Diverse teams have a better toolkit. Here’s why that matters.

Social scientist Scott Page’s new book, The Diversity Bonus, spells out the secret ingredient to building a truly effective diverse team within an organization.

Long before Silicon Valley’s “bro culture” began unraveling after this summer’s explosive revelations about sexism and harassment at Uber, and before the now-notorious Google memo, social scientist Scott Page, a self-described “white kid from an all-white rural area of Michigan,” had been evangelizing the value of workplace diversity.

“It’s simple,” says Page, a University of Michigan professor of complex systems, economics, and political science, who trained as a game theorist. “Teams with diverse members usually have more productive outcomes than homogenous ones.”

The idea of diverse teams being good for organizations isn’t new. But in his forthcoming book, The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy, Page delves deeper into what kinds of diversity matter and how to maximize diverse teams.

We spoke with Page about his book and why this issue matters now more than ever. The following is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.

University of Michigan professor Scott Page. Photo by Narissa Escanlar

So, what did your research uncover?

Over the past decade, I’ve been talking to groups, leaders, policymakers, and bankers — 20 to 50 times a year. ​During that time, I’ve learned a lot about how organizations try to tap into the power of diversity. Two things jumped out. ​In competitions between teams and individuals, teams win. But more important, I found consistent evidence that it’s the cognitive diversity of those winning teams that makes them better.

What you mean by cognitive diversity?

I’m talking about how people think and approach challenges, not just what we call “identity diversity,” such as gender, ethnicity, religion. Of course, cognitive diversity is influenced by identity and experience — but that’s not the only thing. Training is an influencer, too.

Google understands how to tap into cognitive diversity. Because they must create search strategies for a diverse population, they hire people who are diverse in these areas — from a vast array of schools and different backgrounds.

And how did you come to that conclusion?

Diverse groups are just more intellectually challenging. There are more ideas thrown out there when you’re with people who are trained differently, come from different identity groups, and have different experiences.

For instance, Google found that giving people brainteaser tests and hiring people based on those results doesn’t work. What you really want is people to solve problems in diverse ways — to have a creative team, you want people who think of different types of ideas.

Then I broach the question: Why do you and I think differently? ​Our education and training matters a lot. Our life experiences matter a lot. Who we are matters a lot. The Diversity Bonus is not some sort of political cant. I’m not saying, “Oh, diverse teams are always better on all things,” because that’s not true if you’re chopping down trees. However, once problems become complex — as they are in today’s knowledge economy — you need lots of eyeballs and lots of perspectives.

But shouldn’t teams always include the smartest people?

One of the quotes about diversity I love is by my friend Sheen Levine, who calls homogony “the siren call of sameness.” People tend to think that if they’re smart, then people with them are smart. But we’re not going to encounter a broad set of ideas without diversity. You may have all the smartest people in the room with the best education, but if their experiences are too similar, the range of ideas and solutions will be narrow.

Considering the former Google employee’s memo, should Google (or any company) work harder to balance inclusion efforts between teams and individual workers?

The memo doesn’t seem like it’s coming from a bad place. I just think he said some sort of naive things. The big thing he missed — the big thing that a lot of commentary missed — is that Google does all its important work in teams. They hire everybody in teams. Teams work on projects.

One of the main lessons in the book is you can’t just line people up and give them a task and say, “Oh, here are five people who scored best on this test; they make the best team.” The best teams are cognitively diverse, and where does that diversity come from? Again, things like identity, experience, training. The trade-off here is not that you can just randomly hire diverse people and get something better than one smart person’s going to get. What you want are teams of smart people with different toolboxes. ​It’s not complicated.

Can you explain how meaningful inclusion is seeded by leadership?

The top-down aspect of this is messaging, mentoring, and measuring. Those things matter. I’ve seen thoughtful, powerful leaders come in and create cultures in which the mission and the ideas are so important, it creates a space for diversity to also come from the bottom up. Groups within NASA work perfectly because the sense of mission is so strong. To be the best, to be part of the best teams, you’re just going to have to learn to enjoy and appreciate the differences in other people.

Why should companies try to foster truly open conversations in the workplace?

If inclusion efforts are a trade-off, that’s costing us excellence. People must understand that diversity and inclusion of ideas — ways of thinking and of understanding in a knowledge economy — are going to make you better at what you do.

CXO Magazine is a new publication founded at Northeastern University to chart the ideas, events, and people shaping the future of work. Learn more.

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