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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiatives Are Incomplete Without This Essential Dimension

A growing body of research indicates that groups representing a range of different perspectives outperform those with similar, even if demonstrably superior, skills.

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Even when it comes to sole proprietorships, entrepreneurship is rarely a solo pursuit. Ask any successful business owner how he or she got started, or what has contributed to his or her growth, and he or she is likely to cite input and assistance from others. That was certainly the case for me. As the adage goes, "Two heads are better than one."

Compassionate Eye Foundation/Mark Langridge | Getty Images

It's more than a saying, however. It's science. A growing body of research indicates that groups outperform individuals working independently. Moreover, groups representing a range of different perspectives outperform those with similar, even if demonstrably superior, skills.

In The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, University of Michigan researcher Scott Page summarizes this principle in three words: "Diversity trumps ability." He also shows, through quantitative and qualitative data, how workforce diversity leads to higher achieving organizations. The key is divergent thinking.

Different backgrounds bring multiple solutions

Several years ago, I attended a conference during which a speaker put this into clear focus for me. He said that if several people are sitting at a conference table (or more likely today, meeting virtually) trying to solve a problem, and everyone basically looks the same, acts the same and has the same general education and experience, they'll likely come up with a similar solution. It might be a good solution, or it might not. But either way, it will stem from a common outlook. In this scenario, two heads are not necessarily better than one.

Now consider if each person at the table came from a different background. You'd likely get multiple solutions. From there, the group could distill the strongest elements of each and ultimately arrive at a solution that no one of them could have determined on his or her own — and more often than not, that solution would be better.

This is the driving premise behind many corporate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, which many companies, both large and small, have developed or enhanced in recent years. But these initiatives can fall short if they define diversity too narrowly. While typically associated with differences in race, ethnicity and gender, diversity actually encompasses the full range of human identities. And as one of the nation's largest minorities — comprising approximately 61 million adults — people with disabilities are an essential voice to have at the proverbial table.

Related: 7 Ways Leaders Can Level Up Their DEI Workplace Strategy

The most valuable skill an employee can offer: adaptability

Through my company, Concepts, Inc., and our many years of work supporting government agencies and non-profits working in the disability-employment policy sphere, I've come to appreciate this — and benefit from it in my own employment practices. The last two years have only reinforced that the most valuable skill an employee can offer is adaptability. Now more than ever, businesses of all sizes need people with the ability to adjust to different situations and circumstances. This is something that people with disabilities do on a daily basis —and often, their innovative thinking results in widespread benefits. Again, it's about thinking differently.

Just think about it. Did you use email today? Its origins stem partly from the frustration one researcher, who was hard of hearing, experienced communicating with other researchers across the nation by voice over the phone. Other examples abound — from curb cuts and automatic doors (essential if you use a wheelchair but also helpful if you're pulling a suitcase) to captions on television (essential if you're deaf but also helpful if you're in a crowded restaurant).

These are just a few examples that speak to the power divergent thinking offers in the workplace and, by extension, the marketplace. People with disabilities represent a large and expanding population, since life expectancy is steadily increasing, and many people develop disabilities as they age. As with any customer segment, one of the best ways for a company to tap into it is to ensure it is represented in its workforce.

Related: Are You the DEI Consultant Your Industry Needs?

Disability inclusion also helps the bottom line

Indeed, there is a strong bottom line argument for disability inclusion. According to a 2018 research study by Accenture, 45 companies identified as leaders in disability inclusion experienced, over a four-year period, 28% higher revenue, double the net income and 30% higher economic profit margins than their counterparts not on the list. This study was conducted by Accenture in collaboration with the American Association of People with Disabilities and Disability:IN, a leading non-profit resource for disability inclusion worldwide.

There are also opportunities to increase disability diversity through the supply chain — by purchasing from Disability-Owned Business Enterprises (DOBEs) and Service-Disabled Veteran Disability-Owned Business Enterprises (SDV-DOBEs). Business owners interested in connecting with DOBEs and SDV-DOBEs — or becoming certified as one — can contact Disability:IN.

Taking steps to increase disability inclusion — whether in the workplace, marketplace, supply chain or all of the above — allows businesses of all sizes to benefit from more perspectives on how to innovate and drive change in today's increasingly diverse world. Like entrepreneurship itself, it's about "out of the box thinking" — and thus an essential dimension of diversity.

Related: 10 Reasons Why a DEI Coach Is Good for Business

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