Another Slant on Cognitive Diversity

By Guy Higgins

I recently read an article by Nate Silver, a well regarded political analyst. The topic of the article is why journalists were so badly in error in predicting the results of the recent presidential election. I strongly urge the Noble Readers to read the article – not for any insight into why the mainstream media got the election wrong, but rather for the lessons that apply to any organization, and, particularly, its leaders.

Mr. Silver cited James Surowiecki, the author of the book, The Wisdom of Crowds. He said that Surowiecki argues that crowds usually make good predictions when they satisfy these four conditions:

  1. Diversity of opinion. Each person should have private information, even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.
  2. Independence. People’s opinions are not determined by the opinions of those around them.
  3. Decentralization. People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.
  4. Aggregation. Some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a collective decision.

Mr. Silver goes on to analyze how well the mainstream media satisfy those four conditions. I think that leaders would do well to analyze how well their decision makers satisfy those four conditions. Let’s take a look:

  1. Diversity of opinion – This is about cognitive diversity. Mr. Silver includes in his definition the importance of “private information.” Private information is information that none of the other members of the team have, but I would extend this to include all the dimensions of cognitive diversity – perspective, problem solving toolkits and prediction making. Many teams are not diverse, and, in fact, often actively pursue team coherence, selecting new members for their perceived “fit” with the team. If everyone thinks the same way and the same things, you only need one of them.
  2. Independence – This is related to both diversity of opinion and to the way that the team leader solicits ideas and solutions. It means that the leader can’t allow the raging extroverts to dominate a meeting with asides or even eye rolls. When soliciting ideas and opinions, everyone must participate and no one other than the person speaking can comment. I suspect that most meetings include a great deal of comment and discussion before all the ideas are out on the table – not so good.
  3. Decentralization – This is representation from all the stakeholder groups. Just like a football team can’t be comprised only of offensive tackles, a good organizational team needs to include representation from throughout the organization. For the really mature Noble Readers, this is part of what the old Integrated Project Team was supposed to do – before the idea degenerated into a fad within which any two people randomly meeting in the hallway became an IPT.
  4. Aggregation – This is really where the leader steps to the fore. The leader needs to use the solicited ideas, solutions, and approaches as a starting point to create a constructive discussion that builds from the ideas. Builds – not compromises or develops a consensus. Solomon’s approach to resolving the issue of the two mothers claiming one baby worked well when the solution had to be binary, but cutting ideas in half to achieve consensus or “splitting the difference” never gets to the best solution.

I suspect that when leaders analyze their teams in light of these conditions, they will find that they have created decision-making bodies (and even operating teams) that are suboptimal. Fixing that kind of a problem is not going to be either simple or quick, but the more quickly it is fixed, the faster performance will improve. One of the biggest issues the leader will have is ensuring that no one feels that their “ox was gored.” Just because one person’s idea was more heavily adopted and used does not mean that the ideas put forth by other members of the team were not equally valuable.


The Right Way…

By Guy Higgins

Leaders have to get things done. It is very difficult to do that when the organization becomes too big. Okay, how big is too big, and what does the leader do about it? “Too big” isn’t very big at all in modern terms. I think that “too big” is any organization larger than Dunbar’s Number. (largest number of people that can maintain a solid relationship with one another). Dunbar’s Number lies somewhere between 100 and 250 – at least I haven’t seen any assertions outside that range. So, an organization larger than about 100 people starts to get too big for a leader to “run” by herself. Being smart, she starts to organize and create parts of the organization small enough to be run by one person. As the organization grows, those smaller parts begin to need even smaller parts. Pretty soon, the Leader (the top of the hierarchy) sees inefficiency throughout her organization because there are borders or boundaries between all the small and smaller parts of the organization. These boundaries hinder the free flow of information and cooperation between the organizational parts. I’ll use a term from electrical engineering for that hindrance – I’ll call it impedance. The Leader understands this and calls the leaders who work for her together and tasks them to develop ways to work together and eliminate this impedance. These leaders, being smart people too, develop some standard ways of working together – within and across organizational boundaries. They create processes and workflows. The Leader looks out and sees that this is good. Continue reading

Just a detail …

By Guy Higgins

I recently read a post by Dr. Bob Chandler about an airline crash that killed 91 people in South America. This article will “pile on” Dr. Chandler’s article to place emphasis on the importance of plans and checklists.

The aviation community in general, and the airplane pilots of the crashed airliner in particular, were guilty of a common human failing – not paying attention to the details. They took off without enough fuel to travel to their destination. For you non-aviators out there, a pilot ALWAYS makes sure that the aircraft has at least the minimum fuel required. Specifically, that is the fuel needed under forecast weather conditions to arrive at your destination – plus the fuel needed to conduct the expected approach and landing – plus the fuel needed to fly to an alternative destination (if forecast weather at your destination is such that you must have an alternate destination) – plus the fuel required for an extra ten minutes of flight. The pilots took off without even having the fuel needed to fly to their destination. Continue reading

The Internet of Things – Rose Isn’t the Only Color the Glasses Come In

By Guy Higgins

Recently, my reading has included Chaos, Making a New Science, a book by James Gleick, a Forbes article, A Smart Home is Where the Bot Is, and an Aviation Week article, Why Are Airlines Slow to Enter the Digital Age? At the same time, I “enjoyed” a couple of encounters with the digital world. In the oft-quoted words of Inigo Montoya, “Let me ‘splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.” Continue reading

Disruption … Cognitive Diversity – What’s in the Middle?

By Guy Higgins

My noble editor sent me a link to an article, How To Identify The Most Dangerous Person In Your Company, recently. It’s a pretty good article and reminiscent of Robert Sutton’s book, The No Asshole Rule. The author discusses disruptive people – disruptive people are important today because they tend to introduce new ideas and changes. These are critical to organizations striving to stay relevant in a rapidly shifting world (you know, shift happens). The problem is that some people are disruptive and help the organization keep up with “the times,” but others are disruptive simply because they are jerks (Doctor Sutton’s “assholes”). Of course some people are both – jerks and sources of new ideas.

What is the relationship among people with these kinds of characteristics? Let’s take a look: Continue reading

Change, Learning and Leadership

By Guy Higgins,

I was reading an article recently, Principles for an Age of Acceleration. The basic premise of the article was that everything is changing so fast that we can’t keep up with it. That change is driven by the pace of advances in technology – all kinds of technology, not just information technology. Driven by, but not isolated to, technological change. Technological change is enabling or forcing changes in society, health, governance, and ethics (and, maybe, everything else). I was disturbed by the article. Will artificial intelligence create massive unemployment? Will we find ourselves in an ethical swamp as we use genetic manipulation to grow replacement organs in pigs (and yes, that’s something being pursued today)? What will society look like when humans are no longer a necessary part of the economy? Continue reading

Employee Turnover

By Guy Higgins

I watched the American and National Football Conference Championship games this year. After one game, the announcers observed that both the losing and winning teams would make some changes before next season. Every year NFL teams draft around a dozen players from outside the NFL and may pick up one or two free agents. The teams are prepared to deal with the new arrivals. Interestingly, some teams “hire” players cut from other teams and turn them into good or even excellent players. Continue reading

Collaboration – Wither Leadership?

By Guy Higgins

Last week, I waxed eloquent (personal opinion) about collaboration. One major point I raised and emphasized at the end of the post was the importance of not allocating credit to individuals – and how darned contrary that is to our nature. We want to know “who” on the team, not just “the team.”

What does that mean for leaders and leadership? Do leaders get allocated to the scrap heap of history? Of course not – they’re the ones who get to do all the #%*&% hard stuff. What is that hard stuff? Let’s take a look. Continue reading


By Guy Higgins

Recently, I read a transcript of an excerpt from an interview with Daniel Kahneman. Daniel Kahneman is a behavioral psychologist and Nobel Laureate in economics. The work for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize was performed over decades, and much of that work was done in collaboration with Amos Tversky. Doctor Tversky died in June 1996 and was ineligible for the Nobel, but Doctor Kahneman maintains that neither of them could have accomplished the work alone.

Both men were, undoubtedly, very smart. Yet, while either of them could wax eloquent at length about their joint work, neither of them thought they could have done it alone. Why? What was the secret sauce that enabled their joint work to be greater than the sum of its separate contributors? Continue reading

Being Prepared – Who? What? When?

By Guy Higgins

On January 6th of this new year, Colorado was digging out from a winter storm that dropped up to a foot of snow in some places while dropping temperatures to -30oF in other locations. At the same time, Atlanta, GA was anxiously anticipating a different winter storm – one delivering temperatures just below freezing and mixtures of rain, freezing rain, sleet and snow. Continue reading