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The Imperative of Diversity — Collective Blindness to Collective Wisdom: Part 1

This is the first part of a two-part review of Matthew Syed’s book Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking. (Part 2) It was first published in 2019 as a hardback and is now available in paperback.

Strictly speaking it is not a business book, but in my view it is a book that everyone in business should read. It addresses some of the biggest issues today’s leaders face— in organisations of all types and in all sectors — issues they are failing to deal with.

Let us get straight to the core problem Syed addresses. The problems we face as organisations and societies are increasingly complex. Solving them is beyond the capabilities of any individual. Collective wisdom is needed. But collective wisdom comes from diverse thinking, without that we are collectively blind.

This problem has long been recognised by some. Syed quotes the nineteenth century English philosopher John Stuart Mill. “It is hardly possible to overrate the value, in the present low state of human improvement , of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar……Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.”

Elsewhere he quotes Aristotle and Plato. Both recognised the dangers of surrounding ourselves with people who think the same way, who make us feel smarter and validate our world view. Aristotle recognised people love those who are like themselves. And Plato saw that similarity begets friendship. Syed notes the phrase “birds of a feather flock together” comes from Plato’s The Republic. And he records “the danger of intellectual conformity is an abiding preoccupation of Greek culture”.

Syed seems to suggest the importance of diversity was better understood in the past than it is today. “Today, we stand on the brink of a revolution. Diversity is often regarded as a politically correct distraction, an issue of morality and social justice, but not of performance and innovation. It Is often debated in vague terms, people talking past each other. Our conception of diversity is not just incomplete but often radically defective”, he argues.

He suggests we need to understand ‘Diversity Science’, and that is the main goal of the book.

He argues, “The very meaning of collaboration changes when we start to think about diversity in a new way. Honest dissent is not disruptive, but imperative. Divergent opinions are not seen as a threat to social cohesion but as a contribution to social dynamism. Reaching out to outsiders for new ideas is not an act of disloyalty but the most enlightened form of solidarity.”

To emphasise that diversity is not just necessary for dealing with complex problems, but also is the mechanism by which we make progress, Syed quotes Harvard anthropologist Joseph Henrich.

“Once we understand the importance of collective brains, we begin to see why modern societies vary in their innovativeness. It’s not the smartness of the individuals….It’s the willingness and ability of large numbers of individuals at the knowledge frontier to freely interact, exchange views, disagree, learn from each other, build collaborations, trust strangers, and be wrong. Innovation does not take a genius or a village; it takes a big network of freely interacting minds.”

In short, Syed argues, “Diversity is the ingredient that can help us to solve our most pressing problems from climate change to poverty and help us break free of the echo chambers that are coming to disfigure our world.” But to achieve this we must build cultures of diversity and “You can only build a culture of diversity when you have first grasped the concepts of diversity.” Conversely, the lack of understanding and the lack of diverse cultures is dangerous, it costs lives and it undermines the potential of humanity.

In this context he suggests we should be concerned that “cognitive homogeneity, is not the exception in the modern world; it is the norm. Most organisations have a severe deficit of diversity, hamstringing their ability to make wise judgements, create smart strategies and detect threats.”

This problem is pervasive in all sectors of society. “A substantial proportion of all the biggest blunders, by governments of all political complexions, share the same root cause; a lack of diversity. In particular they focus on the lack of social diversity in political elites.” All organisations should recognise that “Diversity isn’t some optional add-on. It isn’t the icing on the cake. Rather, it is the basic ingredient of collective intelligence.”

The book is packed with examples illustrating the points Syed makes. It opens with the case of the failings of the CIA in relation to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York. He notes, “To the CIA and their defenders, 9/11 was not a failure of intelligence but a symptom of complexity. This debate has raged ever since. On one side are those who say that the agencies missed obvious warning signs. On the other are those who say that the CIA did everything they reasonably could, and that plots are notoriously difficult to detect before the event. What few people considered is the possibility that both sides were wrong”.

The CIA hired “the best and the brightest”, but they all looked much the same, and the same as the people that recruited them. Mostly male and almost entirely white. To the CIA analysts Bin Laden appeared primitive and an insignificant threat. They overlooked the symbolic power of his appearance and the fact he was living in a cave. This was potent imagery Bin Laden used to incite his intended audience. The homogeneity of the CIA made the organisation blind to this.

Syed suggests, “the critics of the US intelligence were right” that the attacks were preventable, “but the problem was not that the CIA missed the obvious warning signs.” He goes on to argue, “the warning signs were not obvious to the CIA and, ironically, would not have been obvious to many of the groups who sat in judgement over them, many of which themselves lacked diversity.”

Syed was right in his analysis, but wrong in his criticism of the critics, in my opinion. Critics might legitimately expect an intelligence service to be aware of the need for diverse thinking to do its job effectively. Indeed some members of the CIA were. As Syed notes, Carmen Medina, a former CIA deputy director had fought, in vain, for greater diversity during her 32years with the agency. The lack of diversity meant the organisation was fundamentally flawed.

More importantly, as Syed also notes, these flaws were not new. Later in the book he cites the view of Milo Jones, a senior intelligence advisor, the failures that characterised the build-up to 9/11 have been repeated throughout the history of the CIA, form the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Iranian Revolution and the failure to anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union. About this Jones is quoted as saying, “Each of these failures can be traced, directly and incontrovertibly, to the same blind spot at the heart of the agency.”

My quibble with Syed’s conclusion does not detract from the main point, “The CIA were individually perceptive but collectively blind. And it is in the cross-hairs of this paradox that we glimpse the imperative of diversity.”

Syed makes the imperative of diversity very clear. He also makes it clear how groups underperform in predictable ways. The like minds in a homogeneous group share the same blind spots and develop excessive confidence in their own judgements even when they are wrong. They have clone-like reactions to problems and are collectively stupid. What collectively intelligent groups or teams need is both ability and diversity, argues Syed. To illustrate the point, he refers to Duke University psychologist Jack Soll.

Soll compared the accuracy of the predictions of six top economists to those of a larger professional group. The broader groups predictions were 15% more accurate than those of the top six. Sol notes that economic forecasters have fames of reference, models, and no economic model is complete. They each include blind spots. Bring different models together and a more complete picture is possible.

Syed concludes, “To achieve group wisdom, you need wise individuals. But you also need diverse individuals, otherwise they will share the same blind spots.”

The point is that economists, like all ‘experts’, have particular world views, frames of reference and theories. Syed cites Karl Popper, the Austrian philosopher of science, “For scientists [a point of view] is provided by his theoretical interests, the special problem under investigation, his conjectures and anticipations, and the theories he accepts as a kind of background: his frame of reference, his ‘horizon of expectation.’”

The concept of “frames of reference” is important because each frame has blind spots, ‘perspective blindness’. These frames of reference (theories) determine our world view, but we do not see the frames of reference themselves. We are not conscious of them. Our modes of thought are habitual. They lead us to underestimate the point of view of others, and we find it hard to step beyond our own frames. And, we cannot make sense of what we do not see.

Another of the illustrative cases in the book makes this point clearly. During the second world war Bletchley Park was the centre of efforts to break the code of the German encryption machine Enigma. The story of project was made famous recently by the film The Imitation Game. It told the life of Alan Turing, one of the members of the team working on the project. Whilst Turing’s story if of great interest, the story of the team and its diversity is what Syed focuses on.

Syed notes the leader of the project had the wisdom to realise “solving a complex multidimensional problem requires cognitive diversity”. And that he needed “a team of rebels not a team of clones.” The challenge, like all complex tasks, “hinged upon multiple levels of insight.”

The leader of the project, Alistair Denniston, “made the vital leap of imagination, that crosswords have critical features in common with cryptography”. On January 13th 1942 the Daily Telegraph published a crossword competition. A group of people were invited to complete it in less than twelve minutes to earn a £100 prize. The competition was actually part of a Bletchley Park recruitment process.

Syed describes the process as “diversity precision-engineered to maximise collective intelligence”.

Such precision-engineered diversity can generate massive competitive advantages and innovation breakthroughs, as it did in this case. But achieving it is not possible without understanding ‘diversity science’, something that even the CIA failed to do.

There are lots of different types of diversity and, “hiring someone who is different in terms of colour or gender does not guarantee an increase in cognitive diversity”.

“Successful teams are diverse, but not arbitrarily diverse” Diversity contributes to collective intelligence, “but only when it is relevant”. “The key is to find people with perspectives that are both germane and synergistic”, argues Syed.

The lack of understanding of diversity science, and the challenge of precision engineering cognitively diverse teams, are the reason for so many project and business failures. But, with the growing number of increasingly complex problems that leaders need to solve, we must master these disciplines. We must also appreciate that volatility requires flexible and fluid organisational designs to prevent the inbuilt tendency of groups to become clone like, and to prevent individuals becoming assimilated into the dominant culture of the organisation or the group. Something that happens both consciously (e.g. as part of “onboarding” processes) and unconsciously through socialising.

The book makes clear that diversity is an imperative and that precision-engineered diversity offers massive benefits. Equally, it makes clear that retaining the benefits is a major challenge requiring a different approach to leadership to generate a culture that celebrates diversity and recognises its importance. It means re-thinking the role of leaders, the organisational design, and power structures.

Syed used the case of an Everest expedition to illustrate these points and the need for “Constructive Dissent”. The expedition on May 1996 ended in disaster with eight experienced climbers losing their lives. And it represents an apt metaphor when considering what needs to happen for diversity to have value in volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) situations. Or, what can go wrong when diversity is not valued in such situations.

Syed notes, “for diversity to work its magic, different perspectives and judgements must be expressed. It is no good having useful information that never gets aired.” “There is also the question of who makes the final decision once the various perspectives have been expressed.”

Related to the last point is the issue of ‘dominance hierarchies’ and the impacts they have on communication. Power within hierarchies can impinge on communication and whether the intelligence that could inform decisions gets aired or not. Syed notes, this is something of a paradox — “Humans are essentially hierarchical, and yet the associated behaviours can thwart effective communication.” Syed illustrates with the cases of plane crashes caused by situations in which “co-pilots would rather die than contradict a captain”. He goes on to note the “Dominance Dynamic” can result in the individuals in a team collapsing into a team of clones.

In the Everest expedition Rob Hall, “one of the finest mountaineers in the world”, “neglected the fact that his capacity to make wise judgements relied not merely on his own perspectives, but on those of his team. He rightly stressed the importance of listening to his ultimate judgement, but he didn’t realise that this could be fatally compromised without access to the collective intelligence of the group.”

In his conclusions, detailing the lessons from the case, Syed notes, “a team ethic, while precious, isn’t sufficient. No amount of commitment can drive effective decision-making in a situation of complexity, when diverse perspectives are suppressed; when critical information isn’t flowing through the social network. By inadvertently creating a dominance dynamic Hall deprived himself of the very information he needed to make life and death decisions…..It cost him his life.”

Readers in a leadership role will, I feel sure, understand the relevance of the arguments expressed so clearly by Syed, but in a second part to this review I will share more of Syed’s practical advice. For now, let me conclude by saying the CIA is not the only organisation that fails to predict and prevent surprises. Back in March we ran a conference “How successful leaders face up to wicked problems and avoid predictable surprises”. In the articles leading up to the conference, and in a speech, I gave to Warwick University DBA students on the same theme, I noted that almost all corporate crisis are both predictable and preventable, and in many cases they were predicted. The PwC Crisis survey 2019 reconfirmed this.

Much of the conference focus was on the fact increasing levels of complexity mean that more of the problems we have to deal with are increasingly wicked problems — problems that are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. They are problem that cannot be fixed, or where there is no single solution. They are often the result of complex interdependencies, meaning efforts to solve one aspect of a problem reveal or create other problems.

Addressing wicked problems makes the need for diverse perspectives important. And the challenges can be even greater than cracking the Enigma code, given the nature of wicked problems. It certainly requires systems thinking, but it means knowing which systems-thinking tools to apply to particular problems and situations. It requires the ability to think critically and to harness collective intelligence.

Professor Michael C Jackson, an expert in complex-systems-thinking, who spoke at our conference in March, has asked “what help can decision-makers expect when tackling the “messes” and “wicked problems” that proliferate in the age of complexity? They are usually brought up in classical management theory that emphasizes the need to forecast, plan, organise, lead, and control. This approach relies on their being a predictable future environment in which it is possible to set goals that remain relevant into the foreseeable future; on enough stability to ensure that tasks arranged in a fixed hierarchy continue to deliver efficiency and effectiveness; on a passive and unified workforce; and on a capacity to take control action on the basis of clear measures of success. These assumptions do not hold in the modern world, and classical management theory provides the wrong prescriptions.”

We can therefore conclude that classical management theory does not teach those who are hired as ‘leaders’ in the approaches that are needed if we are to embrace diversity. Instead it teaches the approaches that stifle the kind of thinking that generates collective intelligence.

This will be made even clearer in part two of this review.

Today it is not managers trained in classical management theory that we need. It is Maverick Leaders with unorthodox ways of thinking, able to harness the collective wisdom of precision engineered teams that consist of diverse thinkers. Such leaders are undaunted by complexity. They are also better able to overcome crises.

Previously, I have written about Undaunted Leaders and Their Maverick Mindset. Soon I will run The Maverick Leader Taster Event online, for directors and executives who need to face up to wicked problems and avoid predictable surprises. The event will introduce the ten themes that form the core of a series of briefings and a workshop program that follow.

Here you can find Part 2.

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Paul Barnett

Paul Barnett

Advocating the purpose of all enterprise should be contributions to sustainable widely shared prosperity measured in terms of human flourishing and wellbeing.