I hate to admit this, but perhaps Dominic Cummings has a point. Teams with diversity in perspective and experience typically develop better solutions to problems than homogeneous teams of high achievers.
Our traditional HR recruitment process focuses on identifying the “best candidate” for the role. We start with the vacancy being identified and advertising the position. Then we shortlist the candidates for interview and then we make the appointment.
Central to this is the Job Description. It defines the job functions and lists the essential criteria the position requires the post-holder to possess. The essential criteria are used to assess candidates. What’s usually missing though from this is an explicit recognition of the needs of the team – the situational context.
A Winning Team
So now imagine you are the manager of the British Olympic Athletics team. One of your roles is to choose the four members of the 4 x 100 metres Men’s Relay Team. Your objective is to win the gold medal in 2020.
You might have a mental image of who you want it your team? Your athlete might look like Usain Bolt, if only he were British. He is the fastest man in the world and you definitely want him in the team. In fact, if you could clone him, you might four Usain Bolt athletes in your team.
Your team might look the same. They may have had four identical educational backgrounds. They may have had the same life experiences and they may have the same outlook on life. And none of this matters – this team would deliver the gold medal for you.
Work isn’t Simple
This approach works well for highly skilled but relatively simple tasks where diversity doesn’t matter. However the world of work isn’t often ike that. According to the World Economic Forum the top three workforce skills needed for 2020 include complex problem-solving, creativity and critical thinking. The central premise of Matthew Syed’s most recent book “Rebel Ideas” is that great teams need cognitive diversity.
Syed uses a number of case studies to develop his argument. One of the most striking is his description of the CIA’s inability to realise the threat Osama Bin Laden posed to America in the lead up to 9/11. The CIA analysts were highly intelligent white protestant males from Ivy League Universities who were unable to spot the real and present danger to the US from Afghanistan due to their collective blind-spots.
The CIA’s collective intelligence of this high achieving group of analysts was clustered in a narrow area. This meant they were not able to recognize and respond to the patterns of behaviour that others may have seen. A team of analysts with a more diverse range of experiences would have provided a much wider collective intelligence. A more diverse team would have helped the CIA in its problem-solving activity. The key point is that whilst the CIA analysts were individually brilliant, collectively as team they were blind to some signs. This limited collective intelligence lead to a major intelligence oversight.
The benefits of diversity are even more profound for creativity challenges. Imagine you are putting together a group of 10 people from your organisation to come up with creative ideas. But this group is not particularly diverse in background and experience and whilst individually they each come up with 10 ideas, it is possible that they are ten same ideas.
But if you had created a diverse team again and they each come up with 10 ideas it is more likely that the ideas would be different across the group and so you would have 100 ideas in total. Think about that for a second. These are two teams, composed of individuals who are equally talented, but the cognitively diverse team comes up with almost 1,000% improvement in productivity.
A Form of Group Think
What we are seeing is variation and more subtle version of group think. As General MacArthur said “When everyone is thinking the same thing, somebody isn’t thinking.” So who’s thinking in your organization? How diverse are your teams?
The Role of Cognitive Biases
So why do we recruit the way we do? Part of it is historical, it’s the way we have always done it. But also we have an unconscious bias towards people who are like us. We like to be around people who are like us and think like us. When people are mirroring back our own perspectives, our own beliefs, to a certain extent our own prejudices, it makes us feel comfortable. It makes us feel smarter when people are telling us things we already know. So we tend to instinctively create human groups that are not cognitively diverse.
A Cognitively Diverse Future
So we need to do things differently. We need to rethink how we recruit and the first step is to think about how cognitively diverse our teams and organisations are from the outset. We start framing the recruiting process and the job description by asking “What do we need to add to our organization to make us more cognitively diverse?” Put that at the heart of the Job Description. When we are interviewing we have to aware of our biases and start assessing candidates on key criteria which reflect the context of the role. If we want to develop the team’s problem solving, critical thinking and creativity we have to focus on growing the collective intelligence of our teams.
This switch in emphasis not only delivers corporate diversity and inclusion policies but also improves the bottom line. Two powerful reasons for why focusing on cognitive diversity makes perfect sense for business. And yes Dominic, government too.