The Best…

By Guy Higgins

I recently read an article by Scott Page, an evangelist of cognitive diversity and professor of complex systems, political science and economics at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The article, Why Hiring The “Best” People Produces The Least Creative Results, briefly discusses the advantages of applied diversity when contrasted to meritocratic practices. Dr. Page points out that the truly “interesting” problems facing organizations and society today are complex problems (balancing your college-age daughter’s checkbook after it has remained unbalanced for two years while missing four of the monthly statements is hard – but it is neither complex nor terribly interesting). Complex problems are, fundamentally, multi-disciplinary and multi-dimensional, thus requiring diversity in the team developing the solution. He, therefore, goes on to discuss how, even given the need for a diverse team, members of the team cannot possess all of the knowledge of their discipline.

In reading the article, I agreed with Dr. Page, but felt that he omitted a crucial argument. It isn’t simply that no one can possess all the knowledge in his or her area of expertise, but rather that no one can know:

  • The right knowledge in their area of expertise.
  • All the other potentially contributory disciplines.
  • How their knowledge and expertise synergizes with contributory disciplines.
  • How different perspectives of the problem and potential solutions can contribute to a solution.

It’s impossible for anyone to know everything (or even to know what they don’t know) with reference to all of the bullets above – the depth and breadth of knowledge is too great, the potentially valuable intersections are too many, and much of the knowledge is simply not explicit – cannot be written down, but rather must be gained through experience.

If you cannot know what needs to be known, then you cannot develop selection criteria or choose a person or team members who possess that knowledge. So how can anyone create a high performing team? Good question! I will boldly assert that you need to take the following steps, at a minimum:

  • Recognize that you will likely want your team, or at least the team members, to eventually work on problems other than the one that is biting your leg right now, and therefore, you will choose people with broader knowledge, experience and skills than are required for the immediate problem.
  • Appreciate that inexperienced people often have insights unconstrained by previous successes and failures. The vast majority of Noble prizes in the hard sciences are awarded to people who did their work while they were young and had no vested interest in “the standard theory.”
  • Choose most of the team from people who have demonstrated track records – people who are smart, who have successes and failures under their belts, and who have displayed an ability to work with people outside of their area of expertise (say, having a high energy physicist work with a cultural anthropologist).
  • Make sure that everyone on the team understands and appreciates cognitive diversity and knows how to make it work.
  • Try to make sure that you have optimists and pessimists and introverts and extroverts in the mix (temperamental cognitive diversity).

Is all of that going to be easy? Nope! It’s going to be really hard because you can’t measure all of that stuff with a ruler or a scale. It takes seriously hard thinking and interviewing people in a setting that is not constrained by some legalistic “everyone-must-have-the-same-interview-questions” nonsense. The world is getting more complex, the problems are becoming wicked hard, and it’s getting more and more difficult to find valuable solutions (a valuable solution, in my mind, is one that actually solves the problem, is affordable, and does not require continual monitoring/enforcement).


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