Firing Up Our Bright Ideas

By Liz Massey, May 2017 Issue.

There’s an old cliché about our community that happens to be largely true: LGBTQ people have historically been tastemakers in American society, creating or recommending the food, fashion, films, music and other items that became crowd favorites. There is a reason the Bravo series was titled “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” and not the reverse.

For many years, the relationship between LGBTQ people and innovation remained a subject of fascinating speculation, but in the past decade and a half, there’s been some legitimate research that provides some insight on what we’re actually contributing. These results not only point the way toward how we can leverage our strengths as conceptual pioneers, they also show how we can champion diversity as a key to conquering today’s most vexing world problems.

Show Me The Data

One of the first people to address the relationship of the gay community to innovation was economist Richard Florida, who found as far back as 2002 that LGBTQ-friendly and -tolerant cities had a higher rate of innovation than more homo-hostile territories.

A more recent study that appeared in a late 2016 issue of Management Science found American firms in cities with legal protections for LGBTQ people had 8 percent more patents and 11 percent more patent citations than firms located elsewhere. That study found that the key to this dynamic is that the legal employment protections help firms recruit more and better talent, eventually building a deep bench of creative team members who set that firm apart from its competitors.

Why does something as basic as respecting LGBTQ dignity have such a profound effect? It could be because social diversity boosts out-of-the-box thinking. In a 2014 roundup of research on diversity and small-group decision making reported in Scientific American, interactions between people with different racial or political backgrounds led to better performance, including better problem-solving and better preparation for discussions. As Katherine W. Phillips, the author of the article, asserted, “Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity does not.”

But all this good news related to LGBTQ people’s effect on innovation needs to be tempered with the reality that none of those potentially awesome ideas that are generated will see the light of day if there’s no support of diversity at the top of a company.

Researcher Sylvia Ann Hewlett and her colleagues, writing in the Harvard Business Review, noted that companies needed leaders with “2-D diversity” – that is, exhibiting both inherent and acquired (experience based) diversity – to reap the rewards of a diverse workforce. Without that type of leader in place at a company, she found that women, people of color and LGBTQ individuals were up to 24 percent less likely to win endorsement for their ideas.

Time For Some Fresh Thinking

In light of what the research tells us, it’s possible to draw a few conclusions about what our community could do with this information.

Promote workplace leadership diversity initiatives. Not just because it’s morally right (which it is), but because companies with diverse leadership perform better and are better able to harness the advantages of a diverse workforce.

Partner with industry to highlight the data on diversity’s value. Yes, a heterogenous team is “harder” to manage, as in, one has to think more deeply and step out of one’s own experience more often. But the rewards are better ideas that lead to better products and services, and (hopefully) a better life for those impacted by the innovation.

Co-sponsor innovation challenges on topics relevant to our community. There’s a thriving social innovation ecosystem out there, including international platforms such as Open IDEO and the local student-led community Changemaker Central at Arizona State University. Our community organizations could sponsor challenges related to LGBTQ youth homelessness, the impacts of stigma upon our health, or how to reduce the impact of unconscious bias on marginalized people.

See ourselves, first and foremost, as agents of change. Out of necessity, our community has often had to solve complex social issues on our own. Consider what we did during the AIDS crisis to provide palliative care, advocate for drug treatments, and advocate for legislation that protected persons living with HIV/AIDS instead of demonizing them. When we operate out of the mindset that we have it within ourselves to create positive new solutions to current challenges, it becomes much easier to act on good ideas, and spend less time in despair.

Regardless of how and why we’ve evolved into an innovative, “early adopter” sort of community, it’s worth celebrating in these politically charged times that we already have a family pedigree for coming up with groundbreaking solutions.

As the psychologist, author and inventor Edward de Bono has said, “There is no doubt that creativity is the most important human resource of all. Without creativity, there would be no progress, and we would be forever repeating the same patterns.”

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