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.


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