More on that Cognitively Diverse “Elephant”

By Guy Higgins

Last week, I wrote (yet again – seems to be a favorite subject) about cognitive diversity and the potential to improve performance by putting it to work. This week, I’m going to “talk” about where we can actually leverage cognitive diversity and how we might do that.

First, I want to do a bit of exploring – where might cognitive diversity actually deliver value? As I thought about trying to discuss the subject of where cognitive diversity can contribute to improved performance, I discovered that that is a harder question than I initially thought it would be. Caveat – the following thoughts are (pretty much) all my own.

Obviously, to me, cognitive diversity is not a potential performance enhancer in individual endeavors. I’m pretty sure that other peoples’ thoughts or ideas would not have made Michelangelo’s David a better sculpture. Similarly, I don’t think that radioing an idea to a jockey in the middle of the Belmont Stakes would help much. I think that’s true even though both of those activities involve some significant level of cognitive effort. That said, cognitive diversity isn’t going to help any purely physical activity, say manually digging a ditch (the actual use of a shovel to loosen dirt from and move it out of the ditch). But, it occurred to me that the approach or technique of digging a ditch (or throwing a football) might benefit from some cognitive diversity – that’s why there are quarterback coaches and why those coaches sometimes bring in other experts, say in kinematics or kinesiology.

Also obviously, solving problems is an area in which cognitive diversity could bring major benefits. Again, as I started to think about that, I found myself facing many different problem-solving situations in which I don’t see a role for cognitive diversity – say calculating the area of a room in preparation for installing new carpeting or solving for the relativistic adjustments needed by the GPS system so that it actually works. (I know, however, that these calculations are actually made by computers processing algorithms that may well have been developed by a team – and that such a team might benefit from some cognitive diversity.)

So, figuring out where cognitive diversity can provide benefits isn’t quite as easy as separating the goats from the sheep (or the purely physical from the intellectual). Therefore, I’ll start with a short list of criteria that will help identify the types of efforts that might benefit from cognitive diversity:

  • The goal should be solving some type of problem – a problem that doesn’t have a single correct answer (the area of a room). The development of a strategy is one such problem. Or the best engineering solution to a list of requirements.
  • The cognitively diverse team needs to have the luxury of some amount of time – I’m not sure that cognitive diversity lends itself to solving problems in “the moment.” I think that the communication among the team members may take more time than is available (the quarterback may benefit from diverse expertise during practice, but not when he has 1.7 seconds to throw the football).
  • The cognitively diverse members of the team have relevant knowledge to bring to the table. While it’s not impossible for an expert in Chaucer to make positive contributions to an issue in high-energy particle physics, it’s pretty unlikely. This is called the Calculus Condition by Professor Scott Page (Scott observes that if you’re solving a calculus problem, it’s a good idea to have people who understand calculus – cognitive diversity isn’t magic).

With a problem that is amenable to solution by a cognitively diverse team (and the team itself) in hand, how do we put that power to work? I’m going to start by taking a shot at a list of “things” for the team leader to do:

  • State the problem
  • Control the process (all the rest of the things for the leader and the team to do) – not the content. The content needs to be provided by the team (which can include the leader, but the leader has to be extremely careful not to dominate and control the content of the process or the ultimate decision).
  • Start the discussion by stating the rules:
    • The session is a discussion – not a debate.
    • The idea is to develop understanding of each team member’s ideas and see how those ideas can contribute to the best practical solution (not every idea will be part of the eventual solution, or at least probably not).
    • Everyone gets to speak – probably starting with the least experienced people, but also possibly with the introverts – before the discussion begins. This gets a starting pool of ideas out on the table for discussion.
    • No one gets to comment before everyone has contributed their initial ideas.
  • Ensure that no member of the team (particularly the extroverts) attacks any idea – either verbally or through body language (eye rolling, etc.). The discussion needs to aim at using the ideas or building on them – not getting rid of them. Ideas that don’t contribute to the solution will be recognized by the team and slowly (or quickly) ignored.
  • If any new idea is raised during discussion, or any old idea resurfaced, ask that it be explained and discussed to ensure that the team understands what the idea is and why it is being raised or re-raised.

The team members need to understand cognitive diversity and why and how it brings value. They also need to have ownership in the process. Team members need to:

  • All contribute to the initial idea set.
  • Refrain from commenting before the initial idea set is complete.
  • Discuss each idea to understand what the “idea contributor” means.
  • Once understanding is achieved (which may require significant time), there are at least two ways to take the next step:
    • Each team member can, without comment from the rest of the team, present ways in which the various initial ideas can contribute to a solution – I prefer this approach.
    • The team can discuss how the initial ideas can contribute to a solution.
  • Discuss the proposed solutions, looking for ways in which the various initial ideas or any newly raised ideas can be used to improve any of the solutions “on the table.”
  • Continue the discussion until the leader (or the team) decides that the team has reached a point at which further discussion is unlikely to generate additional improvement to the solution.
  • Break for a day or more.
  • Reconvene and restate the state of the various candidate solutions as they existed when the last meeting adjourned.
  • Ensure that all team members share the same understanding of those solutions.
  • Re-open the discussion with a focus on improving any or all of the proposed solutions.
  • Continue until the leader (or the team) decides that the team has reached the optimum, practical solution (maybe not the perfect solution, but the best solution the team could achieve within the time and resource constraints).

I’ve tried to provide a very specific process. I am absolutely certain that this is not the best possible process for leveraging cognitive diversity, but it’s an initial idea set.

Anyone have other thoughts?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *