queer innovation

Long before I realize that I was queer, Alan Turing was my hero. Turing is known today as a larger-than-life figure who fought Nazis with his brain.

He was instrumental in breaking the “unbreakable” cypher of the German Enigma Machine for the British and thus played a decisive role in Allied victory in World War II. He was also one of the founding figures of computer science; He, along with Alonzo Church provided the theoretical foundation for computation that underlies every digital computer that exists today.

The story I didn’t learn until later was that Alan Turing was gay, and after winning the war was prosecuted by the British government for “gross indecency,” and forced into chemical castration as an alternative to prison. He killed himself not long thereafter, shortly before his 42nd birthday. Turing is one of the giants of mathematics, computer science, and an indisputable war hero. In a just world that would have mattered more than his sexuality. But as Alan Turing experienced then, and many other gender- or sexuality-nonconforming people experience today, brilliance, courage, hard work and accomplishment are no guarantee of acceptance or humane treatment. I believe that making your organization safe for queer people (by which I mean any gender- or sexuality-non conforming person) is the morally right thing to do. However, a well-meaning leader or activist facing opposition to change might want other justifications beyond the moral. For you, I make the following argument: by making your organization safe for queer people, you will make it more innovative, productive, and access a wider pool of talent.

queer innovation arbitrage If you want innovation, you need weirdos and freaks. These are the people who see the world differently by dint of being different. These are the people who have the courage to be different and take risks. Perhaps that's why we have seen so many brilliant queer people (Freddie Mercury, Samuel R. Delany, Melissa Etheridge, Oscar Wilde, etc., etc.) in the arts, and comparatively few out queer people in the “straight” worlds of business, finance, academia, and government.

Overwhelming evidence supports the premise that there are tremendous advantages in building diverse teams. And in my own personal experience, the most innovative teams I’ve ever been part of included more than their fair share of freaks and weirdos in high-visibility positions. The problem is that making a place safe for weirdos and freaks doesn’t happen by accident — it requires deliberate choices and effort.

There is a human tendency to want to be surrounded by people who are like us; the technical term is homophily. And homophily is a very powerful force; social psychologists have demonstrated that you are many times more likely to help someone at potential cost to yourself if you see them as having traits in common with you. On the negative side, salient differences drive perceptions of otherness, which can lead to feelings of hostility and exclusion.

Homophily is driven by salience; to support an inclusive team, we can emphasize factors like shared mission, organizational identity, and the values of the group. That will make these inclusive factors more salient than less-relevant surface factors like sexuality, gender, skin color, etc. And by supporting queer folks and other “weirdos” in leadership and other visible roles in the organization, we can normalize and celebrate the participation of people who look and act like me. That makes a huge difference in how safe we feel and how much we are willing to give to our teams.

Beyond creating a culture that emphasizes the right factors to make queer folks feel included, we can leverage the techniques of building psychological safety, facilitating positive, healthy conflict, and creating opportunities for team-building and shared experiences that cut across traditional demographic lines; This unlocks new networks for mentorship and collaboration across the organization.

The good news is that the kind of culture in which it is possible for weirdos, freaks, and queer people to thrive is also a high-performance innovation culture. It’s a place where people feel free to think differently, express those differences, and to work out their conflicts of ideas without those conflicts becoming personal.

And let’s face it — innovation isn’t about “thinking different,” it’s about daring to be different. It’s about taking risks and challenging the status quo. And those of us who have been doing this all our lives have an edge. So you should hire us, but first you should make your organization a safe place for us to be who we are.

In summary, working to make your organization safe for sexuality- and gender-nonconforming people is the moral and humane thing to do. But by doing so, you will build a kick-ass problem solving, conflict-resolving, highly effective organization with a strong team identity and an amazing talent pool. In short, you will make your organization the sort of place anyone would want to work.