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Making the link between innovation and diversity – a practical case study

If your organisation is serious about innovation (let’s face it, who isn’t these days?), there’s a good chance that encouraging diversity and challenging unconscious bias is on your leadership radar.

That’s because innovation is a lot less likely without diverse teams. And it’s harder when unconscious biases go unchallenged too.

Because of the automatic shortcuts our brains take, and our preference for similarity over difference, we can easily default to groupthink, affinity bias, and confirmation bias (our preference to have our views confirmed rather than challenged). These types of unconscious biases obviously run counter to innovation.

An increasing number of organisations are making an explicit link between innovation and diversity, and the rewards are obvious. One is Australian law firm Maddocks.

Photo: your_photo/iStock / Getty Images

Photo: your_photo/iStock / Getty Images

In 2018, Maddocks’ diversity and inclusion initiatives saw it recognised as an Equal Opportunity Employer of Choice for the 14th consecutive year and awarded a Bronze citation for LGBTI inclusion by the Australian Workplace Equality Index.

 The firm’s CEO is Michelle Dixon, who was appointed to the role in 2014 after 13 years as a partner and eight years as leader of the firm’s commercial disputes team. Michelle is also a CEO ambassador for the national pay equity campaign led by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

Not long after her appointment, Michelle encouraged all partners and employees at Maddocks to attend inclusive leadership education to help meet the firm’s objectives for greater diversity and flexibility and tackle entrenched ways of thinking and unconscious biases that inhibit diversity.

“Being aware of unconscious bias is important for so many reasons,” says Michelle. “I think it’s particularly important in law where we have been so staid in how we’ve approached our structure. We haven’t really changed in centuries, let alone the last few decades, and we needed to see that there could be different styles of leadership and different ways of doing things.”

“If you’ve got an homogenous group made up of awesome individuals, but all with a similar background and upbringing, you just can’t get the best decision making. You’ve got an homogenous group who are probably going to think along similar lines, and that could never serve the interests of the business, let alone our clients who we’re looking after.”

Michelle says the discussion around diversity issues is as important as the training. “A lot of partners came out of that training and said ‘wow, I wasn’t expecting that … I didn’t realise I have views around certain attributes or issues, or certain expectations for people in the business’, so it was really eye-opening for a lot of people, which then enabled the broader discussion about other things we had to do in the business.” 

Michelle says Maddocks is getting better business results as a result of the investment in education and other programs to encourage innovation, diversity and inclusion.

“Our innovation strategies and programs are really taking off and what we’re seeing is a far broader group of people involved, and a great willingness to look to younger generations for ideas. I don’t think the partners feel any more like it just rests with them to make all of the decisions; I think we’re seeing lots of changes around the willingness to question things that don’t sound right or look right.”

Along the way, the firm has achieved a remarkable lift in gender diversity at the partnership level. In 2012, 18 per cent of partners were women. Today it’s 38 per cent.

‘Our innovation strategies and programs are really taking off and what we’re seeing is a far broader group of people involved, and a greater willingness to look to younger generations for ideas.’

Michelle Dixon, CEO Maddocks

The business benefits Maddocks has gained from this dual focus on innovation and diversity reflect the findings of many global studies. Organisations with inclusive cultures are six times more likely to be more innovative and agile, according to Deloitte research.

“Leaders who give diverse voices equal airtime are nearly 2 times as likely as others to unleash value-driving insights, report researchers in Harvard Business Review, “and employees in a “speak up” culture are 3.5 times as likely to contribute their full innovative potential.

Boston Consulting Group puts it simply: “The evidence is clear: companies that take the initiative and actively increase the diversity of their management teams—across all dimensions of diversity and with the right enabling factors in place—perform better.

“These companies find unconventional solutions to problems and generate more and better ideas, with a greater likelihood that some of them will become winning products and services in the market. As a result, they outperform their peers financially.”

 Five things organisations can do to leverage diversity and increase innovation

 1.     Make the link with innovation explicit in company-wide communications about diversity

2.     Capture your own data – measure team performance and innovation performance among teams that are more diverse than others across your operations

3.     Agree to team meeting principles such as: The Meeting Chair/Team leader explicitly invites alternative perspectives at the start of each meeting; Appoint a ‘devil’s advocate’ or leader of the opposition; Give minority styles the floor first, to avoid priming and thought cascades from the leader down.

4.     Provide education on unconscious bias and the impact on business decision-making

5.     Actively recruit for diversity on teams – think ‘culture add’ rather than ‘culture fit’, that is, what does the candidate add to the team mix?

Michelle Dixon spoke with Dr Katie Spearritt, CEO of Diversity Partners and Co-Founder of the Future Women Academy. Maddocks is a member of the FW Academy and has engaged Diversity Partners on a range of initiatives, including Inclusive Leadership education, over the past decade.

If you’d like to know more about our services and programs, please email us at and we’ll be in touch to chat about your needs. We help large, medium and small organisations from the public, private and not-for-profit sectors.

About Dr Katie Spearritt

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