Leverage Diversity to Drive Innovation

Consider using these eight simple steps to integrate more diversity of thought into the innovation process with Structured Brainstorming sessions.
Leverage Diversity To Drive Innovation

Many companies have robust frameworks and initiatives to advance their diversity and inclusion efforts. Increasingly, we see more diversity in our leadership teams and our corporate boards. Many of us continue to work on enhancing STEM education to attract more girls and young women into STEM-related fields. While we’re so focused at the top and the bottom of our organizations, are we as purposeful in engaging our female talent in our daily innovation activities?

In a BCG-Technical University of Munich study, researchers found a direct relationship between innovation and four types of diversity – industry background, country of origin, career path, and gender. A study by North Carolina State University showed that companies that “check all the diversity boxes” enhance their innovation efficiency. Further, a Harvard Business Review article proposes that it’s important to go beyond diversity to also focus on inclusion – establishing a culture in which all employees feel free to contribute their unique ideas – to drive exponential innovation.

At ITW our innovation philosophy is rooted in Customer-Back Innovation (CBI) – working “from the customer back,” deeply understanding our customers’ problems and developing novel value-added solutions that solve those problems. The CBI process enables our teams to deliver a steady flow of differentiated new products and solutions to our most important customers, and contributes approximately 1600+ new patent applications each year.

To deliver these differentiated and innovative solutions, we need more diversity of thought in our innovation practices. One way I do this is through Structured Brainstorming sessions. As more women participated in these sessions the conversation dynamics changed and the spectrum of ideas generated broadened. The unique perspective that women brought into the innovation process resulted in additional customer benefits, alternate uses for an invention, and differentiating features.

The more intentional I have been facilitating a diverse participant blend of gender, backgrounds, and fields of expertise, combined with a methodology where everyone can safely share their unique ideas, the greater the quantity and quality (e.g., creativity) of the resulting solutions. In one four-hour ideation session, a group generated over 170 ideas that were further enhanced to produce 35 novel and patentable designs to review with our customers.

Start Your Own Structured Brainstorming Sessions

Anyone can take small steps to integrate more diversity of thought into the innovation process. Consider creating an inventors group for women or coordinating Structured Brainstorming sessions.  Here are eight steps to get started:

  1. Encourage brainstorming – learn how to facilitate brainstorming or find a colleague who is comfortable with group facilitation.
  2. Identify interested female colleagues from multiple functions and disciplines – gather them together for a monthly lunch.
  3. Recruit for diversity of thought – identify people from all functions – engineers, marketing, sales, finance, sourcing, product development, operations or field service.
  4. Align your creativity with your company’s goals by identifying gnarly problems that your industry, customers or business haven’t yet solved and reframe them into sub-problems, with relevant Who, What, When, Where, Why and How questions for participants to answer.
  5. Each meeting should focus on one gnarly problem, last one hour, and have two-three PowerPoint slides with one broad open-ended question and three-to-five sub-questions that ask participants to consider potential concepts or methods to address the broader open-ended question.
  6. Diverse inventors should be paired to discuss and generate potential answers (concepts) to each of the questions, spending a minimum of 15 minutes on each PowerPoint slide.
  7. Post-session: Evaluate, strengthen, and/or prototype the most-promising concepts.
  8. Meet with your patent counsel to determine which concept implementations are novel or unique and have high business value.

Before you know it, you’ll build a cadre of capable women you can include in any creative problem solving, brainstorming or inventing session to generate novel, differentiated high-value solutions your customers will love.

You can learn more about Structured Brainstorming (Directed Innovation) in my co-authored book, The Innovation Tools Handbook, Vol. 3, published September 17, 2016, CRC Press, IAOIP @ https://tinyurl.com/InnoToolsvol3

About the Author: Maria B. Thompson

Maria is the ITW Global Innovation Process Director, helping ITW (Illinois Tool Works) project teams successfully launch differentiated solutions of high value to customers using the Customer-Back Innovation Process.

Maria is a technology operations leader with international experience in innovation, change management, and organizational capability improvement. She has worked on improving organization’s new product introduction capabilities for over 20 years with Motorola, AT&T Bell Laboratories and ITW, where she currently facilitates Customer Discovery, Customer Value Propositions, Go To Market Strategy, and Structured Brainstorming workshops.

She holds an M.S. in Math and Computer Science from the University of Waterloo, and B.S. Computer Science with a Statistics minor from Iowa State University.

Maria is passionate about mentoring women inventors and can be reached @ www.linkedin.com/in/mariabthompson to continue the discussion.


BCG and the Technical University of Munich, April 26 2017. https://www.bcg.com/publications/2017/people-organization-leadership-talent-innovation-through-diversity-mix-that-matters.aspx

Lorenzo, Rocio et al. “The Mix That Matters: Innovation Through Diversity.”

North Carolina State University: https://news.ncsu.edu/2018/01/diversity-boosts-innovation-2018/

This content has been contributed by ITW as as part of a promotional digital content program.

Author(s) Information

  • Leverage Diversity to Drive Innovation Diversity

    Maria B Thompson, Global Innovation Process Director at Illinois Tool Works (ITW)