28 April, 2019
Katrina Sherrerd, CEO of Research Affiliates, poses an interesting challenge, “Achieving cognitive diversity is easier said than done. We all have a neurobiological preference for comfort and familiarity over discomfort and the unknown. Human nature inclines us toward people and ideas that confirm and reflect our views. Only when we resist and suppress our instincts can we build teams of people who think about and analyze decisions in different ways.”
Diversity brings variety and incongruity. The presence of eclectic thinkers introduces richness and divergence that you will never get from homogeneity. Our modern day focus on Design Thinking has reinforced the value of integrating divergence into the design process. Imagine the contrast of outcomes generated from a future scenario planning session by a stereotypical management team, versus the outputs created with the inclusion of diverse age, gender, ethnic, culture, and alternatively experienced participants. This is ‘Cognitive diversity’. This is essential for effective innovation.
Cognitive diversity is the inclusion of people who have different styles of problem-solving, with diverse perspectives, based on varied demographics that creates uncommon experiences and unique associations, typically leading to divergent outputs. Cognitive diversity is necessary for innovation, however engrained organizational behavioural norms (e.g. group think) often ignores other perspectives. The familiar notion, ‘we recruit in our own image,’ is often the biggest impediment to diversity evolution. Ticking the demographic boxes of age, gender and ethnicity is important, however the real value of this diversity is when organizations explicitly leverage their implicit cognitive diversity.
The US Navy's Office of Strategy and Innovation says this about the importance of cognitive diversity: "Innovation requires the ability to question norms, synthesize different views and collaborate to develop unique and powerful solutions. Cognitive diversity is the DNA of innovation.”
In the Harvard Business Review, Alison Reynolds and David Lewis wrote: “Colleagues gravitate toward the people who think and express themselves in a similar way. As a result, organizations often end up with like-minded teams.”
Charlan Nemeth, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley found that minority dissenting perspectives — even when wrong — add value, because they “stimulate divergent attention and thought . . . [which] contribute to the detection of novel solutions and decisions that, on balance, are qualitatively better.”
Cognitive diversity needs to be harnessed safely in order to break group think. I touched on the importance of the recruitment approach. In addition, as organizations move away from top-down decision making and encourage the front-line to provide their problem-solving perspectives to the bigger challenges that face the organization, the richer the possibilities and more innovative they become.
As the founder of an Idea Management & Collaboration platform I am biased in terms of openly enabling the competition of ideas, however by challenging old norms, firms will ensure they are not sticking with the tried and tested methods out of habit or past success.
Organizations that genuinely and safely embrace the voice of cognitive diversity, will build trust, improve their brand and increase the probability of exposing biases and group think limitations, hence improving innovation.