#XYNTEOLIFE: The transformational power of diversity

21 May 2019

On World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, Xynteo's Chester Cunningham reminds us that in our interconnected world, for any real transformation to take place, organisations need to be mindful of how diversity is encouraged and sustained.

"It made me feel numb," Chester Cunningham, director of the award-winning Xynteo Exchange/Norway, is recalling his time working in a town that was dominated by the public sector. "We were all bureaucrats that not only shared the same politics, but we all wore the same clothes and ate the same food. Dinner party conversations became very predictable – we all agreed with each other!"

Chester has spent much of his life in search of new perspectives. In a career straddling science, law, diplomacy and business, one of his key learnings is that diversity of thought is a critical pre-condition for transformation. As an Australian working in Oslo, Chester says he has always wanted to live on the continent to experience its rich culture and history. The move ensured he stepped out of his comfort zone. "Certainly, there were some cultural adjustments. One needs to be a chameleon – adjusting to fit into any environment. But that doesn't mean you lose your identity, which for me is being an Australian," he adds.

Reflecting on his role at Xynteo– the variety of industries he works with and the complex challenges they now face, Chester says that, "it is a great feeling to surround yourself with like-minded people, but in a fast moving world, it can soon become the most dangerous thing you do. It's a recipe for stagnation." He believes that a key factor for transformation is having set ideas challenged. "It is in that stretch – that tension – that progress is made." A diverse team – be it in education, experience, culture, gender and age – encourages the individuals to check their biases and recognise their blind spots. He says that "having people with different backgrounds ensures the group does not get stuck in an echo chamber of the same voices."

An important example of this is the innovation work that Chester and his team have done with the mining company, Anglo American. Their aim in a recent project was to radically improve methods of discovering minerals deep underground, boosting productivity while ensuring minimal environmental impact. Although the mining value-chain had domain expertise, it was through the introduction of new perspectives that the group was able to approach an old problem with a new lens. "We invited a cancer researcher to help us understand how they approach a similar problem of detecting something you can't see." The group found themselves forced to re-think their approach in exploration.Instead of waiting for symptoms to manifest themselves in the patient, cancer therapy also includes mapping the genetic profile of individuals.

The idea was to apply a similar approach to mining exploration. Instead of inferring from topographical formations, why not better understand what are some of the preconditions for these minerals to exist? Another element of working with a diverse workforce is to be mindful of the way they work. The best way to do so, according to him, is to play to the strengths of those individuals, instead of imposing uniformity. For example, the methods used at a recent open innovation studio with IKEA, helping to implement their sustainability strategy, not only recognised but encouraged diverse personalities. Using different tools, space was created for both extrovert and introverts, enabling the best ideas from both groups to surface.

On this World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, Chester reminds us that, in our interconnected world, for any real transformation to take place, organisations need to be mindful of how diversity is encouraged and sustained. "We've got to have processes like this to engage with those who think differently to us. Even if we end up at the same place we started, we know it is resilient. But more often than not, diversity forces us onto new and better pathways. That is how you re-invent growth," he says.