Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Diversity-It's not all about Race and Gender and Nationality

The book I've listed today is "We Seven".  It was written in 1962 by the original seven Project Mercury astronauts.  So what could be relevant to diversity about this 50 year old book in today's global environment?  When the original seven astronauts were selected there were a number of specific criteria.  First, they needed to be young enough to be in their physical prime.  Maximum age was set at 40.  The capsule had already been designed and anyone taller than 71" in a pressurized suit would not fit.  Maximum height then was 5'11".  Maximum weight was 180 lbs.  A formal engineering degree or its equivalent was required...the astronauts were expected to be participants in the design process.  They had to be practicing military test pilots and they had to be volunteers.  508 men met this initial screening criteria.  Those 508 were ultimately pared to the final seven.  Quoting from the introduction to the book: "This was the pattern-seven men with similar background and technical education, the same kind of skills and know-how, and only small variations in size, shape and coloring to distinguish one from the other.  Since they had all been pushed through the same fine sieve of interviews and tests, one might even have expected that they would come tumbling out of the hopper like seven peas in a pod.  But the Astronauts did not turn out like that at all.  On the contrary, NASA would up with a team of seven distinctly original personalities and a rich mixture of private attitudes, personal characteristics and professional ideas that were to prove invaluable in the day-to-day workings of the program."  Alan Shephard, one of the seven, told a friend "We are seven different individuals, seven different personalities.  We all have different strengths and abilities and different temperaments.....Some of us are stronger in certain fields.  Some have stronger personalities.  Some have a moderating influence.  Nobody pulls any punches when we get together."  Still later in the introduction, "There are more profound differences between any two of the Astronauts than are apparent in a simple comparison of their individual personalities or physical appearance.  Scott Carpenter and Deke Slayton, for example(who happen to be of the same height and weighed the same when they joined the program), have found themselves on different sides of the fence on a number of occasions when a matter of training or project policy was at stake.  These differences of opinion have been healthy and positive, and more often than not they have resulted in constructive ideas for the program"

There are two points to this story.  One is that even a team of all white men, married with children, within four inches of the same height, with a range in weight of only 25 pounds,  a narrow age range....32-37, and with similar technical education can have incredible diversity of thinking.  The lack of "above the water line" measures of diversity doesn't necessarily lead to "group think" or a lack of  "creative tension".    A "cousin" to that idea is that racial and gender and nationality diversity on a team doesn't necessarily guarantee diverse thinking.  As I've mentioned in earlier blogs, there are other good business-case driven reasons to consider those dimensions in selection, but they are not required to achieve diverse thinking on a team. So what is a leader to do with these competing ideas?  We'll turn to that tomorrow.

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