When I worked at the Stars Group, I learned the value of having a diverse team. My team had people from the US, UK, Russia, France, Israel, Isle of Man, Kazakhstan, The Netherlands, Ireland and India; while colleagues at the company increased this list even more. This diversity led to solutions and approaches that helped us to create great products (and results) with limited resources. While I already grasped the value of diversity, Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed showed how you can magnify this value.
Strive for cognitive diversity
At the core of Rebel Ideas is the concept of cognitive diversity, that you need people that think differently rather than just look different. While you can create an incredible relay team by cloning Usain Bolt, Apple’s design department would not have been as incredible if they simply cloned Jony Ive. Tackling complex problems demands more than just intelligence or skill. Two designers may have different nationalities and genders, but if they use the same inputs, materials, techniques and approaches to solve problems they will come to similar designs. If you recruit designers, however, who use different approaches, they will draw on different materials, ask different questions and make different assumptions.
To get the broadest range of solutions, and thus the one most likely to be optimal, you need true diversity. Diversity should not be limited to demographic attributes, like gender, race, age, sexual orientation or religion. It must be a diversity of the mind, or cognitive diversity, something we cannot achieve simply by cloning our top performers. It is by finding people with different mindsets.
One other way to get diversity is by not boxing people in. Do not limit design ideas to designers or product management to product managers. You will find that by letting people participate in conversations out of their core function they will often bring a new layer of diversity. One of the best examples is again Apple, where its design team drove some of the biggest manufacturing innovations.
While the idea of cognitive diversity is logical, we often face a counterforce that prevents us from achieving this diversity, homophily. People surround themselves with others that they identify with due to appearance, beliefs, hobbies or perspective. This subconscious and usually unintentional habit, known as homophily, happens because it is validating to have your ideas reflected back by those around you.
Unfortunately, homophily also inhibits the success of a team as it creates collective blindness. Even if a team is made up of highly intelligent individuals, if they think alike, they will not know what they are seeing or missing.
Communicate to support diversity
Once you have true cognitive diversity, you need to ensure that the benefits of diversity are not lost due to communications issues. It does not help to have a diverse group if only one or two people are heard.
You need to avoid what Syed refers to as dominance hierarchy. Even with a diverse team, in group situations such as projects, meetings, brainstorming sessions, calls, etc., a leader will either be appointed or emerge. The issue that arises is that this de facto structure may silence non-leaders. Unless leaders foster open communication, you will lose ideas.
The solution is to create an environment of psychological safety. Leaders should harness the benefits of cognitive diversity by establishing an environment that encourages ideas sharing. A technique that helps is brainwriting, where employees contribute ideas by writing them down anonymously and then voting on the best ones. Syed points out that psychological safety is the most important factor in driving success, since generating ideas is a crucial step in arriving at optimal solutions.
Another key to leveraging communications to amplify diversity is avoiding echo chambers. Echo chambers form when your beliefs are reiterated by those around us, in person or online. It is often driven by homophily, as we love to hear how great our ideas are and how smart we are. If opposing points enter our echo chamber, they sometimes do not encourage us to question our own positions; they actually polarize us further. The best way to combat the echo chamber is by forming meaningful connections with individuals, even (or especially) if we are fundamentally different.
One other way to leverage diversity is by creating a shadow board, a group you go to that challenges and reviews key decisions. Set up a shadow board with people who are cognitively diverse from you, including having shared different experiences. Shadow boards highlight the importance of sharing wisdom and individual perspectives. Sharing ideas within a cognitively diverse team creates a mutually beneficial environment, where recipients gain wisdom and givers become connected within a supportive network.
As part of building diversity, it is also useful to develop your own internal diversity. Some of the most innovative businessmen are immigrants, from Steve Jobs to Elon Musk. As immigrants, they have had to traverse multiple cultures, training their minds to identify new possibilities. They see how their own ideas combine to form great solutions and combine their own ideas with the concepts of others in imaginative ways. This approach drives innovation.
Syed points out that we can diversify our thinking by ensuring that we do not become a slave to one area of interest, crossing conceptual borders if not geographical ones. This was a practice Charles Darwin adopted. Alternating his research between botany, zoology, geology and psychology gave him a fresh perspective and allowed him to draw ideas together across fields.
- While most people accept the value of diversity, it is often looked at too narrowly. True diversity is not based on demographic or sex or background but creating a team where people think differently and approach problems in unique ways, cognitive diversity.
- The challenge in creating cognitive diversity is homophily, gravitating to people like you or share similar ideas.
- Once you have a cognitively diverse team you need to structure your communications to leverage this diversity by preventing leaders from dominating discussions, get people who are not outgoing to write down and submit their ideas, avoid creating an echo chamber and building a shadow board of advisors.
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