Cognitive Diversity - Everything You Need to Know


When great minds think alike, it’s... not always great.

What is cognitive diversity?

It’s the degree by which perspectives vary within a group. Engineering it means including people with different information-processing styles (say, analytical versus holistic thinking). It can also be extended to values or dispositions – introverts with extroverts and divergent thinkers with convergent.

So you make sure the team is a mix of ages, genders, ethnicities and backgrounds?

Those factors relate to demographic diversity. The cognitive variety has fewer surface cues, though awkward conversation is one. Even combining different skill sets – putting poets with engineers, as Amazon, Apple and Microsoft do to add a little something to AI assistants – doesn’t guarantee diversity of thought. Employees who appear to have nothing in common can still be like-minded, particularly in organisations that hire on the basis of “cultural fit”.

Are there material benefits?

In the book Which Two Heads are Better Than One? (The Australian Institute of Company Directors, 2016), Juliet Bourke identifies six ways people approach problems: outcomes and options – the two that senior leaders skew to – process, evidence, people and risk. She details a 2012 University of Michigan study that models how a group of problem-solvers with “deep-level diversity” – using five approaches equally – trounces an individual who only uses one (100 per cent accuracy compared with 68.75 per cent). As economist Scott Page, co-leader of the study, pointed out, no single human can be diverse. “Diversity is… a basket with many kinds of fruit.”

How do you measure the way people think?

Some scales calculate how individuals face the unknown: adapting existing knowledge versus generating new insights; or deploying one’s expertise over orchestrating others’ ideas. There are scales that rate people as rational or intuitive. Page provides a neat way to scramble a team’s heuristics at recruitment. Rather than setting a test and hiring the top two scorers, he suggests hiring the two who nail all the answers – between them.

Want to know more about cognitive diversity?

The article

In Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitively Diverse (Harvard Business Review, 2017), the authors found no correlation between demographic diversity and the performance of executive teams but a marked equivalence with cognitive diversity.

The talk

In Pursuing Cognitive Diversity with Matthew Syed, the journalist concedes that if you want to win an Olympic sprint relay, you skip diversity and run your four fastest athletes. But if you have a team of 10 talents and ask them to come up with 10 ideas each, a cognitively diverse group might produce 100 ideas. How many would a talented team of homogeneous thinkers produce?

The report

Diversity’s New Frontier (Deloitte Insights, 2013) looks at crowd-sourcing and gamification to guard against groupthink and expert overconfidence. The paper cites organisations managing “diversity tension” (the increased conflict and complexity that comes with mixing thought types). One company put skilled facilitators in charge of teams rather than the most experienced staff and all removed consensus as a goal.

The book

In Dream Teams (Portfolio, 2018) author Shane Snow praises the conflict-riddled Wu-Tang Clan hip hop group and its “nine volatile personalities”. Clan leader RZA described the creative abrasion in a Los Angeles Times interview: “When steel rubs against steel, it makes both blades sharper.”

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