One of my earliest readings on diversity came from a Nature Conservancy article titled The Case for Diversity, which was published in their magazine several decades ago. Since then I have found that what makes diversity valuable to an ecosystem applies equally to teams, organizations, and larger populations. I will share some of the article’s key points here, while drawing parallels to human diversity.
In a healthy ecosystem different species fill different roles and niches. Photosynthetic plants fix carbon and release oxygen, while grazing animals keep overgrowth in check and nitrogen-fixing bacteria act like living fertilizers in the plants’ root systems. Each species has its own role and makes its own contributions.
The same thing is true on a healthy team. Different members of the team have different roles and make different contributions. A team member with great physical strength may be needed for heavy lifting, while another team member with years of experience knows the best strategy for accomplishing desired results, and a third member with a different cultural background can anticipate how an initiative will be received by dissimilar groups of people.
Besides each species having its own role, we find that in a healthy ecosystem there is a web of interdependencies between species, as in the example of the plants, grazers, and bacteria. To work in harmony requires the right connections. If the plants and the grazers are not in the same place the grazers starve and the plants get overgrown.
This also applies to teams, organizations, and populations. If the interconnections between purchasing, accounting, and sales are not working things can really break down. Lack of cultural and ethnic integration can cause similar problems in organizations and populations by creating unfounded biases and lack of bonding.
Next is resilience. In the ecosystem example if there is only one kind of grass and it becomes diseased the whole system can collapse. But if there is a variety of grasses and one becomes diseased, the system can continue while the diseased species recovers.
So too is the case on teams, where different members’ strengths can keep the group thriving against an onslaught of challenges. For example, two team members may have similar backgrounds and skills, but one has an expertise in computer security, helping to protect the organization from cyberthreats.
Finally, and what I found to be most compelling in the Nature Conservancy article, was the desire for variety in our lives for the mere sake of living in an interesting world. How bland would it be if the only grain were corn, the only animals were cows, and the only people were ones who walked, talked, and dressed alike!? I would not want to live in a world like that. Would you?