During the spring of 2020 many of us have had the chance to think about representation.
The issue of human diversity is a really tricky problem to solve in business, and there’s entire fields of research dedicated to figuring out what’s effective, what’s moral, and what's legal.
Many of us will probably agree that a diverse company is stronger because of it, and we’d imagine that involves having a variety of ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds. Even the most conservative of business owners would have a hard time arguing against having female employees these days, for instance.
But we don’t always consider the importance of another type of diversity - that of our mental strengths and capabilities.
Cognitive diversity is all about having a multitude of minds, experiences and problem-solving capabilities embedded within an organisation. And it's one of the main ingredients of building a creative, high-performance team.
Cognitive diversity is the key to solving business problems
Cognitive diversity gives organisations the capability to think differently about the world, their place in it, and which of its problems they can solve.
The 3 Types of Diversity That Shape Our Identities, by researchers Celia de Anca and Salvador Aragón, outlines the three tenets of organisational diversity:
“Demographic diversity (our gender, race, sexual orientation, and so on), experiential diversity (our affinities, hobbies, and abilities), and cognitive diversity (how we approach problems and think about things)."
It’s that last one that really gives a company an edge - and it’s only going to get more important in the future. As Matthew Syed writes in Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking, building cognitively diverse organisations isn’t just an issue of morality or social justice; it’s one of performance and innovation. In the book, Syed outlines how organisations can easily develop blind spots that they’re unaware of by having a group of people that are really good at one thing and not much else.
In Range: Why Generalists Triumph In A Specialized World, David Epstein highlights this as a cause of the 2008 financial crisis, noting that “legions of specialised groups optimising risk for their own tiny pieces of the big picture created a catastrophic whole."
Hiring people that all have the same background and skillset is like assembling a football team of 11 goalkeepers. They all might be the best goalkeepers in the world on an individual level, but with an unbalanced collective skillset, the team won’t get anywhere. None of them will be able to flourish and work to their full potential.
The solution to this problem lies in both everyday management, and hiring the right people.
The agile, problem-solving company
How can you encourage diversity of thought in your company? Well, it’s not as complex as you might think - to start, try applying it to some everyday problems.
If your programmers are having problems figuring something out, why not have them explain it in simple terms to your graphic designer for a change in perspective, and see if they can shed any light on it?
The idea might be a hard sell initially, but the designer wouldn’t have the same blind spots the coders may have, and will have a different way of visualising problems. While they won’t have the technical know-how to fully map out the solution, they can put the spotlight on a pain point that nobody else considered, allowing the experts to then apply their expertise to it.
Thinking outside the box is the goal here. And as much of a horrible cliché that is, it’s useful to remember, because we don’t always realise we think inside the box. Or if we do, we don’t know how big the box is, where the sides are, or how to open it.
Encouraging creative disagreement is another part of this. While you don’t want to foster arguments, the best ideas are forged through scrutiny and collaboration. Building a conflict-free workplace is possible while maintaining healthy creative friction.
You can have a group of people who are incredibly clever and have specialist knowledge in what they do.
But if they’re all from similar backgrounds - which could be in a geographical or socioeconomic sense, or just career-wise - there’s a good chance they’ll share that collective blindness. So having people get stuck into a wide variety of projects helps prevent this:
“Innovative organisations are shifting from managing units to managing challenges or projects, asking employees to voluntarily join projects, creating structures where employees can move out of their comfort zones to join temporary communities of aspiration that strengthen cross-organisational ties and help the company achieve its strategic goals.” - Harvard Business Review
And if you’re about to start hiring for a new role, this is worth thinking about. By picking someone with the exact specialisation you need, are you limiting yourself to an unnecessarily small talent pool?
It’s important to think about implicit biases in hiring systems, for the sake of demographic diversity and avoiding discrimination (even if it’s unintentional).
As well as affecting your demographic diversity, they might also be shaping the cognitive diversity of your team, and limiting your performance capabilities. It's your chance to think a bit differently, and start building a team of complementary superstars.