Here's the key to breakthroughs in cleantech and sustainability

Choosing the right team is a survival skill for entrepreneurs — especially in cleantech and sustainability. We face problems such as emissions rising, resources becoming tightly constrained, water availability and quality growing more problematic, and the interconnections between air, energy, food, water and health becoming ever more complex.

Many great gains notwithstanding, the challenges are getting steeper, and it's becoming clear that doing more of the same things with the same people just won't work.

Cast your memory back to the playground of your childhood. Remember choosing teams to play a game — kickball, soccer, flashlight tag, whatever? Assuming players of more or less equivalent ages, the winning team wasn't made up of kids who were already best friends, or all looked the same, or were the same gender, or lived on the same block or had the same favorite sports idols. The best team was inevitably made up of the mix of kids who collectively had the best combination of skills. The key was choosing kids with skills that complemented yours. The same applies in cleantech and sustainability.

Homophily is not your friend

Most of us feel most at ease when surrounded by others similar to ourselves, whether in educational backgrounds, beliefs or political views, or cultural references and social habits. This is called homophily, and most of the time we're not even aware that we're exercising preferences; it just seems "natural."

Detail from cover of Scott E. Page's book Diversity and Complexity (Primers in Complex Systems)Especially in often contentious fields such as cleantech or sustainability, we choose employees, collaborators, advisors and partners who share our perspectives because we believe that working with like-minded collaborators will reduce conflict and improve productivity. But choosing team members according to homophily is less than optimal.

Organizational research shows that for very straightforward tasks, a heterogeneous team — one in which members have very different backgrounds, skill sets and training — may perform comparably to a homogeneous one. For tasks requiring pure speed of execution, a homogeneous team is often superior. However, for complex tasks, the heterogeneous or multidisciplinary team outperforms the homogeneous team. The more complex the task becomes, the wider the gap between the teams.

In the book "Diversity and Complexity," Scott E. Page explains how "diversity underpins system-level robustness, allowing for multiple responses to external shocks and internal adaptations; how it provides the seeds for large events by creating outliers that fuel tipping points; and how it drives novelty and innovation."

But what about the discomfort that comes with bringing in collaborators who don't speak the same lingo, share the same shorthand or even laugh at the same jokes? Aren't those important considerations for team dynamics?

Researchers from Brigham Young University, Northwestern University and Stanford looked at the social interaction effects of introducing outsiders to preexisting homogeneous groups, examining whether the discomfort of accommodating newcomers from different backgrounds would lead to positive or negative disruption.

As their 2009 article reports, "the mere presence of socially distinct newcomers and the social concerns their presence stimulates among old-timers motivates behavior that can convert affective pains into cognitive gains."

Cookie cutter image by hd connelly via Shutterstock

In other words, yes, heterogeneity can introduce frictions that require additional effort to manage. And those discomforts actually can stimulate the group to perform better — especially when the group is tasked with doing something really difficult. Think, for example, of delivering significant sustainability gains, launching a new cleantech company or making energy policy.

The people and organizations highlighted in the GreenBiz State of Green Business Report 2014 — which notes collaboration among unlikely partners as a growing trend — are actively embracing that discomfort to pioneer exciting new solutions.

Drawing inspiration from other sectors

MIT Professor Bob Langer might be the poster figure for cognitive gains from heterogeneous collaborations. Langer is a chemical engineer who — working with diverse collaborators — famously has pioneered new methods and materials for disease treatment, drug delivery and health and beauty applications.

For the first decade of his career, the idea that a chemical engineer untrained in medicine could contribute to biomedical research was considered ludicrous. Yet he has more than 1,000 patents and over 250 licenses to companies; more than 1,200 publications, with nearly 100,000 citations; more than 200 honors in science, technology, engineering, chemistry, life sciences, materials science, medicine and biomedical research, and invention; and appointments to the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering and the Institute of Medicine.

Remarkable as he is, Langer is not alone in his approach. Broad Institute Entrepreneur in Residence Katrine Bosley was quoted in FierceBiotech along a similar vein: "Given the complexities of discovering, developing and commercializing new medicines, I've found that seeking a variety of experiences and perspectives has been critical to both leading and to being an effective team member."

Chemistry lab image by Sebastian Duda via ShutterstockJust as in cleantech and sustainability, there is still a long way to go in health and medicine, and the challenges are steep. But often breakthroughs come because bringing diverse perspectives to bear on a complex problem enables the team to reframe the problem.

A homogenous team is perfectly good — and perhaps preferable — if your goal is to streamline an existing process or to systematize best practices. But if you want to achieve a breakthrough, assemble a heterogeneous team around a clear and audacious target. Encourage members to throw out preconceptions and prevailing wisdom in favor of diligently exploring unconventional, impossible or even ludicrous ideas.

Putting heterogeneity into practice in cleantech

My company, Vodia Ventures, makes seed investments in companies with business models designed to crack the unsolvables. We actively look for and cultivate heterogeneity in our portfolio companies.

For example, Resolute Marine Energy is combining technologies and methods and collaborators from previously unrelated sectors to provide affordable, local, off-grid potable water supplies for arid coastal communities around the world.

This is an increasingly urgent sustainability need, and at the same time a complicated, multifaceted challenge marked by technical, financial, operational, cultural, political and community impediments. The team has sought involvement from diverse parties — from bank executives to government officials, from engineers and scientists to private investors, from community leaders to NGO representatives and many more.

But had the founders focused their efforts on achieving "reasonable" goals, or on working strictly with sustainability experts and cleantech promoters, it's likely they never would have overcome numerous and often fiercely entrenched obstacles to new infrastructure propositions. As it seeks to build the world's first wave-driven municipal water facility, embracing heterogeneity among stakeholders will be even more vital.

Embrace heterogeneity to build a winning team

Launching a startup is by definition a highly complex task. Launching a startup to achieve breakthroughs in cleantech or sustainability is even more ambitious.

These are incredibly complex challenges, and we need to focus on forming alliances with people as different from one another as possible, willing to seriously and thoughtfully question our collective preconceptions, whose primary common element is a shared definition of success.

Whatever sustainability or cleantech challenge you have taken on, you already know that you face a complex task. Maximize your likelihood of success by leaving aside "common sense" notions of working with likeminded friends and colleagues. Take the plunge and actively embrace heterogeneity. Invest serious effort to find collaborators who care about achieving the same breakthrough, and who bring a vibrant mix of different backgrounds, perspectives and skills.

Hands image by Andrey_Popov via Shutterstock