A report released in January 2021 by the Commercial Real Estate investment firm, Graceada Partners, observes that “Diversity in employment—diversity in people, in locations, in backgrounds, etc.—leads to original ideas and approaches and an environment for innovation.” Original ideas and approaches are essential to making our way in our work worlds. In order to access original thinking we need diversity of thought from those with differences. Differences in personality and backgrounds.
It begins with where we started in last week’s note by understanding who we are. Then we learn to appreciate that others are different from us. Awareness of our deep down desire to seek out sameness is the cue to changing our approach. Only then can we work to proactively pursue differences on our teams. Our goal is to avoid comfort and make choices that will make our businesses better. In order to do this we need to proactively seek out those with personalities and experiences that are different from ours. Our goal is to embrace Matthew McConaughey’s suggestion, “We are not here to celebrate our sameness, we are here to salute our distinctions.”
If we revisit the contributions of Thomas Erikson author of Surrounded by Idiots introduced in our last article, we can consider, “The best way to put a group of people together is by mixing different types of people. This is the only way to achieve decent dynamics in any group.” As obvious as this may seem, it’s counter to the approach most of us use. When given the chance to form groups, we seek those with whom we’re comfortable. This has been our default direction since our early school days. Picking teams at recess was first and foremost about social status. We want to pick those we like and we want to be picked by those we like. Maybe teachers and course facilitators do know something about us when they try to sort us into groups? Whether selecting by random or other criteria good instructors nudge us out of our comfort zones by forcing us to interact with those we wouldn’t naturally select on our own. Sure, this is done to help us meet new people and improve our social skills. However, perhaps the objective is to introduce us to new ideas, perspectives, and personalities? General Patton reminds us to consider, “if everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”
Scott Page is a professor at the University of Michigan. A professor of economics and political science, Page has turned his focus to the value of diversity. He has been playing this game for the better part of two decades. It has been his core focus for far longer than the current popular trend. When introducing the value of diversity to an audience Professor Page grabs the attention of his listeners leading with what diversity isn’t. It’s not what we’ve been told. It’s not about physical characteristics. It’s not about trying to build a team of different shapes, sizes, colors, and genders. It’s not about pretending and posturing by detailing diversity as an aspirational value on a mission statement. Instead, diversity is a differentiating characteristic for a group that leads to a competitive advantage. There’s a performance driver behind it. Page encourages teams to pursue it not because they are being told to, not because it’s popular, but because it is beneficial.
Page presents his perspective through his 2017 book, The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy. In it Page parses diversity into two broad categories. There’s the identity component that’s all the rage. Identity is about outer presentation. It includes things like how we look, gender, race, age. The other component of diversity which is where the secret sauce sits is cognitive diversity. It includes our individual view of the world, our experiences, beliefs, mental models, knowledge, experience, and heuristics (mental shortcuts) we’ve developed over our lifetimes. Identity and cognitive components may be related but are separate. In terms of a Venn diagram, the overlap between our identities and cognitive diversity is very little.
Enhancing the diversity of thinking within a group is where magic materializes. Can you think of any orchestras that draw paying crowds consisting of musicians playing a single instrument? The diversity of sound offered by groups of instruments is what makes a symphony appealing. A metaphor to consider when forming a group is that of a toolbox.
The most useful toolbox is the one with the greatest variety of tools. It is not the one with an assortment of solely flathead screwdrivers. It’s not even the one with the best variety of screwdrivers. The most useful toolbox for handling the widest variety of handyman projects is the one with the widest variety of tools. It is one that contains hammers, adjustable wrenches of different sizes. Flathead screwdrivers, Robertson screwdrivers, Phillips screwdrivers, and Torx drivers each with different size shafts and heads. Needle nose pliers, vice grips, wire snips, and the problem solver of all problem solvers the rubber mallet. Each tool has its use and the combination of different tools makes the toolkit adaptable in managing any number of problems.
Some of us think meritocracy matters. If we’re in this group we crave competence. We want to associate with and hire the best for the job. We think we have objective standards which define how performance will be delivered and we believe we have the ability to evaluate others for their ability to meet these standards. Subscribers to this school of thought select based on distinction in specific skills. The 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympic Games included NBA players on national teams for the first time. The US was considered to be the runaway favorite for the tournament. The team consisted of veterans and younger players which blended to dominate the tournament. The US Men’s Basketball team in 1992 were the original source for the term dream team. Their performance continues to be the argument in favor of all star picks and national team selections at various levels. Compile a team of those individual performers that are the best at their role in order to produce the best team.
Nonetheless, this approach has produced a bunch of underperforming teams. Consider some of the dream teams that got creamed. For example during the 1998 Winter Olympic Games NHL players were allowed to participate for their national teams for the first time. This led to much speculation, certainly within Canada, that Canadians would be fielding a team of not just superstars but legends. Even with a team stacked with paper princes, Canada woefully underperformed. Canada’s hockey “disaster” was a national embarrassment.
Canada’s experience echoes what is known as the meritocratic fallacy. It is an incorrect belief that the best groups consist of picking individuals which score best for their role. We too often confuse the best individuals with the best teams. Even where we’re able to identify with some confidence the qualities that can be measured to reflect the best at a given skillset, creating a group with several of these characters isn’t an assured approach to creating a good group. A group of great individuals does not a team make. The team benefits from those with varying skillsets and approaches. Desirable differences highlight the importance of striving to select based on team contribution instead of individual talent.
Our direction may be dependent on the role we’re trying to fill. Tasks where the output generated must be uniform depend less on diversity and more on task specific meritocracy. Repetitive tasks which have a strictly defined output depend on efficiency. Implementing a well defined and refined workflow is the heart of this type of work. Diversity is less essential in these contexts. If we are responsible only for ensuring that millions of screws are inserted properly all possessing the same head, then our first toolbox is the one for which we should reach.Having a tool box full of a variety of tools is less helpful under these circumstances. We need operators and tools with the single skill required for our task. Those that can move that single screwdriver correctly and quickly are our desired candidates. If we can train people to perform this task well, our productivity will go up. Our team is likely little more than the sum of its parts. These types of tasks are known as algorithmic. Rules can be created which reliably produce the result over and over. No, diversity isn’t needed here. In fact, more and more, people aren’t even needed. If your work day consists of algorithmic tasks, you’re at risk of being run over by a machine.
However, where any kind of problem solving is involved, where creative solutions may be desired and interaction will involve people of varied backgrounds then our group will benefit from diversity. We’re not looking for cookie cut inserts to plug and play. We sense there’s something missing from an approach which ruthlessly culls for competence. Maybe there’s a gap on our team? We believe in the idea that diversity is a strength. Where we’re looking for depth and breadth of possible solutions, multipurpose tools are our target. We’re searching for those with a range of skills across fields coupled with those from varied backgrounds in this environment. Most of us are no longer working on an assembly line. Our roles involve some kind of problem solving or thinking. We are fully embedded and functioning within the knowledge economy. More than two thirds of job creation in recent years revolves around these kinds of tasks. These types of tasks are known as heuristic and reflect that no repeatable recipe can be universally applied to completing them. This is where we’re spending our time and where our futures lie. As such, our contributions if left to just the thoughts with which we’re capable of individually will be less than where our disparate approaches can be curated and adapted into the best solution to a situation. If we select a team based on having the highest available IQs, for example, we won’t necessarily be configuring the best team of problem solvers.
Page is a hardnosed mathematician. He’s not advocating diversity in order to feel good. He is advocating for it as a process that will enhance performance. He draws from another objective field for support. Programmers write code which directs computers to perform certain functions. A technique used in writing algorithms is know as bagging. Through bagging programmers intentionally provide varied data sets to a machine to sort through. A computer’s ability to perform a classification task is enhanced where the machine has been exposed to a wider variety of data. Professor Page is suggesting it is this type of benefit that a diverse group offers. A wider range of options are able to be generated, sifted through, then selected from in order to move in a desired direction.
Page helps us see that if we are committed to an end goal of improved performance it’s not a raw pursuit of meritocracy but instead a structured approach to diversity that will succeed for most businesses which depend on group contributions as participants in the knowledge economy. Curating a group of collaborators that are polymaths is more likely to achieve innovative ideas. Professor Page encourages us to avoid targeting our selection efforts around characteristics deemed as best and associated with individuals. Instead, Page suggests starting with a different question. He trades the quest of finding the best person for starting with what’s the purpose of our group? What different perspectives, educational background, and thinking tools should we have in it?
The starting point is defining what the group’s goal is as opposed to what an individual’s role is. We can use tools like Eriksson’s to try to populate our teams with different “colors” of personality. The internet and remote work is allowing businesses the freedom to build collaborative teams with people from all corners of the world. The talent pool and perspective of those from widely different regions offers greater diversity than picking a team with those having the same degree from the same school. We’re looking for those that are less one-dimensional and more multi-dimensional. Generalists favored over specialists. David Epstein in his book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, help us see that those often overlooked are able to see insights that inspire innovation. The typical resume winners are those with steady progress in a particular field. Their education and work experience align to put them in a position as experts. All filters funnel these folk to the front of the line. The reality of today’s business environment is that teams of these like-minded and like-experienced individuals will be beat out by a disparate group.
If you have ever enjoyed the privilege of watching a group of Olympians break bread together in the athlete’s village, you have experienced what desired diversity is all about. Athletes from each corner of the globe sharing little in common outside of a passion for excellence within their sport. They differ in age, culture, gender, race, nationality, financial background, education, virtually everything. Their resources, their training, the political systems of their countries differ. The differences are far greater than their similarities. In many cases they don’t even share the ability to communicate in a common language. Yet, all of these differences crumble to the curb as their common curiosity for their sport coupled with an insatiable desire for improvement conspire to unite them. These seeming small similarities overcome any difference as athletes find a way to share information, collaborate, and move themselves and each other forward.
There is no single, perfect approach to identifying the correct calculation of diversity. Additionally, pursuing this path isn’t easy. It’s both more work and emotionally difficult to bring together those that wouldn’t typically fit the mold. If in doubt of the way forward, consider doing the opposite of the typical. Instead of looking for specific job skills and like minded people, try to develop recruiting processes that allow you to consider those that are outside of the typical candidate pool. In today’s world, we don’t want our team to consist of a bunch of Truffle Hounds. These dogs were bred for a very specific purpose which makes them largely useless for anything other than that purpose. We’re looking for not necessarily mutts, but those with varied backgrounds. Do their experiences and education span several fields? Have they seen different cultures and come from disparate geographies? If we’re screening for a distinctive element, it’s curiosity. Are they interested in exploring ideas? Are they well read across disciplines?
We want to seek diversity in our group not to check off a box and pat ourselves on the back. Nor is it a policy to pursue because we’re scared of being sued. No, we want diversity precisely because it will afford us the best opportunity at delivering performance. Page’s perspective is supported by a number of research papers. A notable study undertaken by a group of academics reviewed over twenty million papers and five million patents. Their findings suggest that those papers which were more valuable in terms of publication and citations as well as the economic value of patents were markedly higher where the group producing the product consisted of those with varied backgrounds. The researchers concluded that building groups around similarity instead of differences was like choosing to strive for B’s instead of A’s. Perhaps, it’s true, variety may be the spice of life.