How fostering diversity creates a competitive edge

In today's workplace, diverse experiences are sometimes viewed as distractions. I beg to differ! These three stories demonstrate that professional detours can foster innovation and success.

What do a 1950s typist, a calligraphy student from the 1970s and a British Army Cadet from the 1990s have in common?

This is not a rhetorical question or a joke. I will share three stories of professional success with you - two more common and one that may be new to you - that show how the biggest successes often result from unexpected detours. 

Today's work life appreciates linearity, and success is often seen as a steadily rising line. However, innovation, success and growth are more about connecting seemingly unrelated dots than effortlessly climbing towards your goals.

Aren’t you curious about what ties our typist, calligraphist and army cadet together? 

Creativity means connecting the unrelated

In the 1950s, Bette Nesmith Graham worked as a typist. Like most of her colleagues, she learned to fear spelling mistakes, as the slightest typo would often require arduously re-typing the work from the beginning.

Bette Nesmith Graham, however, was not only a typist; she also worked as a commercial artist, and in the art world, she was exposed to a very different approach to mistakes. 

When a part of an artwork didn’t satisfy the artist in her, she would simply paint over the issue with white paint and adjust only that area of the painting.

Nesmith Graham found a parallel between these superficially unrelated worlds. She started asking herself how the art world’s approach to mistakes could be applied to a typing job, and as a result, the world’s first correction liquid was born.

The product was called “Liquid Paper”. Connecting those seemingly unrelated dots greatly helped typists for decades before computers finally made correcting mistakes easier. 

Diversity of experience feeds innovation

The Liquid Paper story is not a unique example of how diverse experiences lead to great innovation. Let’s look at the 1970s calligraphy enthusiast next.

This is the story of a young college dropout who saw ads for calligraphy classes and decided to take lessons while finding his next step in life. The beauty and creativity of calligraphy attracted him, and later on, he transferred this passion to typography and transformed the way we approach digital design today. 

You guessed it:  and how his creative thinking led to the release of innovative fonts with the first MacIntosh computers.

Steve Jobs has eloquently said, "You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you must trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

In hindsight, big success stories, like that of Apple, often seem inevitable. But they hold the lesson about learning to connect the unrelated; they share the wisdom of how diverse experiences in the workplace lead to new creative and innovative leaps. 

Creativity at work is rooted in psychological safety

Bette Nesmith Graham’s and Steve Jobs’s stories have inspired me professionally. Maybe partly because exploring the trajectory of people’s successes has allowed me to see my own story from a different perspective. 

I haven’t always been an artist and facilitator of creative team-building activities. After high school, at age 18, I chose not to study art at university. My limiting beliefs got the better of me; instead, I followed the path most trodden and conformed my choices to what societal conventions suggested would lead me to “a real job". 

While studying Hispanic Studies at the University of Birmingham, I became an Officer Cadet in the British Army. That was like a playground where I could physically and psychologically push my limits. 

My experience in the army was imbued with a strong sense of belonging and teamwork. Every day, seemingly impossible challenges were thrown at us, from unfeasibly long marches with blisters on our feet to obstacle courses that could only be won if every single member of the team made it to the finish line. 

As tough as these challenges were, they were made tolerable by our clarity of conviction and direction: whatever the challenge, we knew the direction we were going towards and how we would get there - together. 

Connecting the dots through diversity

After my years in the army, I shifted to the corporate world of human resources and faced a starkly different reality. 

I have been lucky to work in notable companies with talented and ambitious colleagues. Still, it seemed that a lot of talent was often wasted due to poor teamwork and a lack of clarity about the company’s strategy. 

When I had completed countless army obstacle courses, where the strongest teammates always helped the weakest links to succeed, the “dog-eat-dog” approach to teamwork in the corporate world felt like its polar opposite: teammates and colleagues didn’t systematically have each others’ backs.

While in the army and corporate HR departments, I hadn’t completely abandoned my passion for the arts; I had self-taught myself to paint. New questions started to buzz in my head.

How could I tap into my passion and experience in the art world to solve some of the corporations' problems?

How could the power of art align talented teams around a shared vision, mission and values?

How could I channel art’s creative energy into experiences that would help a team gain the same sense of belonging and clarity that had made such a strong impression on me in the army?

In 2019, I had the chance to share this story of creative and diverse exploration with a team of professionals at Procter & Gamble.

Creative team building addressing business challenges

These questions and ponderings, these seemingly unrelated dots, finally led me to develop the concept of Collaborative Art® team-building activities. 

I created team-building offerings based on the diverse experiences and skills I had learned throughout my professional path. I used them to find common denominators that helped me see a clear, sparkling constellation. 

In the Collaborative Art® Shared Vision experience - my team's signature offer today - art is a framework, a vehicle for bringing team members together to solve a seemingly impossible challenge. 

The participants are asked to create a masterpiece in a limited time. To spice things up, this masterpiece must be completed in a famous artist’s style. Like in the army, finishing the work in the allotted time is tough if every team member doesn’t pull in the same direction. 

As a nod to my business background, the art challenge is never only an art challenge. It’s always tightly tied to a theme that is meaningful to the client company. Sometimes, the teams need to communicate the company vision. At others, they focus on illustrating the company values or the qualities of a high-performing team. Each workshop is adapted to make the focus meaningful to the client’s objectives, whatever they might be.

Sometimes, we highlight the importance of teamwork and agility by rotating the groups so that each group picks up the work from a group before them. 

On other occasions, we design bespoke experiences, like we did for the TEDx Women event in Zurich in 2015. We created an experience that highlighted the collective wisdom in an unusually creative way: the participants could participate in doodling a piece of art that subsequently became Amelia Earhart’s portrait. 

Both projects illustrate how each participant’s contribution, no matter how small, plays a role in accomplishing a shared goal. No one needs to draw a whole Amelia Earhart on their own. 

Diversity of experience is creative fuel

Over time, Collaborative Art® has been enriched by various arts-based activities and leadership development offerings, ranging from music, improv, collages and drawings to art installations. Our creativity knows no bounds when adapting to our wild imagination and clients' needs.  

Still, one thing that all the offers and services have in common is that they carry, in their DNA, all the experiences of the company’s founder - and the talented facilitators and colleagues who have worked with me to deliver them. 

The army, the corporate world, and art don’t seem to have much in common. Neither does a 1950s typist, a 1970s calligraphy enthusiast, or a 1990s army cadet. 

Yet, all these stories speak about the same phenomenon: what seems to be an array of unconnected, inconsequential dots can turn into innovation, learning and success.

Diverse experiences don’t equal a gap in the CV or time wasted on unproductive projects. It equals a courageous and innovative approach to work that unleashes your creative potential.

Now, I would love to hear how you support the Bettes, Steves, and Stephs on your team in exploring their diverse experiences to develop their capacity for creativity and innovation. What fuels creativity on your team, and what stands in the way?

About the Author

Steph Fonteyn is an internationally exhibited artist, corporate facilitator and the founder of Collaborative Art® team building. She ties together the fine threads of creativity, courage and leadership to provide her clients with transformative team-building and workshop experiences. Her mission is to empower professionals worldwide to tap into their inherent creativity to be better leaders and bring about change.

Steph founded Collaborative Art® in 2011 to unite teams around a shared vision through art, and she has developed innovative techniques to unlock both the creative and collaborative potential in teams. With her artistic talent, public speaking skills, HR experience, and team-building expertise, Steph has become a respected figure in creativity, communication, and leadership.

As an award-winning public speaker, she has shared her expertise on creativity and courage at various events, including TEDx in 2015.  

Steph splits her time between creative artwork and supporting companies through creative, collaborative team-building activities. She lives in Switzerland, near Geneva.

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