In ‘Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitively Diverse’, Alison Reynolds and David Lewis describe their research into problem-solving capability with executive groups. Groups in their experiments were required to formulate and execute a strategy to achieve a specified outcome against the clock.
Received wisdom about the value of diversity would have suggested that the more diverse the teams in terms of age, ethnicity, and gender, the more creative and productive they would be. Instead, the researchers found that some groups performed exceptionally well and others incredibly poorly, irrespective of demographic and cultural diversity.
This finding led them to consider other diversity characteristics and, in particular, cognitive diversity which refers to differences in perspective or information processing styles. Apparently, our cognitive preferences are independent of education, culture, and other social conditioning, and are established when we are young.
The authors’ research focused particularly on how individuals think about and engage with new, uncertain, and complex situations. They found that the teams that performed best had noticeably higher levels of cognitive diversity.
This finding made sense. Tackling new challenges requires a balance between applying what we know and discovering what we don’t know that might be useful. It also requires that individuals both apply their specialised expertise and step back and look at the bigger picture. They postulated that a high degree of cognitive diversity could generate accelerated learning and performance in the face of new, uncertain, and complex situations.
Reynolds and Lewis suggested two reasons why cognitive diversity may not have received the attention it deserves:
- Cognitive diversity is less visible than, for example, ethnic and gender diversity. But, those observable variables give no clue as to how a person might internally process information, engage with, or respond to change. Further, it is difficult to surface and harness these differences to benefit from them.
- There are cultural barriers to cognitive diversity. It has long been a concern, for example, that boards recruit people in their own image. Thus, many boards gravitate towards new directors who are similar to incumbents in the way they think and express themselves. They are inclined to seek out people who will ‘fit in’.
When organisations end up with like-minded teams—even those displaying a high level of demographic diversity—they typically suffer from functional bias. This is defined as a limited ability to see things differently, engage in different ways (e.g., experiment versus analysing), or create new options.
This research strongly suggests that board recruitment processes need to go beyond the usual demographic and cultural dimensions of diversity to increase cognitive diversity. Lewis and Reynolds’ advice is that when facing a new, uncertain, complex situation, and everyone agrees on what to do, you should find someone who disagrees and cherish them. This need is likely to be particularly important in groups or organisations with a strong, homogenous culture (e.g., an engineering culture or an operational culture). In those kinds of situations, the natural cognitive diversity in groups is likely to be suppressed by various pressures to conform. We may not even be aware that it is happening.
Fabrice Houdart, ‘LGBTQ+ Inclusion in the Boardroom Is Simply Good Governance’, NACD BoardTalk, 17 June 2021
Alison Reynolds and David Lewis, Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitively Diverse, HBR, 30 March 2017