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Rookie Review: Why Diversity Is Still Exciting

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Emily Paulson
June 2, 2015

Diversity. Inclusion. Tolerance. Multiculturalism.

These are words we have all heard before. They are good words, too. But sometimes, when you hear words like these too often, they lose their potency. They lose the ability they had at the beginning; to stir our souls.

What they don’t lose, though, is their importance. Our differences really can make a difference. Maybe we all know that, but do we think about why?

The Superadditivity of Our Differences

One of the greatest things about diversity can be explained by a mathematical concept called superadditivity. I know, I know, numbers aren’t my favorite thing either. Author Scott. E. Page uses it to describe the value of diversity and I think it paints a pretty cool picture. His book, The Difference, is one I highly recommend.

AspaNumbers - Paulson

In simple terms, superadditivty means one plus one is three. How?

Let’s say you have a problem to solve. It’s complicated, and the best response isn’t obvious. Two of you get together to solve that problem, but you are so alike that you both come up with the same ideas. Maybe they’re great ideas, but the number of them is pretty finite.

Now say you have the same problem, and still only one other person to solve it with, but that person isn’t so similar. Now you come up with the same ideas you had in the first scenario, but your teammate comes up with a whole new set of solutions. That’s twice as many responses to consider.

And it doesn’t stop there. Not only do each of you come up with your own set of solutions, but you can combine certain aspects of them, creating a third set of solutions. And that, my friends, is how one plus one makes three.

So, why is it that two people, diverse from each other, come up with different solutions to the same problem?

It’s because the traits we’re born with, mixed with our experiences, shape the way we respond to problems. We have all learned different lessons from mistakes and successes. We prioritize and value different outcomes…differently.

That means the way we even think about problem-solving, the way we frame and understand the problems themselves, can be completely different from one person to the next. As superadditivity shows us that can be an extra good thing.

Diversity in the Public Sector

There are two big reasons I believe diversity is especially important in government.

First, it is our duty as public servants to find the best solutions to the problems we are charged with solving. If we are all the same, one plus one is only going to equal two. By building teams with diverse members, we can problem solve in dynamic ways that can allow us to explore better and better options. In a sector where we must constantly grow with the needs of the people, the benefit of diversity is too important to discount.

Second, it is our duty to represent the public to the best of our ability. That public is incredibly diverse. How can we expect to make decisions that make people’s lives better if we don’t really understand what their needs are? Each of us, with our differences, has a unique ability to understand and therefore serve others. Our combined perspectives should reflect the combined perspective of our communities’ members.

How to Put Our Differences to Work

Diversity. Inclusion. Tolerance. Multiculturalism.

My hope is by now these words are starting to reclaim some of their magic. Instead of sounding like fluffy, generic buzzwords, they should fill us with a sense of optimism. They should inspire collaboration and a genuine interest in knowing what our co-workers bring to the table.

Ask your co-workers or reports what skills they have and would like to utilize, but don’t feel they have the opportunity. Find ways to facilitate conversations that get your co-workers to open up and offer a new way of viewing a problem and its solutions. Be curious about them.

To capitalize on the power of those power words, be intentional in seeking ways to build teams with greater amounts of diversity. That doesn’t mean a specific type of diversity, either. Even small variances in the things that shape us can shed a bright light on possible untapped potential at your place of work.

Fall back in love with the possibilities of diversity and watch your team transform from problem solvers to dynamic solution creators. Our differences truly do make us stronger. Cultivating and activating that strength in the service of the people is a beautiful part of the duty to which we’ve been called.


Author: Emily Paulson is a content marketing manager in Minneapolis, where she moonlights as an MPA student at Hamline University’s School of Business. She’s carving out a career in public safety and community outreach, and believes in firm handshakes and shameless smiles. Contact her at [email protected] 

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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