Matthew Syed is the author of “Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking”. A plea for diversity. Before that, he wrote “Black Box Thinking“. Which is a cracker of a book. A plea for learning from failure.
A plea for diversity
The book is a plea for trust, diversity and connectivity. Homogeneity is not a good thing. The danger with homogenous groups is that they are more likely to form judgements that combine excessive confidence with grave error. If we are intent upon answering our most serious questions, from climate change to poverty, and curing diseases to designing new products, we need to work with people who think differently, not just accurately.
Homophily is pervasive. Our social networks are full of people with similar experiences, views and beliefs. Birds of a feather flock together. We tend to bask in the warm glow of homophily. Nicely agreeing, mirroring, parroting, corroborating, confirming, reflecting together. Entrenching in each other’s blind spots. That is where fads, stock-market bubbles and other bandwagon effects come from.
It is a lesson from nature. Organisations such as the CIA have learned that at their peril with 911. That is what happened on de disastrous expedition on Mount Everest. It occurs at aeroplane crashes. You need diversity. Diversity not only based on demographics but on cognitive diversity. The need for differences in perspective, insights, experiences and thinking styles.
More important now
Cognitive diversity was not so important a few hundred years ago, because the problems we faced tended to be linear, or simple, or separable, or all three. The critical point is that solutions to complex problems typically rely on multiple layers of insight and therefore require multiple points of view. The more diverse the perspectives, the more extensive the range of potentially viable solutions a collection of problem solvers can find. We need to address cognitive diversity before tackling our toughest challenges. It is only then that team deliberation can lead not to mirroring, but to enlightenment.
Not an option
Diversity is not just about getting answers from focus groups or market research. It is about the questions that are asked in the first place, the data that is used as the basis for deliberation and the assumptions that permeate the problematisation of any issue. Diversity isn’t some optional add-on. It isn’t the icing on the cake. Instead, it is the basic ingredient of collective intelligence.
Here are some numbers to support diversity:
- A study by Professor Chad Sparber, an American economist, found that an increase in racial diversity of one standard deviation increased productivity by more than 25 per cent in legal services, health services and finance.
- Germany and the United Kingdom found that return on equity was 66 per cent higher for firms with executive teams in the top quartile for gender and ethnic diversity than for those in the bottom quartile. For the United States, the return on equity was 100 per cent higher.
- A diverse group of six forecasters, while individually less impressive, would be 15 per cent more accurate.
- A study by the Rotterdam School of Management analysed more than three hundred real-world projects dating back to 1972 and found that projects led by junior managers were more likely to succeed than those with a senior person in charge.
- 43% of companies in the Fortune 500 were founded or co-founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants, rising to 57% in the top thirty-five companies.
- Those who studied abroad had ideas that were rated 17 per cent higher than those who had not.
- People who use Firefox or Chrome stayed in their jobs 15 per cent longer than those who used Safari or Internet Explorer.
- Many companies hire all these great college kids with all sorts of backgrounds; all kinds of ideas brimming in their heads – only to watch them gradually remoulded to ‘fit’ the culture of the organisation.
- At most meetings, communication is dysfunctional. Many people are silent. Status rigs the discourse. People don’t say what they think but what they think the leader wants to hear. And they fail to share crucial information because they don’t realise that other people lack
- Dominant leaders are, by definition, punitive. That is how they win and sustain power.
- When faced by uncertainty, we often attempt to regain control by putting our faith in a dominant figurehead who can restore order.
- When a company faces external threats or economic uncertainty, its shareholders are significantly more likely to appoint a dominant leader.
Would it not be nice if
- People found themselves in positions of leadership, then, not by threatening or intimidating subordinates, but by gaining their respect.
- We have leaders, formal or informal, who did not demand respect from subordinates, but who earned it; whose status was not signalled by aggression, but wisdom; whose actions did not tend to intimidate, but to liberate.
- We have leaders that use self-deprecation as a rhetorical device to signal a different dynamic. They explain their ideas thoroughly because they know that colleagues who understand and endorse them are more likely to execute them with judgement and flexibility. They listen to those around them because they recognise that they are not too smart to learn from others.
One of the most celebrated is the ‘golden silence’ of Amazon. For more than a decade, meetings at the tech giant have started not with a PowerPoint presentation or banter, but total silence. For thirty minutes, the team read a six-page memo that summarises, in narrative form, the main agenda item. The reason writing a “good” . . . memo is harder than “writing” a 20-page PowerPoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and a better understanding of what’s more important than what. And when the discussion starts, the most senior person speaks last, another technique that protects the diversity of thought.
Another technique is brainwriting. Like brainstorming, this is a way of generating creative ideas, but instead of stating the ideas out loud, team members are asked to write them down on cards, which are then posted on a wall for the rest of the group to vote on. When brainwriting is put head to head with brainstorming, it generates twice the volume of ideas, and also produces higher quality ideas when rated by independent assessors. At another company, every person invited to a meeting is asked to submit a one-pager on their views. That is the price of attendance. These one-pagers are then shuffled, handed around the table, and read out in random order.
Bridgewater operates according to more than two hundred behavioural ‘principles’, but the key theme can be summarised in one sentence: the expression of rebel ideas. Read “Principles”. We need both conceptual depth and conceptual distance. We need to be insiders and outsiders, conceptual natives and recombinant immigrants. We need to be able to understand the status quo, but also to question it. We need to be strategically rebellious. Read “Rebel talent“.
Diversity drives innovation
In 2010, Ian Morris, a British archaeologist and historian, completed a seminal study into the history of innovation. What he found was that many of the most successful corporations in the United States, which were in the perfect position to benefit from new technology development, did nothing of the kind. This is a pattern that repeats endlessly. Organisations in the perfect position to win instead manage, against all the odds, to lose. Because they were too stuck in their monoculture and mono perspective. It is because incumbents are so proficient, knowledgeable and caught up in the status quo that they are unable to see what’s coming, and the unrealised potential and likely evolution of the new technology.
They did allow for idea sex. Or let’s call it recombinant innovation. You take two ideas, from different fields, previously unrelated, and fuse them together. Recombinant innovation is rather more like sexual reproduction, genes from two distinct organisms joining together. Sex is what makes biological evolution cumulative because it brings together the genes of different individuals. A mutation that occurs in one creature can, therefore, join forces with a mutation that occurs in another.
The balance between incremental and recombinant innovation has started to tilt dramatically. Recombination has become the dominant force of change, not just in science, but in industry, technology and beyond. Each development becomes a building block for future innovations. Building blocks don’t ever get used up. They increase the opportunities for future recombinations.
Immigrants make disproportionate contributions to technology, to patent production and to academic science. Different studies have shown that immigrants are twice as likely to become entrepreneurs. Data from the 2012 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor shows that the vast majority of the sixty-nine countries surveyed reported higher entrepreneurial activity among immigrants than among natives, especially in high-growth ventures. When they see the business ideas in a new country or a particular technology, they do not see something immutable. Irrevocable. Set in stone. They see something that could potentially be changed. Reformed. Amended, adapted, or subject to recombination. Let us call this the outsider mindset.
Innovation is not just about individuals; it is also about connections. Intellectual creativity is concentrated in chains of personal contacts, passing emotional energy and cultural capital from generation to generation. It is part of the collective brain. If you want to have cool technology, it is better to be social than smart.
Trust fuels the interconnections and cross-fertilisation between disciplines. However, knowledge clusters, echo chambers and information bubbles do the opposite. The consequences of homogeneity. Trust and distrust as potential weapons. Read “Likewar”
The book talks about averages and standardisation. It turns out that focusing on averages can be misleading. We have standardised education, standardised working arrangements, standardised policies, standardised medicine, even standardised psychological theories. For example, standardised dietary guidelines might seem rigorous, but they overlook a crucial variable: the diversity of people. Because of the microbiome. All the bacteria we host in our gastrointestinal systems. There are around forty trillion cells and up to a thousand different microbial species in our bodies. The same goes for your brain. A 100 trillion synapses. All wired differently based on your own experiences. That is why there are extensive differences in people’s brains with regard to verbal memory, face perception and mental imagery to procedural learning and emotion.
Diverse individuals versus clones
Sometimes using averages makes sense. All too often, however, scientists use averages while scarcely conscious of doing so. It is one step away from treating people not as diverse individuals, but as clones. Diversity is part and parcel of humanity. It is time to take it seriously.