In this hour-long video, Google VP of Engineering Douglas Merrill claims that leadership, contrary to popular belief, is not a significant factor supporting innovation within organizations. He adds that good leaders are effective at selecting diverse participants in groups assigned to work on solutions to problems. Diversity allows issues to be addressed from a variety of perspectives, which results in a greater likelihood of successful projects.
Merrill says Google fosters good-natured debate among its employees as they work on innovations for its search algorithms, advertising products, and web applications. He insists there is little expectation of getting things right the first time. The company encourages experimentation knowing it will usually result in failure and, at best, will lead to only incremental changes. The accumulation of small modifications equates to significant transformations in its products and the way it does business.
When approaching innovation, Merrill wisely insists, “Whatever you do, start with the user.”
While Merrill advocates multiculturalism in the workplace, Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, argues that diversity causes neighbors to become less involved in community activities and less trusting of each other. Putnam recently published the results of his five-year study of social capital, which concluded that in the U.S., a neighborhood’s ethnic diversity has the effect of reducing its members’ participation in civic affairs such as voting, charity work, and neighborhood associations.
A native of Port Clinton, Ohio, Putnam is currently the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and principal investigator of the Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America. Putnam observes that people make commitments to other people rather than to events or organizations, and his recent study indicates there is more social interaction and a higher level of trust among people with similar ethnic backgrounds.
Michael Jonas writes in the Boston Globe:
Diversity, [Putnam’s study] shows, makes us uncomfortable—but discomfort, it turns out, isn’t always a bad thing. Unease with differences helps explain why teams of engineers from different cultures may be ideally suited to solve a vexing problem.
Putnam’s critics counter that he fails to take into account the ways in which individuals connect through social networks on the Web. During the past five years, it has become easier to identify and participate in online groups devoted to even the most obscure topics and interests.
Americans can find innovative ways of overcoming the isolation that diversity and an increasing reliance on technology seem to cause, suggests Putnam. For 150 ideas to increase civic engagement in a community, see the Saguaro Seminar’s initiative Bettertogether.org.
Putnam’s research has been discussed in:
- The Boston Globe, “The Downside of Diversity”
- The Guardian, “Capital Ideas”
- Atlantic Monthly, “A Generation Without Public Passion”
Are we emotionally closer to our coworkers than to our own neighbors? The Saguaro Seminar is currently studying the effects of workplace policies on social capital both at home and at work.