Date posted: 02/03/2022 5 min read

Juliet Bourke: Why corporate “clones” threaten business success

Juliet Bourke will explain how diverse thinking teams build a stronger business at the CA ANZ Women in Business Conference 2022.

In Brief

  • A lack of diverse thinking in a team means proposals are not sufficiently challenged to unearth innovative solutions.
  • Among teams that lack diversity, studies show an error rate of about 30%.
  • Ideas devised by a more diverse group tend to be better communicated and gain more support.

By Luke Dodemaide

Juliet Bourke has seen it all before. Too often, she says, a leadership team that shares the same thinking and conservative mindset holds businesses back.

The problem is that leaders in positions of seniority have tended to hire employees that look, think and act like themselves – Bourke likens it to “cloning”. This results in the same ideas being multiplied rather than challenged; and it can halt the development of better solutions.

“When you have a group around you who actually only have one thought, they’re really clones of each other,” Bourke says. “Then [University of Michigan’s Scott E. Page] research shows, you’re building an error rate of about 30%.”

Juliet BourkePicture: Juliet Bourke.

“When you have a group around you who actually only have one thought, they’re really clones of each other.”
Juliet Bourke

As a former head of Deloitte Australia’s diversity and inclusion practice, and now professor of practice at the UNSW Business School, Bourke has advised more than 200 global organisations on people and culture matters.

Historically, she says, problems manifest in decision-making when long-held beliefs are not challenged.

“In addition to that, you don't get the benefit of innovation. My research was showing that you get a 20% premium in terms of an additional innovative capability when you have a diverse thinking team.”

She adds that: “Individuals can still come up with brilliant ideas, but as the world has become more complex and challenges are more difficult to solve, there has been this ‘rise of teams’.

“The rise of teams sounds good in theory – sharing the workload, different perspectives – but there really hasn't been a considered view or agreement on what diversity of thinking is needed to actually make that dream a reality.”

CA ANZ Women in Business Conference 2022

Bourke is a global thought leader on diversity and inclusive leadership and will share her expert views at the Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand’s Women in Business Conference 2022.

The two-day event, running online on 8-9 March, aims to inform professional services workers on how to improve inclusion and diversity and build a sustainable profession for both genders. It brings together high-profile international speakers who will share stories of leaders who are making a significant contribution to businesses and communities.

Joining Bourke will be speaker, mentor and author Corrinne Armour; “people whisperer” Anneli Blundell; best-selling author Tara Moss; and head of consumer – Northern at Westpac New Zealand, Katie Christoffersen, among others.

CA ANZ president Kate Boorer FCA and chief executive officer Ainslie van Onselen will also speak.

Why you need diverse thinking

Bourke’s session on 8 March, The Extraordinary Power of Diversity of Thinking and Interpersonal Inclusion, is based on her new book, Which Two Heads Are Better Than One?

In it she discusses how to identify diversity strength, create a diverse thinking team and increase inclusion capabilities.

Studies support the positive effects of racial diversity and gender balance on group performance. But there is also cognitive diversity, which comes from educational and functional variances. Without it, the cross-section of perspectives within a group narrows.

“The issue is that they're working within an echo chamber,” says Bourke. “So that question of ‘Am I on track?’ just bounces back with ‘Yes, great idea.’”

“They're working within an echo chamber, so that question of ‘Am I on track?’ just bounces back with ‘Yes, great idea.’”
Juliet Bourke

This has been the downfall of many companies, for example, Enron, where rooms filled with like-minded individuals failed to stand up when corruption seeped into the status quo.

“The Volkswagen scandal, same idea,” says Bourke. “People really being selected from an almost singular group.” As she sees it, the more range of thinking within a group, the more checks and balances.

The benefits of a diverse team

Bourke’s own research has uncovered other unexpected benefits of having a diverse team. Teams are 17% more likely to reach a high-performing status and 20% more likely to report they are making high-quality decisions when compared to groups led by non-inclusive leaders, she says.

In addition, inclusive teams are 29% more likely to achieve true collaboration.

“When you have a diverse thinking team, the solution that people come up with, and the broad way that they communicate that solution, creates greater followership for the actual idea,” she explains.

“So, a diverse thinking team, led by an inclusive leader, not only performs well in terms of generating great decisions, but others who are tasked with implementing those decisions are more likely to do so if they see themselves reflected in the group.

“Conversely, if you see a team of clones and you don't see yourself in that group then you put a question mark over whether they've actually incorporated your ideas. And, of course, we all think our own ideas are brilliant.”

Find out more:

The Women in Business conference will be streaming live on 8 & 9 March and then will be available on demand.


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Luke Dodemaide is an award-winning writer and editor based in Melbourne.