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Want to unleash innovation in engineering? Start by promoting diversity Richard Chapman Harris

Engineering is all about innovation – we constantly need to find new and improved ways of dealing with the challenges faced by society.

We know through our ongoing work on major infrastructure schemes such as Crossrail and HS2 that it’s the talent and new ideas that really make it work. And while we may be more comfortable with consensus, it is constructive conflict – through debate, and exploring opposing opinions – that allows new ideas to crystallise.

One of the best ways to generate new ideas is to support a diverse and inclusive workforce. When colleagues share similar educational backgrounds and life experiences, it is no surprise that they also share similar ideas of how best to tackle the engineering dilemmas we face. A diverse blend of employees with different abilities and life experiences can bring something new to the mix – an overlooked detail, new ways of working, understanding of client customs or unique solutions which may – or may not – have been tried and tested in other industries.

Our current understanding of diversity falls into two camps. There is ‘inherent diversity’, such as ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation – the characteristics people are born with, which can give them a unique view of the world and help them understand people who come from a similar background. There is also what is described as ‘acquired diversity’, formed by the different personal and professional experiences of employees. People coming into engineering from other industries, or who have experiences of working globally, can all bring new ideas to the profession.

At Mott MacDonald we have responded by setting up the Advance Network, an internal structure led by employees to promote equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). Crucially, the network has management-level involvement and representatives across the UK who are provided with time and budget to make a real impact. We have created an EDI strategy which includes a host of employee engagement activities – which are essential to stimulate real progress on inclusion.

Innovations can only make a difference if leaders get behind them. As well as having diversity among employees, it is crucial that this diversity is reflected in a firm’s leadership. Research by the US-based Centre for Talent Innovation shows that without diverse leadership, women, ethnic minorities and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community are at least 20 per cent less likely than heterosexual white men to win endorsement for their ideas. Inclusive leadership is another driver which can help to equip leaders with the skills to understand difference and embrace innovation from all their employees.

The study also showed the commercial benefits of diversity in the workplace. Employees at companies with ‘two-dimensional diversity’ (bringing together people with both inherent and acquired diversity) were 45 per cent more likely to report that their firm’s market share had grown over the previous year, and 70 per cent more likely to report that their firm had moved into a new market.

The business case is clear, and if UK engineering firms want to keep up in an increasingly competitive global marketplace, we have to take diversity seriously. At Mott MacDonald our aim is to take our contribution to society and the economy beyond engineering alone and our commitment to diversity will help to foster that ambition.

This article first appeared in Business Reporter, a supplement in the Sunday Telegraph on 25 October 2015.

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