Lean into Discomfort: Thought Diversity, Organizational Change and Radical Innovation

A few weeks ago, I gave a couple of workshops on thought diversity to educators in a postsecondary environment. Whether they were teaching business, marketing, early childhood education or other fields, they were preparing their students in fields where teamwork would be essential and change constant.

In preparing for these workshops, I started with the recent work of the UK’s NHS (National Health Service), a public sector institution delivering health care resources to an increasingly diverse population – be it due to age, gender, sexuality, social class, ethnicity and race. In ongoing times of austerity and limited economic growth, coupled with complexity of healthcare challenges, the NHS, like other public healthcare services, are in the midst of intense organizational change. Fortunately, the NHS has been public about these concerns, doing brainstorms with their various employees – what they call ‘hothouses’ – and producing a webinar on thought diversity.

Through that webinar, they brought in a range of experts, including Carmen Medina from Deloitte, where they have been advancing the concept of thought diversity. As Medina explains in the NHS webinar, thought diversity is emerging in the interstices of new work around neuroscience, psychology, and organizational dynamics, and as the image below illustrates, is pushing the diversity conversation beyond “legacy diversity,” that of social and cultural identities and experiences to one of thought diversity, namely of how our neural make up and lived experiences work together to give us different styles of thinking.

legacy diversity

Relatedly, other research from the world of manufacturing innovation (Post, C., De Lia, E.., DiTomaso, N., Tirpak, T. M., & Borwankar, R., 2009) contrasts “linear thinking” with “connective thinking.” Linear thinking is methodical, using proven methods for problem solving. Hence, a team composed of those with linear thinking styles can advance an innovation, but in a procedural, straight-forward sort of way. Linear thinking, the researchers argue, it gives you incremental innovation. Connective thinking, on the other hand, moves beyond existing paradigms, boundaries and rules, that may be unrelated. Here, the experimental meets the novel in search for what is required beyond the present circumstances. This process of connected potentially disparate processes and concepts, the researchers argue, is more likely to lead to radical innovation.

Interestingly, it is not merely a matter of mixing up educational backgrounds and functional roles in an organization. It needs more of what Deloitte suggests is a mixing of thought styles – the analytical thinker, with the meticulous planner, with the spontaneous actor. Moreover, this relative risk taking requires a great deal of trust and psychological safety for people to suspend their taken-for-granted assumptions and perspectives and collaborate in new ways. For some, this may cause tension or discomfort. Indeed, thought diversity advocates suggest that we “lean in” to this discomfort and that radical, organizational change or innovation needs this tension in order to be realized.


Lean into discomfort





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