Diversity’s New Frontier: Diversity of Thought
Advances in neuroscience can help to ‘operationalize’ diversity of thought and change how we harness human capital.
UP UNTIL NOW, diversity initiatives have focused primarily on fairness for legally-protected populations. But the smartest organizations are embracing and harnessing a more powerful and nuanced type of diversity: Diversity of thought. Advances in neuroscience mean that matching people to specific jobs based on more rigorous cognitive analysis is now within reach. Organizations that can operationalize faster ideation can begin to purposely align individuals to certain teams and jobs simply because of the way they think.
As we will demonstrate, diversity of thought brings an organization three key benefits: It helps guard against groupthink and expert overconfidence; it helps to increase the scale of new insights; and it helps to identify which employees can best tackle your most pressing problems.
The Next Frontier
Diversity of thought refers to a concept that all of us know intuitively and experience throughout our lives: Every human being has a unique blend of identities, cultures and experiences that inform how he or she thinks, interprets, negotiates and accomplishes a particular task. Diversity of thought goes beyond the affirmation of equality — simply recognizing differences and responding to them. Instead, the focus is on realizing the full potential of people, and in turn, the organization, by acknowledging and appreciating the promise of each person’s unique way of thinking.
The implication of this ‘new frontier in diversity’ is that leaders must let go of the idea that there is one ‘right way’ and instead focus on creating a learning culture where people feel accepted, are comfortable contributing ideas, and actively seek to learn from each other.
In the not-too-distant future, managers adept at leading diverse work teams will be sensitive not only to factors of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality and ability, but also to understanding how people think differently. Managers will also need to understand how to use emergent technologies to help employees
evaluate their unique thinking strengths and identify their optimal contributions to your mission.
Technology, of course, is not a panacea. Leaders will also need to adjust their management styles to better encourage connections between individuals and their ideas in order to improve problem solving, learning, cooperation and innovation.
Hiring practices also need to evolve. Hiring for a diversity of backgrounds may not necessarily yield different perspectives, because physical diversity is not a sufficient proxy for diversity of thought. And once someone is hired, organizations will need to adjust their approach to managing and advancing each individual’s career.
Over the last 20 years, cognitive scientists and neurologists have made progress in understanding how the human mind works. For example, many of us are familiar with the distinction between left- and right-brain thinking and its impact on work performance. Although this taxonomy is overly simplistic, research does show that individuals have differing cognitive styles and particular thinking strengths: Some of us are inclined to be better at math, others at pattern recognition or creativity. Ap- propriately harnessed, even the slightest nuance of one worker’s thinking can bring value to an organization.
Investing in diversity of thought can help organizations realize three key benefits.
BENEFIT 1: DIVERSE THINKERS GUARD AGAINST GROUPTHINK AND EXPERT OVERCONFIDENCE. Research demonstrates that diverse thinking helps organizations make better decisions because it triggers creative information processing that is often absent in homogenous groups. Moreover, while homogenous groups are typically more confident in their performance, diverse groups are often more successful in completing tasks. This is because diverse team members don’t just introduce new viewpoints; they also trigger more careful information processing that is typically absent in homogenous groups.
Some of the most ground-breaking research in this area is being conducted by the government, specifically by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA). Its Aggregative Contingent Estimation (ACE) program aims “to dramatically enhance the accuracy, precision and timeliness of
Individuals have particular thinking strengths: Some of us are inclined to be better at math, others at pattern recognition or creativity.
forecasts for a broad range of event types, through the development of advanced techniques that elicit, weight and combine the judgments of many intelligence analysts.”
Philip Tetlock, a professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, leads an ACE program research team. Tetlock, whose book Expert Political Judgment examined the frequent overconfidence of substantive experts, has assembled a group of laypeople with diverse backgrounds to predict the future likelihood of certain events. This eclectic team has replicated the results Tetlock first published in his book by handily beating the recognized experts in its ability to forecast future events. The ACE studies and Tetlock’s original research illustrate the potential that organizations have to “fully understand the causes of successful collective performance and to improve their outcomes by assembling teams of more diverse thinkers to complement their more traditional experts.”
BENEFIT 2: DIVERSE THINKERS HELP INCREASE THE SCALE OF NEW INSIGHTS. When time is of the essence, organizations often resort to gathering a group of experts and specialists — the premise be- ing that subject-matter knowledge is more likely to quickly generate a quality solution to whatever issue faces the organization. However, emerging technologies are creating options rendering the congregation of experts less useful. Instead, it is becoming clear that generating a great idea quickly requires connecting multiple tasks and ideas together in a new way.
Crowdsourcing and gamification techniques are unique ways to channel the diversity of human thinking through their use of diverse online crowds to solve challenging issues. The crowdsourcing game Foldit, sponsored by the University of Washington’s Departments of Computer Science and Engineering, uses the puzzle-solving intuitions of volunteer gamers to help scientists better understand the function of human protein enzymes.
In one puzzle, scientists asked the community to remodel one of four amino acid loops on a particular enzyme. They received over 70,000 design submissions, the top five of which came from players who had not taken any science beyond high school chemistry. What the players did have in common were spatial reasoning skills, intuition, agility, collaboration, self-organization and competition. These skills, when multiplied by
While homogenous groups are more confident in their performance, diverse groups are often more successful in completing tasks.
the number of players in Foldit, quickly pointed the scientists to a solution that would have taken recognized experts much longer to complete.
Though most organizations cannot give all their problems to the ‘crowd’ to solve, they can promote a broader range of thinking to help them achieve the same benefits of speed and scale afforded by crowdsourcing techniques.
BENEFIT 3: DIVERSE THINKERS CAN TACKLE YOUR MOST PRESSING PROB-LEMS. Organizations that operationalize diversity of thought can begin to purposely align individuals to certain teams and jobs simply because of the way they think. Some of this can already be accomplished with testing, but advances in neuroscience mean that matching people to specific jobs based on more rigorous cognitive analysis is within reach. Emotiv Lifesciences, a neurobiology company, has created a brainwave ‘reading rig’ designed to measure how well a person can concentrate on a given activity. Using sensors similar to an EEG machine, it connects cognitive activity with the control of a device like a computer, offering real-time analysis. These and other techniques being developed reveal not just the symphony of neural activity, but the notes behind it.
The acceptance of these new technologies can be challenging and will likely take organizations into uncharted territories. But if properly incorporated into work processes, they can help identify individuals who can best tackle an organization’s most pressing problems. These new capabilities will empower organizations not to read minds, but to understand how a mind might react and how best to match it with others to achieve mission success. Those who learn to do this well will have an immediate competitive advantage.
How to Increase Diversity of Thought
As indicated, the intersections between neuroscience, psychology and technology are creating new opportunities for organizations to better understand how people think and how to translate these cutting-edge findings into practice. Following are three steps to developing a strategy to foster diversity of thought.
STEP 1: Hire Differently
FIND STRATEGIC SKILL GAPS. With an eye for diversity of thought, managers and HR representatives can select people who think differently while maintaining alignment with the firm’s mission and bottom line. To get a diverse pool of applicants, recruiters will need to examine their practices to ensure not only that a job description includes the technical competencies necessary for success, but also that the job description and interview process contain competencies and questions designed to help identify and select for cognitive diversity.
German software firm SAP AG has taken this idea a step further by actively recruiting for a particular strand of cognitive ability that has historically been branded a disability. A few years ago, it began recruiting people with autism to make use of this population’s unique ability to process information. People diagnosed with autism have difficulties communicating and suffer from emotional detachment, yet those with mild autism can often perform complex tasks that require high levels of concentration — typically much better than the average population.
Beyond their advanced mathematical skills, autistic people also frequently exhibit a particularly potent ability to find patterns and make connections. SAP’S willingness to seek out unique cognitive skill sets where other organizations may see prohibitive deficits injects new complexity into their talent management, but can be well worth the effort: “SAP sees a potential competitive advantage to leveraging the unique talents of people with autism, while also helping them to secure meaningful employment.”
HIRE WITH DEBATE IN MIND. One of the most important projects in U.S. history benefited from a similarly unorthodox approach to assembling a team. During World War II, the Manhattan Project was led by Colonel Dick Groves and physicist Dr. Robert Oppenheimer. It was, first and foremost, a military operation, and would come to represent the beginning of the military-industrial complex — a hybrid of public, private, and academic brain power. Groves and Oppenheimer brought together several thousand physicists and engineers, 20 of whom
Employees should feel comfortable holding opinions that are different from those of management.
were Nobel laureates.
Oppenheimer, in particular, summoned scientists with contrasting theoretical points of view, knowing that if they could collectively work through their differences, they would be able to accomplish one of the greatest scientific feats of the 20th century. Had they not hired with this in mind, the opportunity to generate and take advantage of innovative ideas may have been squandered. Although Groves and Oppenheimer did not open the floodgates to all types of diversity — women, for example, were not included — they did hire widely within the field of science and the military to combine two distinct worlds, setting the precedent for how diverse talents can achieve difficult tasks in a short period of time.
The lesson? Organizations need to recruit diverse top talent, even if it means shaking up the status quo with opinionated employees. Oppenheimer intentionally gathered dissenting, great minds in an effort to harness their conflicts. He knew that the series of solutions they worked toward would never have sprung forth from a chorus of agreement, no matter how collectively brilliant.
STEP 2: Manage Differently
FACILITATE ‘DIVERSITY TENSION’. One of the challenges associated with diversity is that it introduces greater complexity. The most successful organizations will be those who can overcome challenges such as misunderstandings and increased conflict, which can happen when diversity is not successfully managed.
When confronted with ‘diversity tension’, even the best-intentioned manager can send off subconscious signals of discomfort. A research team in Denmark studied city government officials to identify reasons why their organization experienced high levels of negativity. They observed the local government officials, using videos to record typical interactions during the workday. When looking back through the tapes, the researchers noticed that whenever an executive was asked a tough question by his or her employees, he or she would make a slight variation in their head movement. Working with psychologists, the researchers determined that this slight head nod was the same tic observed in nature when an individual comes into contact with a wild animal.
Your office may not have a pet tiger, but managers and employees still face the instinctual urge to avoid conflict. It is simply easier for us to agree than to be confrontational. Part of being comfortable with conflict is abandoning the idea that consensus is an end in and of itself. In a well-run diverse team, substantive disagreements do not need to become personal: Iideas either have merit and points of connection or they do not. Diversity of thought challenges managers to rethink conflict itself, shifting their perspective away from mitigating conflict’s negative effects and toward designing conflict that can push their teams to new levels of creativity and productivity. Leaders and managers who create the necessary space for disagreements will find richer solutions and the buy-in of naysayers who are at least able to voice their ideas.
Leading design firm IDEO manages this tension by purposely hiring people from diverse backgrounds to inject different perspectives, and then fosters a collaborative culture where people have to advocate for their ideas. IDEO’S approach is born out of careful hiring practices and its ability to facilitate ‘controlled conflict’ — the subject of IDEO general manager Tom Kelly’s book The Ten Faces of Innovation. Since these nontraditional teams are formed with experiential conflict in mind, individuals are required to be advocates for their ideas and to respect the ideas of those around them.
Furthermore, IDEO has a resourcing approach that gets people with great facilitation skills, not years of service, to drive the design process and manage the project to get the most value out of its unique experts. Kelly insists that while there is no formula for who should contribute when, the key is for all people to be encouraged to bring multiple ideas to a problem set.
GIVE PERMISSION. Organizations aiming for a more diverse workforce need to adopt specific practices so that employees believe they have permission to bring their entire selves to the workplace. In this sense, firms that strive for inclusion attempt to appreciate their employees’ differences and foster an environment
where all feel comfortable sharing their views and their authentic selves. Employees should feel comfortable disagreeing and holding opinions different from those of management. One of the hardest things for a manager to do is to let employees disagree with her and allow them to explore their ideas — even if that exploration leads to failure.
To relieve the pressure on employees, managers can use behavioural ‘nudges’ to prompt conversation and depersonalize debate around even the manager’s own personal ideas. A manager in an intelligence agency told us that one way she has found to ensure that her team members provide honest and necessary insight is to give them permission to give harsh, constructive feedback. Instead of asking, ‘Does this make sense?’, she instead asks, ‘What is wrong with my logic?’ or ‘What points am I missing?’ Such questions provoke more contrarian analysis that ultimately helps her create a better final product.
STEP 3: Advance Differently
DRIVE CAREER SPONSORSHIP. Once cognitively-diverse individuals are hired, managers and leaders need to retain and advance that talent. One way to do so is to enact sponsorship programs directed at individuals who represent different thinking styles. Sponsors can help cognitively-diverse thinkers find the appropriate application of their unique thinking styles, thus helping them to advance in their new career track. A sponsor trained in the tenets of cognitive diversity would also be able to translate and promote the otherwise hidden attributes of individuals new to an organization.
Individuals with diverse thinking styles can also act as a mentor to other people within their organizations. For example, in today’s digital age, many Millennials are reverse-mentoring more senior colleagues in social media and networks. Cisco has implemented a reverse-mentorship program designed to enable the mentor to provide the executive with a perspective on how comments and decisions might be interpreted by diverse employees as well as valuable feedback on how well he or she encourages inclusion and diversity in his or her own business practices.
SHIFT TO TEAM-BASED EVALUATION. To the extent that diversity of thought is about identifying and managing potential, it is helpful to recall what the late Peter Drucker once said: You can only manage what you can measure. As a result, leaders willing to harness the power of diverse thinking may want to measure behaviours such as ‘openness to constructive conflict’ to push their teams toward more robust results. It’s time to shift the conversation from managing individual performance to nurturing the collective intelligence of the team.
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management has provided team evaluation guidance that highlights that individual performance can be linked to a team’s cooperative behaviour. By focusing on the team’s outputs, public sector organizations can continue to drive toward results while holding the collective accountable to attributes such as motivation, intellectual breadth, emotional intelligence, and risk tolerance.
Critically, these elements are aligned with the larger goals and values of the organization and can help create an environment where people can bring their authentic selves. Any evaluation framework must reflect the complexities that make up the authentic self, and by pivoting evaluations toward the team, the appraisal becomes about shared performance and how each individual can enable the larger group to drive toward excellence. By moving to a team evaluation framework, organizations can create and foster a culture of inclusion that empowers its people, spurs collaboration, and inspires more innovation.
Executives and managers alike must take increasing ownership for creating an inclusive culture characterized by diversity of thought. In ways that were unimaginable a few decades ago, people and organizations can now optimize the opportunities found at the intersection between cultures, values and perspectives. To achieve this, today’s practices and regulations need to be reimagined to allow for the emergence and full development of a powerful diversity strategy.
As MIT Professor Andrew Mcafee recently said, “Expertise for problem solving and innovation is emergent. It’s out there in large quantities, and in hard-to-predict places. A problemsolving approach that lets pockets of enthusiasm and expertise manifest themselves and find each other can yield surprisingly large rewards.”
Anesa Parker is a Strategy Manager at Monitor-deloitte, based in Washington DC. Carmen Medina is the founder of Medinanalytics LLC and a former Specialist Leader at Deloitte. Elizabeth Schill is a guest blogger for Govloop and former Senior Consultant at Deloitte.