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Q&A on the Book Unleashing the Power of Diversity

Key Takeaways

  • Diversity Icebreaker is a concept that defines differences between people; in the way they communicate and interact in teams and projects.
  • Diversity Icebreaker defines Red, Blue and Green languages as three different styles of communication.
  • Knowing your and others’ style makes it easier to communicate.
  • Red, Blue and Green can also function as diverse perspectives, which is relevant for creativity and critical thinking.
  • Diversity is a challenge; managed well it can lead to increased creativity as well as efficiency, however when not managed well it can lead to increased conflicts and lack of commitment.

The book Unleashing the Power of Diversity by Bjørn Z. Ekelund describes the Diversity Icebreaker, an experiential communication exercise where people learn about themselves and others. The differences are named Red, Blue and Green, a language of diversity that is relevant for interaction, problem solving, giving feedback, and creating inclusiveness and trust.

InfoQ readers can download a summary of Unleashing the Power of Diversity.

InfoQ interviewed Ekelund about the Diversity Icebreaker, how people prefer to communicate and how power differences impact communication, moving to trialogue, challenges in cooperation, dealing with cross-cultural conflicts, and fostering inclusive decision-making.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Bjørn Z. Ekelund: I wanted to reach out globally about a concept with a unique history here in Norway. Ideas from a country on the outskirts of Europe do not disseminate easily in the professional field of management and organisational development. Diversity Icebreaker is an experiential exercise that "opens the minds for good". It is an exercise that makes people see themselves and others in a positive and egalitarian way, with respect, acknowledgement, inclusiveness and trust. It creates a climate that leads to increased openness for learning and creativity. I think the world needs a concept that reduces polarities and increases problem-solving capability, across people’s difference, interdisciplinary differences and cultural differences. In my book, I have described how the concept of Diversity Icebreaker can be applied in relation to these challenges, whether you are looking for creativity, efficiency or commitment to the organisation.

InfoQ: For whom is the book intended?

Ekelund: Leaders, HR-managers, consultants and facilitators who run change processes. Project leaders who want to utilise diversity in the team.

InfoQ: Why should we care about diversity? What makes it important?

Ekelund: There are two different reasons. One is due to ethics and ideas about "What is a good society?" Being acknowledged and included in a community is what everyone deserves and needs. The other reason is the business case. Well-managed diversity will lead to greater efficiency and innovation. If participants in the team play around with different ideas in a psychologically safe climate, new ideas will evolve. If the ideas are useful and implemented, innovation will be the result. If people are assigned tasks based on their best qualities, efficiency is achieved, too. The efficiency aspect of diversity is often ignored, due to the hyped interest in change, creativity and innovation. Innovation requires real practice, and efficiency in implementation will only do good.

InfoQ: How does the Diversity Icebreaker work?

Ekelund: The Diversity Icebreaker is an experiential exercise where the participants fill in a questionnaire on paper or via mobile phone. Based on their results, they are categorized into Red, Blue or Green levels. But, they are given very limited information about what Red, Blue and Green categories of really mean. They are then sorted into groups based on colours. In mono-coloured groups, standing with flip-charts with their back to each other, they first describe themselves in a positive way. Then, they describe the others. When they describe the others, sometimes more negative descriptions are mentioned. The groups experience the categorization of themselves and others, in a positive and negative way. When they share the result with the groups, there is lots of laughter- laughter due to the awareness of their self-bragging, and the stereotyping of oneself and others. At the end of the one-hour exercise, we ask, "What did you learn from this exercise, about yourself, others, communication, group dynamics, language forming perception, of working together across diversities etc….?"

Examples: "I can recognize my Blue qualities when I jump into the detail-oriented quality checking of the plans for the next phase in the project." "It is Ok to be Red if you acknowledge that this is a positive contribution to the team." "I have been taught to treat others how I would like others to treat me. This is not correct, I see." "Gathering in a corner with people of the same colour category and being labeled as such was fun, but also scary to see how fast we created the distinction between us and the other groups." "Language has implications for how we see the world."

In research, we and other researchers have documented that this exercise creates positivity, trust and creativity. It seems that the curiosity of learning from others combined with the feeling of community escalates collective learning processes.

InfoQ: What can people working in teams gain from the Diversity Icebreaker?

Ekelund: Learning about oneself and others. Establish a language of diversity that makes it easy to give each other even feedback. Even negative feedback can be given along with acknowledgement. For example, "I know you are Green, but can you now take time to finish the task before the end of the day? This will make it easier for the others in the team to do their work tomorrow." This statement acknowledges the other person’s colour, and at the same time shows trust in him/her that he/she can be flexible and act in the interests of the others in the team.

The three colours makes it easier to understand and voice why people have different motivations and perspectives when issues are discussed. It makes the group aware of three different aspects of teamwork that need to be considered.

InfoQ: How do people from different diversity categories prefer to communicate?

Ekelund: The first part of the campaign carried out to understand Red, Blue and Green inclinations was to train engineers to talk to others who did not have the same tendencies as themselves. We created a guideline which looks like this:


Red preferences:
Use conversation, maintain a harmonious discussion
Be personal and enthusiastic
Focus on social consequences and community spirit
Show trust and consideration


Blue preferences:
Give them time for reflection and consideration
Be down to earth, practical; focus on usefulness
Be logical, goal-oriented
Use facts and examples
Focus on details
Use numbers and calculations
Be structured and well-prepared


Green preferences:
Focus on higher ideas, the larger picture and connections
Be positive to change and future possibilities; visionary
Be open to creative and innovative ideas
Set high goals
Be value-oriented

InfoQ: How do power differences impact communication? How can we deal effectively with them?

Ekelund: We do not have a tradition of illustrating power differences in the Diversity Icebreaker seminar, at least not in relation to the three colours which most people see as complementary- one of them is not better or more important than the other. However, in real organisational contexts power is an issue. As such, the Diversity Icebreaker seminar creates a contrasting situation in which dialogue among equals are the norm. The seminar seems to create a feeling of commonality across hierarchies. In organisations and societies where power differences are very influential, it is just as if they are stepping out of the normal interaction when the Diversity Icebreaker climate prevails. Taking part in the Diversity Icebreaker seminars with participants across different levels of hierarchy creates an experience that makes everyone feel that they are in the same boat.  Participants in this seminar are given the opportunity to reflect together about power differences and share ideas about what could improve. Reports indicate that employees seem to speak more openly across hierarchical levels when they use Red, Blue and Green language.

InfoQ: How can we move beyond monologue, discussion, and debate, to trialogue?

Ekelund: In my book I introduce all of these communication forms as different and functional in different contexts. You might look at them as different rules for different communication forms. Each of them are suited for different purposes. Monologue is marketing. Discussions are relevant when you communicate what is true or false. Debate is a question of fighting for values, like what you see in politics. Dialogues are good for teaching others to reflect upon their own learning as a result of hearing others’ perspective. It is a question of approaching the others with respect, asking questions and being willing to change as a consequence of what you have heard.

Trialogue is a concept which we have introduced in our practice. What is a trialogue?  First of all, it builds on the same good communication practice as we see in dialogues: the open communication, sharing of perspectives as well as willingness to revise one’s own ideas and basic assumptions. However, in a ‘trialogue,’ three people or three groups are involved, and each of the three should not only be involved in dialogues with each of the others separately, but also use their third position to observe and give feedback on the interaction between the other two. As an observer of the dialogue between the other two, you can observe patterns of interaction in a way those engaged in the dialogue are unable to do. This is the added value that the trialogue brings to the game.  We know from attribution psychology that actors and observers see things systematically different.  Adding an observer creates the possibility of seeing and learning the interaction pattern in a new way. Patterns of dominance are difficult to see when you yourself are a part of the game, when your non-verbal behavior seems to indicate subjugation or a defensive attitude.

InfoQ: What challenges arise when professionals from different disciplines choose to cooperate?

Ekelund: Similar aspects come into play when people communicate and experience perceived differences. The differences are all relevant to the identity of the individual and embedded in language, values are different, emotions are involved and important elements of these diversities are unconscious. In the professional area, some people have such a dedication to their professional education so that makes it difficult for them to see and acknowledge other professions´ valuable contributions.

Paradigms are the shared basic assumptions and practices inside specific scientific disciplines. Being able to see and respect the others is a communication competence that helps in both of these challenging situations. Good questions to ask include "What information is most important for you? What methods do you use to gather information? Which information is good and which is bad?" When you hear the others’ story, be aware of your own surprises - and let these surprises lead you to learn more about how you think differently from them.

The Diversity Icebreaker can be applied as an introduction to main differences in scientific paradigms. Testing is a practice inspired by the natural science model. Testers want to find a reliable and valid description of individual qualities. The group work is inspired by the social sciences of group dynamics, where you can see positive and negative attitudes evolve. Red, Blue and Green languages become important categories that reflect the diversity between you and others. The last stage of reflexivity, on how we use language to describe the world, is the practice of humanities - a tradition where we all try to understand the world and become a better person by formulating ideals together. Are there alternative ways of describing the world? Can we see other situations in which we also create descriptions of others that have negative and positive implications?

In the Diversity Icebreaker seminar we started with a natural science model, and we discussed the real result’s meanings in groups. Meaning is a social construction. Then we reflect on the process at the end. This is a multidisciplinary approach that moves from one paradigm to the other and then to the third. This is one of the different multiple disciplinary approaches.

InfoQ: How does diversity impact teams’ ability to be innovative and come up with new ideas?

Ekelund: Diversity brings new ideas firstly by letting people voice from different contexts and backgrounds. Secondly, by combining perspectives. Thirdly by developing new ideas as a result of seeing the world through others’ lens. New ideas come to reality when people from different backgrounds utilise their different resources and network.

InfoQ: How can we deal with cross-cultural conflicts in the workplace?

Ekelund: The Diversity Icebreaker creates a new language and a climate of dialogue that can make participants approach each other with a reframed description of themselves and the issue. This is one of the unique elements the Diversity Icebreaker brought to seminars in peace projects in the Middle East. Beyond this, it is important to know about different cultures and how they normally collide.  Two cultural differences are dominating the field, the first one being the question of power distance; some societies very much respect their leaders, others not so much. This influences how easily people voice concerns and disagreements. The other dimension is degree of individualism vs collectivism. In a collectivistic society you feel responsible for the group and the norms and decisions made there. In individualistic societies you see more individual motivation and decision-making.

InfoQ: What can be done to foster inclusive decision-making?

Ekelund: I think it is important that leaders role model an inclusive attitude and practice. Talking about how diversified perspectives have increased the quality of discussions and dialogues in the team is a recommended strategy. A diversity promoting leader would say: "In our team we had different viewpoints and interests. This made us see broader aspects of the issues. The conclusion we made led to an additional perspective of what is needed to change. We decided to prioritise….and then we asked for more information and suggestions for acts ...". Such comments reflect the value of diversified perspectives, both in the process as well as in the end results.

About the Book Author

Bjørn Zakarias Ekelund is a Norwegian business consultant. Psychologist (1983), Oslo, MBA (1997), London. Since 1993 he has been the principal owner and managing director of Human Factors AS in Norway. He is most known for creating the Diversity Icebreaker – a concept that combines assessment of cognitive styles with an experiential learning seminar.

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