Collaboration

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?

In numerous previous posts, I’ve written about the power of cognitive diversity. So letʻs take a look at Doctors Kahneman and Tversky:

  • Both men were born in what is, today, Israel, but what, at the times of their births, was Palestine
  • Both men were educated at the Hebrew University and in the U.S. (University of Michigan and UC Berkley)
  • Both men were psychologists, by education, and behavioral economists by practice
  • Not to belabor the point, but both were men
  • Only three years separated them in age
  • Both men served in the Israeli Defense Force

Hmm, not a lot of apparent diversity there…

But wait … (if you call now, we’ll double the offer):

  • Daniel Kahneman was born into a Jewish family from Lithuanian and grew up in Paris, living through the Nazi occupation of France
  • Amos Tversky was born into and grew up in a Jewish family living in British Palestine
  • Kahneman is a pessimist while Tversky was an inveterate optimist

These are significant differences – differences that contributed to Kahneman and Tversky having culturally different perspectives, using different problem solving approaches and making different predictions – the three components (according to Scott Page of the University of Michigan) of cognitive diversity. So, it seems that Doctors Kahneman and Tversky did bring cognitive diversity to their efforts. So what allowed them to so effectively work together as opposed to butting heads (as in the case of Doctors Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann who famously feuded at the California Institute of technology)?

Doctor Kahneman has observed that he (and there is no one to speak for Doctor Tversky) has “no sunk costs.” He is willing to abandon an idea that he has invested heavily in if he “can see a better idea.” He thinks that a reluctance or even failure to abandon sunk costs is a major failing of researchers. I’ll boldly assert that it is also a failure common to humanity and one that is extremely difficult to overcome, but it was a major factor is his ability to collaborate with Doctor Tversky.

Kahneman and Tversky also engaged in long, and sometimes, unfocused discussions. For the purpose of clarity, I will define a discussion as:

  • An exchange of verbal or written information
  • All participants listen or read the exchange with the intent to understand (they are not simply waiting for “the other idiot to stop talking so that they can explain why the idiot is wrong and they are right.”)
  • Q&A to enhance clarity and understanding
  • A willingness by all participants to accept ideas from the other participants

These discussions enabled the joint exploration of ideas and facilitated a process whereby both men were able to use the other’s ideas to “mutate” their own ideas. This is, I think, the key to both successful collaboration and to leveraging the power of cognitive diversity.

In the same interview, Doctor Kahneman, says that he is pessimistic about the ability of individuals to change their personal thinking and decision approaches, but that he is more positive about the potential for groups to modify and improve their joint thinking and deciding. Why? Groups can leverage cognitive diversity, but individuals cannot. I will boldly assert that this is the secret sauce – the stuff that allowed Doctors Kahneman and Tversky to achieve results that were beyond the reach of either of them separately.

As I have said, before, achieving this leveraging of cognitive diversity is very hard, and Doctor Kahneman observed in the interview that it is hard because, “Quite often the actions of the environment are destructive to collaborations. The urge is to allocate credit and to single out people and not treat collaborations as units.” As one of my bosses in the Navy observed, “It’s amazing what can get done when it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.”

Collaboration is about enabling cognitive diversity and not worrying about who gets the credit.

Thoughts?

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