A Fascination with Difference: Part 1
By Jagoda Perich-Anderson, 2001
“Let’s look for the common ground,” is a widely accepted axiom when people in diverse groups are trying to achieve a goal. While this is useful advice for building trust and getting started, it can often backfire as a strategy for addressing complex issues. Often it leads groups to over generalize, simplify and remain at the lofty levels of identifying principles where agreements are easier to come by. But when there is a need for finding solutions that bridge multiple viewpoints, little substantive progress is made. The future asks us to not only learn to be comfortable with distinctions, but to become fascinated by them. Our new opening line will become an eager, “Let’s look for the differences.”
Why is this so? Three related currents are carrying us in the direction of needing to become skilled with handling differences. One is the acknowledgment by more and more people that many problems require a systemic response. Whether we want to assure healthy ecosystems or win competitive advantage in a global economy, we have to take into account how various parts of a larger whole interact with and affect each other; we need to understand their unique contribution.
Another current is closely connected to the first. In order to apply systemic approaches, all the key parts of a system must be represented. Companies are increasingly using cross-functional, integrated work teams for that very reason. This is how the Boeing 777 was designed and built: engineers, customers, suppliers and assemblers worked on it together. Anyone involved in that program will tell you one of the reasons for their astounding success was having the different players with their very different priorities and needs talking to each other from the beginning.
The third current is the continued growth of demographic diversity. Most of us in urban areas are already working with or living near people more unlike than like ourselves in cultural or ethnic background, temperament, education, experience and world view. This trend will continue as workers trained for high tech jobs come from other countries to close our skill gap, as more of us work in the global business arena, and as aging baby boomers switch their energies from a career or family focus to a focus on once again making a difference in the public arena. Once there, the boomers will discover that more and more community-based efforts strive to have diverse representation in their groups. A recent meeting in the Puget Sound region of Washington State on the subject of poverty included government officials, business people, social service workers, former welfare mothers, educators, journalists, volunteers, clergy and a wide range of economic diversity. Truly valuing this diversity is not just the politically correct response for addressing such a challenging issue; it is a pragmatic and necessary requirement for meeting the needs of the future. A focus on similarities may bring us together, but our differences will help us learn and grow.
Part 2 focuses on how we foster a fascination with difference.