Book Review: Putting our Differences to Work

Book Reviews / June 2009

Differences, Diversity and Development:
A Review and Exploration

An Extended Review of Debbe Kennedy’s Putting our Differences to Work

Russ Volckmann

Kennedy differencesruss volckmannDebbe Kennedy has produced a remarkable book, Putting Our Differences to Work, in which she provides a convincing case for the importance of differences at work for fostering innovation. She also offers a framework for engaging differences and putting them to work to foster changes in organizations (in all domains) that are essential in engaging effectively and developmentally with the turbulence of our time. While this review will share some highlights of her work with you with a strong recommendation that this book is an important read for those stepping into leader roles in organizations today, it is also a presentation of some questions and concerns about how we understand works such as this in the diversity of worldviews exposed by adult development theories and models such as Spiral Dynamics, as well as treatments of developmental stages related to variables of being human.

In a nutshell, Kennedy’s argument is for an intentional approach to working with diversity and leveraging differences among individuals in organizational populations to foster generative and creative approaches for engaging the development of everything from strategy to implementation of change. She provides a wealth of material from experiences in and by managers and others in organizations and businesses, as well as her own experience at IBM, HP, the United States Army and elsewhere. These stories are used to identify key points that guide us in engaging differences and making them work in support of win-win-win approaches. All of this is organized around a robust and not necessarily linear series of activities that include the following phases:

six steps(1) Assessment—defining current realities,
(2) Acceptance—developing support for change,
(3) Action—moving forward,
(4) Accountability—establishing shared ownership,
(5) Achievement—measuring progress and celebrating success, and
(6) More action—keeping momentum alive.

Step six leads to an iteration of the process beginning again at Step 1. Kennedy describes them this way:

”The six-steps depict the ever-changing, perpetual cycle of action that has brought about great change throughout the ages in organizations, institutions, businesses, communities, countries, and the world—and even in individuals. Its imperfect circle symbolizes the realities of any kind of change, including the change needed from all of us to effectively put our differences to work to create better organizations, communities, and a better world than we know today. I’m certain you will agree on the basics: What all change has in common is that it requires hard work and resolute determination. It often involves big swings of effort and sacrifice necessary to arrive at the next step. It challenges us to adapt and refine as we go along—and when you reach a moment of success, you soon realize that there remains much more to do to keep the momentum alive. Then, fueled with confidence from our successes, we keep marching on reaching for that next milestone through more action.”

Differences, diversity, can be seen in a number of ways from race and gender to competencies, cultural backgrounds, age, religion, problem-solving approaches, work habits, cognitive styles, etc. Her model includes sixteen variables of differences. Note her statement about what putting our differences to work is:

“Putting our differences to work means creating an environment where people, naturally unique and different—diverse by nature and experience—can work more effectively in ways that drive new levels of creativity, innovation, problem solving, leadership, and performance in the marketplaces, workplaces, and communities of the world.”

There are implications of this approach for leading and Kennedy offers what she calls “Five Distinctive Qualities of Leadership”:

(1) Makes diversity and organizational priority,
(2) Gets to know people and their differences,
(3) Enables rich communication,
(4) Holds personal responsibility as a core value, and
(5) Establishes mutualism as the final arbiter.

With each she offers a set of key behaviors necessary to manifest these qualities. Let’s be clear here. By “qualities” Kennedy does not seem to be suggesting traits. Rather, she is suggesting what seems to be a mix of values and intentions. By example, rich communications is characterized as approaching problems with a beginners mind and placing value on what others have to say. Further, mutualism is “a doctrine that mutual dependence is necessary for social well-being.” [Author’s emphasis] It is the win-win-win approach. Together they reverse the perils of humanity that Mahatma Gandhi warned us about, turning them into an affirmation of his values:

(1) Wealth with hard work,
(2) Knowledge with principle,
(3) Commerce with morality,
(4) Science with humanity, and
(5) Pleasure with conscience.

This book closes with a presentation of Kennedy’s approach to virtual gathering, which is represented at her website: This site continues the notion that we can come together, even virtually, with all of our differences and engage in rich communication that leads to innovation in meeting the challenges in business and in the world today.

You should know that I not only agree with Kennedy’s approach but also have participated and hope to participate more. In the meanwhile there is something I wonder about, something that goes beyond her treatment of differences. In our explorations of adult development, Spiral Dynamics stands out for me as a model that helps us gain insight into the relationships among individuals—and cultures—at different levels of development. The work of Kegan, Cook-Greuter and Torbert and William Perry, for example, helps us comprehend the nature of development at different levels, stages or phases along various lines. Each can no doubt be used to explore relationships involving differences.

William Perry’s model includes a shift in locus of authority, particularly among college students as they progress through their undergraduate educations. The very notion of locus of authority suggests a relationship between individuals and sources of information, models, meaning. As one’s education progresses there is a shift from dependency on the authority of a respected other, an expert for example, toward reliance on one’s own judgment in choosing among competing propositions and perspectives. This suggests a shift from expert to individualist in work based on Loevinger. In each case there is a connection to a worldview, a sense of the source of power and wisdom. This is made explicit in Spiral Dynamics.

Spiral Dynamics is a bio-social-psychological model. Thus, relationship, interaction, is fundamental to its constructs. It’s model of stages does not represent an elitist set of boxes to put people in, but a way of representing a set of values currently operative for the individual, depending on biology and life conditions. The Stages of cultural development represent distributions of individuals of all present stages at a point in time. For more on this I recommend the book Spiral Dynamics and the work of others drawing on this model that appears in the pages of Integral Leadership Review, the book, Evolutionary Leadership by Peter Merry, and other online resources.

Now, the questions I am raising are fundamentally concerned with how we can understand engaging differences and diversity for innovation in human systems. I leave it to the Ken Wilber/George Leonard/Genpo Roshi/et al of the world to address the fundamentally essential arena of individual development—at least for now. Here I am concerned with the mechanisms for making the potentials of diversity that Kennedy so brilliantly lays before us to greater fruition by understanding the implications of the stage theories of adult development.

As an example, suppose we have an organization or an aspiring team of individuals with the spiral stages of red, blue, orange and green manifesting strongly in different individuals. What are the mechanisms for engaging them in generative processes that lead to innovation and the potentials for transcending and including their differences?

It seems to me that Don Beck has been demonstrating something like this in his work in various parts of the world as reported in the pages ofIntegral Leadership Review, EnlightenNext and elsewhere. What are the methods of his approach? He has discussed this in several places, including a streaming audio interview on the ILR website. One of the elements of his approach is to support participants in finding something they have in common. Among Fatah it is building “the Singapore of the Middle East.” Similarly, among the Dutch and the British it involves strengthening their connection to the idea of their country drawing on its strengths to show the way in building a role for themselves in the evolution of their nations and of the world. (I must confess here that this is my interpretation and I hope I am not misrepresenting Dons work.) In any case, participants come to an aspirational vision of the future that they can commit to.

In an interview with Jan Inglis for a special issue of Integral Review (forthcoming, on integral politics, we discuss the use of methods, TIP, based on the work of Sara Nora Ross (Management Review Board member, Integral Leadership Review) in community decision-making, I suggested that identifying a shared goal was essential for individuals and groups to overcome the divisive challenges of diversity to leverage differences for innovation. I have found in my organizational developmental consulting and doing role negotiations that having a shared goal is essential for a useful negotiation to take place. Her interesting response was that focusing on a shared goal too early in the process can disrupt an effective process that requires getting at underlying elements of the issue being explored and addressed.

It seems to me that these two perspectives are at least paradoxical. The issue may be in the use of terms, i.e., “goal.” This is one of those words that is used differently and in relation to objectives. What I meant was that there is something that brings people of diversity together. There is something that they have in common.

I am reminded of an example I have used in teaching about a neighborhood that did not have sidewalks. Different individuals and families in the neighborhood had reasons for supporting sidewalks in a presentation to the city council. One presenter was a mother of three young children. She felt that a sidewalk would help protect her children from street traffic. It would provide a boundary for the children and a barrier to vehicles. Another neighbor was concerned with pools of water collecting on the side of the road that passing vehicles would splash mud on her manicured yard and garden. Still another was a contractor who might have a chance at a contract with the city to put in the sidewalks. And another was a construction foreman for a company that might get a contract to put in a drainage system. Finally, another supported was a woman who hoped to run for city council in the next election and saw this as an opportunity to curry favor with the voters.

While this story does not directly focus on developmental stages we can find motivations related to different values sets. Family and protecting children can be considered Purple in their character (which by no means suggests that the woman was centered in Purple, generally). Protecting one’s property might be Red or even ecologically Green. Aspirations for profit and employment can be Red or Orange. And the politician? Well, who knows!

The point is that there was something that brought these diverse perspectives into the same room in support of the same actions—call it a shared goal or shared life conditions. I think that the question that is being raised here is an important one for our futures together in celebration of the diversity that leads to generativity and innovation, including approaches that help us as individuals and human systems to address the political, ecological and economic crises we are enveloped by and will be facing in the future.

Rather than pursing answers and insights here, I hope you as a reader of Integral Leadership Review will hold this question and see if you can help enlighten us all with your perspective on how we can create the conditions for our differences to support out evolution through leading as individuals and as a phenomenon of collective dynamics. We would welcome such reflections in the pages of Integral Leadership Review.

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debbe kennedyDebbe’s Comment:

“What we continue to demonstrate in these examples is the capacity of the human spirit to transform our world. We continue to prove that solving our most pressing problems is in our grasp. When we come together in dialogue, using different ways to discover meaningful goals that we share, we also open up new possibilities for taking our individual and collective contributions to new levels. Meeting on common ground is the great catalyst for change. However, if we stop there, it often unintentionally diminishes or hides the more valuable aspects of our diversity. What I keep learning is that by first developing a genuine curiosity about one another’s differences, we increase the options for innovation, leadership, and breakthrough results. Genuine shared curiosity takes us beyond the boundaries of common ground. It elevates the importance of what is different and unique about who we are, how we think and operate, where we’ve been, why and how we traveled our own path, and what we’ve learned that holds the promise of next great IDEA. Consequently, we have to be resolute about consciously developing our curiosity about each other. It multiplies our inventory of knowledge and know-how to solve problems, develop new strategies, and create the innovations we need to transform business and society. We have to learn to listen more and explore what is truly different with the comfort we find in discovering our common sameness. It is at the intersections of our differences, where the uncharted territory for innovation awaits our handwork.

“Gandhi again set the example for us. He believed and acted on the belief that we are all leaders and that we hold a responsibility to set an example of conduct. If we start from this promise, it raises expectations for each of us to consciously vow to develop a curiosity about one another—one that becomes a committed practice and yields innovative results. Notice I didn’t suggest trying to do this. I intentionally used the word vow. What I learned from studying Gandhi is that vow means you’ve made a decision. Consequently, when the opportunity presents itself to exercise and practice genuine curiosity, you are prepared to put your belief into action.”


Debbe Kennedy, founder, president and CEO 
Global Dialogue Center | Leadership Solutions Companies
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