Diversity and inclusion have evolved beyond buzzwords to become embedded cultural practices in organisations worldwide. And now a new subset of diversity is gaining traction among forward-thinking employers – cognitive diversity
Over the past few decades there has been an increased focus on diversity and inclusion within organisations. The prevailing belief has remained consistent: that diversity of gender, ethnicity and age results in more creativity and better productivity.
“Today, nearly every medium to large organisation has dedicated D&I teams,” says Kim Boyd, national sales and marketing manager at Frontier Software. “But has there been a measurable impact on productivity and creativity after an increased focus on D&I activities?”
The results may surprise some, with leadership development and strategy execution specialists Alison Reynolds and David Lewis concluding “not really” after undertaking extensive research to answer this question.
With a pre-existing interest in the impact of diversity on organisations, Reynolds and Lewis devised and ran a strategic execution exercise with executive teams around the world. The task focused on managing new, complex and uncertain situations and required a group to plan and execute a strategy to achieve a specified outcome within a nominated time frame.
“Developing a culture of creativity and fresh thinking requires a recruitment process that makes cognitive diversity the focus of the exercise” - Kim Boyd, national sales and marketing manager, Frontier Software
Reynolds and Lewis gave groups of 16 people the same task. These groups were comprised of senior executives, GMs, MBA students and teenagers; the expectation was that creative problem-solving and sound strategy would result. Yet after running the experiment hundreds of times, the results showed that some groups fared extremely well, while others could not even complete the task.
So what factors were influencing the outcome beyond age, gender or ethnicity? The answer gave birth to a whole new area of D&I known as ‘cognitive diversity’.
Expanding to new ways of thinking
Challenging the notion that “great minds think alike”, the cognitive diversity theory suggests that great minds draw similar conclusions, but not necessarily the best ones.
“The concept of cognitive diversity, or CD for short, holds that groups comprising members with different thinking and problem-solving styles devise solutions superior to those derived by groups that are more homogenous in their thought processes,” says Boyd.
Defining CD is straightforward. ‘Cognitive’ is a reference to cognition, or the process by which knowledge and understanding is gained through thought, feelings and the senses. ‘Diversity’ refers to the differences, or a range of options, in a group. Hence, CD in a group refers to the collective differences in how we think, feel and act, and specifically how a group of people:
- make sense of information (how we absorb and process information)
- solve problems (how we gather evidence, generate options, make choices and manage risk)
- respond to the unfamiliar (how we move forward when faced with ambiguity)
In Australia, large corporations such as banks are actively reviewing their D&I programs to accommodate CD. Leading global organisations such as Virgin, Microsoft, Amazon and Google are embracing CD and including neurodiversity, a more targeted approach to recruiting employees. The shift in mindset is returning tangible benefits for organisations that are building a CD culture. Boyd highlights three key ways in which CD can benefit organisations:
1. Protection against groupthink
Diversity in approaches to analysis and problem-solving helps ensure better decisions and more successful completion of tasks. It also guards against the natural inclination of expert groups to have greater confidence in their solutions than is objectively correct. This is because homogenous groups cannot access the considered, creative information processes that cognitively diverse groups do.
2. Increases in the source and scale of insights
Studies on CD show that new insights and ideas emerge after approaching problems in new and creative ways. By using social media, crowdsourcing and internet connectivity, technical teams can access a diverse array of knowledge and thought.
3. Helps organisations identify the employees who can best tackle their most pressing problems
Once an organisation adopts a culture of CD, it can match people not only to roles but to teams. By understanding the ways their people think, feel and act when faced with a new problem or challenge, organisations can embed diversity and elicit superior problem-solving.
Increasing CD in your organisation
“The most obvious means by which organisations can achieve CD is via recruitment, but the process itself can serve as a barrier,” says Boyd. “Typically, organisations tend to recruit in their own image – this might be due to unconscious bias or due to a direct mandate from a hiring manager.”
Many organisations simply look to their successful existing teams to develop an ideal profile to hire against. Likewise, the traditional approach of wading through reams of résumés is not necessarily going to effectively convey CD either; for CD to be embedded into an organisation, new approaches must be adopted when recruiting.
“Developing a culture of creativity and fresh thinking requires a recruitment process that makes CD the focus of the exercise,” says Boyd. “Hiring for a diversity of backgrounds alone may not yield different perspectives, as physical diversity is not a sufficient indicator for diversity of thought.”
Millennials in particular are perceived as valuing individuality and will seek employment opportunities where they can stand out. By extension, they will seek workplaces that are cognitively diverse. The recruitment challenge to attract these and like-minded candidates is to promote your CD culture when sourcing talent. But that’s not where the journey ends either.
“Organisations need to find the mechanisms for assessing thinking styles and distributing them among teams,” says Boyd.
One way this might be achieved is via artificial intelligence. With the right algorithms, notes Boyd, AI could identify those people who bring different perspectives, paradigms and processes to an organisation. Similarly, AI could be used to name internal resources with the capacity to bring unique perspectives to existing challenges.
“By cataloguing the total experience and perspectives of candidates and team members alike, that understanding could be extrapolated across unique problems in the working environment,” says Boyd.
The addition of AI could prove a powerful means of removing human biases and selecting the best possible candidates for an organisation. There’s obviously a need for it: according to Roffrey Park’s The Management Agenda 2018, more than 37% of survey participants reported that they were not effective at recruiting for CD. In fact, only 14% of organisations actively seek new employees who are not a natural ‘fi t’ for the existing culture.
Ultimately, incorporating CD into recruitment practices requires an organisation to understand the differences in the people it considers as potential employees. It requires an understanding of the current landscape of teams and how they think, feel and act. More than ever, the task of recruiting for cognitive diversity needs to focus on what the applicant can bring to the organisation that it doesn’t already have. Once identified, the offering must be considered in light of the challenges the organisation faces today and into the future.
“Undoubtedly, recruitment practices must change if cognitive diversity is a strategic goal,” says Boyd. “And once they start employment with you, managers need to consider how they can encourage and incorporate the contribution of outliers to the collective team thought process.”