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Diversity as Strategy

May 5th, 2007 by dk

Is diversity a goal or a strategy? Consider the plight of the modern apple and the value of heterozygosity.

During the time of John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed, apples were wild and easy. They adapted so well to our American landscape, they were thought of as fruit-bearing weeds. They brought the frontier just what was needed: food and energy today, fermented relief tomorrow.

Apples survived and thrived by diversifying. Nature adapts to blight and hardship by constantly tinkering with its own genes — and none tinker better than apples. An apple tree grown from seed may bear next to no resemblance to its parent, thanks to heterozygosity.

Too bad for apples that consumers prefer uniformity. Marketers went to work, coining such memorable slogans as “American as apple pie.” “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” mixed medicine and marketing 100 years before Nexium’s “purple pill” campaign.

The apple was “improved” by narrowing its genetic strains through grafting, and now most apples you can buy come from one of five genetic lines. As a result, apples today typically require more pesticides than any other fruit.

That’s the choice. Wild and unpredictable, but sure to survive — or reliable and marketable, but requiring undue protection?

Communities are no different. With diversity comes a riot of growth, endless adaptations, a surprise around every corner. Lack of diversity leaves us vulnerable to all sorts of dangers — rot from within or predators from outside.

If apples could think for themselves, no doubt they’d prefer uniformity. Who wouldn’t want those who follow to resemble them? Who wouldn’t prefer the comfort of familiarity? But nature knows better what’s good for an apple, and that’s diversity.

Seen this way, diversity is never an end in itself. When diversity becomes a high-minded goal, those diverse voices feel patronized and tokenized, and rightly so. Diversity is better understood as a strategy to grow and adapt. Who among us doesn’t hope our businesses and communities will do just that?

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