something new," Dr. Cheng said. "While those who also share these two social identities, but see them as being in conflict, they cannot come up with new ideas."

Drs. Cheng, Sanchez-Burks and Lee devised a research strategy to probe this issue that you do not need a Ph.D. to appreciate: They asked Asian-Americans to invent new fusion cuisine dishes using both typically Asian and typically American ingredients, and they asked female engineers to design products geared specifically to women. In both cases, people who were at peace with their dual identities performed better.

"Asian-Americans who had higher bicultural integration could create more creative recipes, and they believed it was possible to come up with more recipes," Dr. Cheng said. "By contrast, Asian- Americans who feel their two identities are in conflict cannot come up with as many creative recipes. …

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