When innovation meets inclusion
In this success story, learn how global company MSCI collaborated with Korn Ferry to become trailblazers in fostering greater innovation through inclusion.
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When innovation meets inclusion
Innovation has always been crucial to MSCI’s growth: it powers the company’s ability to meet the evolving needs of its customers, be more operationally efficient, and expand its business into new markets and sectors. That’s why, in 2018, MSCI began to focus more resources on generating the right conditions for innovation. But, to make it a success, MSCI needed a culture of innovation in which everyone in the business could contribute their ideas to the firm’s strategic initiatives.
To make this happen, MSCI launched a “Breakthrough” program where cross-functional teams tackled critical challenges. Yet, despite the success of the program’s initiatives, Scott Crum, MSCI’s CHRO and Tia Counts, MSCI’s Chief Responsibility & Diversity Officer, felt that something critical was still missing. “As we were creating more teams to work on those innovation challenges, we couldn’t help but notice we were tapping the same people on the shoulder. We realized that we didn’t have answers to some very important questions, such as: what’s the right mix of people (competencies, skills, identities, experiences) for our teams and how do we activate their collective intelligence to unleash their full potential for innovation and greater performance?”
To address this, MSCI collaborated with Korn Ferry to launch the Inclusive Innovation Pilot. Its goal was to tackle the challenge of the Future of Work and examine how the business could thrive in a hybrid environment: design solutions that deliver business impact, foster positive team dynamics, promote environmental awareness and drive inclusion and equity.
There were three sprints to the 12-week-long program—DISCOVER, EXPLORE, and REFINE & PITCH—with inclusive design and systems thinking practice integral to each of them. The idea was to help participants practice divergent and convergent thinking, explore experiences of people whose needs tend to be overlooked, and identify root causes of issues by thinking through symptoms, behavioral patterns, underlying structures and mental models. This led to the co-creation of solutions with various stakeholders, the running of experiments and the development of prototypes, with teams presenting their ideas to an expert panel once the sprint was completed.
At the beginning of each sprint, teams were equipped through inspiring and fun interactive learning sessions that gave them the tools and skills to help them on their innovation journey. This included developing collaboration skills, creating a team charter and purpose and building an overall ability to work effectively as a team—supported by MSCI's innovation coaches throughout.
There was another interesting twist to this Pilot: it was also an experiment. Korn Ferry partnered with its academic advisor Dr. Anita Williams Woolley, a Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University, and a world-renowned expert in collective intelligence of teams. Together they designed an experiment that would give Scott Crum and Tia Counts the answers they were seeking.
Korn Ferry and Professor Wooley believed that diverse teams with more inclusive leaders would develop greater collective intelligence, leading to more innovation and better performance. To test this, they ensured that all six teams in the Pilot had the same level and mix of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity, organizational tenure and location. All participants also completed Korn Ferry’s Inclusive Leader Assessment, which informed the composition of the teams: half had higher inclusive leader scores and the other half, lower scores—though participants were not made aware of this.
At the start, each team’s collective intelligence was measured through their ability to collaborate, communicate, adapt to changes in their environment and solve a range of different problems via an interactive online game that was based on Dr. Woolley’s research. At the end of the sprint, they completed a muti-rater survey to evaluate their team’s effectiveness and group dynamic.
The teams produced ideas that were more innovative and unique compared to a similar program run 6 months prior, which did not specifically aim to unlock the collective intelligence of diverse teams. Some of the teams developed prototypes to bring their ideas to life and help potential users better understand their impact. For example, one of the team members built a prototype to coordinate social gatherings in MSCI’s Monterrey, Mexico office, which is being further developed based on feedback received to date.
Everyone involved was positive about the experience. Diego Zurita Garza, an MSCI product manager, said: “The program helped me to learn new things about innovation and inclusion in a practical way.” All proposed ideas for improving MSCI's hybrid work model were presented to the company's leadership, and half are currently being piloted across the organization.
Moreover, the results emphatically demonstrate that assembling teams with above-average Inclusive Leader scores leads to greater collective intelligence. When this potential is activated through leadership and coaching, it improves team dynamics and boosts performance. Importantly, these high-performing teams can be formed quickly to tackle emergent challenges.
“Integrating inclusion and innovation practices was the game changer,” Scott Crum said. “Not only were we able to generate better and more innovative solutions, but also to engage and empower our employees from different regions, levels and demographics of the organization.”
Dr. Woolley also commented: “It’s very exciting to see the synergies between our work on collective intelligence and Korn Ferry’s innovative model of Inclusive Leadership demonstrated so clearly in this pilot. Not only did the teams designed for inclusive leadership and collective intelligence exhibit higher quality collaboration, but they also produced more valuable results.”
While the benefits of diversity and inclusion are well-known, there are few projects that prove it so conclusively. This inclusive approach to innovation unlocks and unleashes the potential of these diverse-by-design teams—teams that, given the right resources, support practices and strategies, work better together and produce more imaginative and original solutions.
Reflecting on what the project proved, MSCI’s Tia Counts said: “As the Chief Diversity Officer, I believe my most significant role is to help leaders grasp the innovation potential of diverse teams. And this project effectively turns every leader into a champion for diversity, equity, and inclusion."