The Imperative of Diversity — Collective Blindness to Collective Wisdom: Part 2

This is the second a two-part review (part one) of Matthew Syed’s book Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking. 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.

In part one I gave a pretty comprehensive view of the arguments suggesting that diversity is a major issue and a major source of competitive advantage, for businesses and societies, when properly understood and well managed. The case was made with a series of powerful illustrations of all the main points. In this part of the review I want to address the “how to” issues. They are approaches classical management theory and practice does not teach.

The first step is to understand the “science of diversity” as Syed calls it. For that read part one. Understanding it is essential in a world of increasing complexity and increasingly complex problems. Then, with a practical focus, note “the first step for any group seeking to tackle a tough challenge, is not to learn more about the problem itself”, “it is to take a step back and ask: where are the gaps in our collective understanding”, or where might they be.

Syed says, “we need to address cognitive diversity before tackling our toughest challenges. It is only then that team deliberations can lead not to mirroring [the tendency of clone-like groups to share and reinforce each others blind spots], but to enlightenment.”

In practice that means understanding the real nature of the problem, having the right people to frame and re-frame the questions that need to be asked, then knowing what data to look for to gain insights. Here the “what is”, “If this then”, “what needs to be true” and similar questions are helpful.

The problem “is not the data that clone like teams fail to understand”, “it is the questions they are not even asking, the data they haven’t thought to look for, the opportunities they haven’t realised are out there”, says Syed.

Here I am reminded of the value of tools to overcome some of the problems, such as Design Thinking. A great introduction to that is The Design of Business by Roger Martin. In it, he talks of different forms of thinking or reasoning, the dominant two being deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning, both being from the scientific tradition. The less common one being abductive reasoning which Charles Sanders Peirce spoke about extensively. Its goal is to posit what could possibly be true, not what is.

It is not hard to see that this may be useful in exploratory discussions around complex problems. How it is useful in fostering a culture in which “constructive dissent” is achievable.

Syed dedicates a whole chapter to the topic of Constructive Dissent. It reminded me of Mary Parker Follet’s writing about the need for Constructive Conflict. She suggested conflict is a friction and friction can be good if dealt with properly. Of the three ways of dealing with it — domination, compromise, and integration — she was strongly against the first two. And, by integration she meant Integrative Thinking to find a third way to satisfy the desires of both or all parties. Any other approach would be sub-optimal.

Another, related, concept articulated by Parker Follett was the idea of Power With, not power over. This relates to Syed’s talk about the Dominance Dynamic, saying it serves to supress diverse perspectives depriving leaders of the information they need to make good decisions, even in life and death situations. Syed illustrated this with plane crashes cases and a deadly Everest expedition. He also cited research showing high-status project leaders fail more often.

Syed also quoted Indian Tech entrepreneur Avinash Kaushik as saying “HiPPOs [Highest Paid Persons Opinions] rule the world, they overrule your data, they impose their opinions on you and your company customers, they think they know best(sometimes they do), there mere presence in a meeting prevents ideas from coming up.” This is perhaps one of the most important points that needs to be made. Firms can spend a lot of time and effort hiring for diversity, but without the right approach to leadership, a culture of diversity, and a clear understanding of how to achieve the benefits of it, any hiring efforts will be pointless.

So how do you create a culture of diversity? How can we become collectively wise and stop being collectively stupid? What style of leadership is required? And what tools and methods might be employed?

It is clear that a fundamental change needs to be how we think about leadership. Syed suggests hierarchy is inevitable, but as a species, humans are unique in that we have two forms — a dominance hierarchy and a prestige hierarchy, each relating to the way in which leader status is achieved.

The dominance hierarchy is the one we are familiar with, but the more effective form is the prestige hierarchy. In this form, leaders earn prestige and respect by sharing wisdom and becoming role models. Their generosity tilts group behaviour in a more collaborative direction and results in the cooperation needed to generate positive-sum outcomes.

In Parker Follet’s terms prestigious leaders intuitively understand the importance of power with, rather than power over. They are emotionally intelligent, empathetic, and good communicators. They also create cultures that provide psychological safety. Their power comes from influence, not command and control. They adopt what Nick Marson calls a ‘Leading by Coaching’ in his book with that title, or what Donna Hicks calls ‘Leading with Dignity’ in her book with that title.

We are seeing greater recognition that the style of leadership needs to change, but the new version far from becoming the dominant one. Without the change we will continue to have the high levels of employee disengagement that Gallup has been reporting for well over a decade. As Syed notes, diverse perspectives are suppressed, meetings become catastrophically inefficient, and decision-making suffers greatly.

This thinking all makes sense to me after working with Bryce Hoffman, the author of Red Teaming which tells the story of how the US Military launched a massive research project into decision making approaches following the failures by the US intelligence and military services that led to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the twin towers of the world trade centre in New York, and failings in Iraq and Afghanistan. They aggregated multi-disciplinary thinking about decision making to establish the Red Teaming approach. Bryce became the first and only civilian to be trained as a trainer in the approaches which he outlines in his book. He then went on to offer the thinking to large corporations and set up his own consulting practice.

Syed also uses the example of the 9/11 attacks an illustration in his book. Like Hoffman, he also goes on to offer examples of tools and methods to overcome some of the problems. He refers to the Golden Silence approach used by Amazon — for 3o minutes at the start of meetings the team reads a six-page memo that summarises, in narrative form, the main agenda item.

The approach is designed to force the proposer to think deeply about what is being proposed, gets people to commit to what they think before sharing their ideas with others, stimulates diverse thinking before discussion starts, and reduces the risk diverse thinking will not surface. Additionally, the most senior person speaks last when discussion does start.

Another technique Syed details is Brainwriting, to ensure all ideas are recorded and exposed anonymously to ensure the meritocracy of ideas. Voting on them is usually followed by teams working on ideas worth taking to a next level. It fosters radical transparency and avoids the dominance dynamic that is often a feature of classic brainstorming approaches. In another example the price of attendance at a meeting is the submission of a one-page outline of each persons anonymised thinking which is circulated and considered collectively. All these techniques share the goal, to “protect cognitive diversity from the dangers of dominance.”

Putting the importance of leadership and the dangers of dominance aside, Syed also warns of the dangers of “gravitation towards the dominant assumptions of the group”, noting that “hiring someone who is different in terms of colour or gender does not guarantee an increase in cognitive diversity” because of this gravitation-like pull.

This has implications for the way we organise, and explains some of the problems the Financial Times journalist Gillian Tett outlined in her book The Silo Effect, and which I ran a conference on with her, Roger Martin, author of The Design of Business, and Heidi Gardner author of Smart Collaboration.

Syed speaks of the benefits of “altering the composition of the board from time to time”, noting the positive effects it had on a board he sat on. He suggests it helps achieve the required levels of agility needed in a competitive world. I believe it is the reason more and more companies are starting to organise around projects with people as members of multiple project teams in structures that are more fluid. And why organisations are increasingly seeing themselves as nodes within larger more fluid ecosystems. An example of the latter being the way in which the Chinese white goods manufacturer Haier is organised, and continuously morphing.

Harnessing the collective intelligence of the diverse individuals organised in multi-disciplinary teams that need to be increasingly fluid seems likely to be the biggest challenge for leaders and the organisations they represent. This is particularly true as the organisation itself must continuously and iteratively find new ways to create value. This, I think, also explains the re-emerging interest in the concept of the Learning Organisation, first popular from the late 1970’s with the thinking of people like Arie de Geus in the Living Company and Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline.

In Conclusion

Let me conclude by looking at the implications of the “power of diverse thinking” and the need to have “rebel thinking” capabilities, mean for the individual, group, and society, with further quotes from Syed.

First, “In the fast-moving world, we will need to master not merely the art of invention, but of personal reinvention. This is a world ripe for people who can question the status quo, and who can travel beyond boundaries, not least the ones we impose on ourselves.” Sayed calls people with these capabilities rebels. I prefer to call them Mavericks and will be running a Maverick Leadership Taster Event Online.

Second, organisation need to be capable of harnessing the collective intelligence of teams of rebels or mavericks, by applying the new organisational structures, systems and practices that Syed, and the others I have mentioned in this review, are suggesting.

Finally for this review, and first for those who want to embrace the insights, we must recognise that “diversity is not just the ingredient that drives the collective intelligence of human groups , but is the ingredient that has driven the unique evolutionary trajectory of our species. Diversity, in a real sense, is the hidden engine of humanity”. It will be essential in the pursuit of solution to our global problems, and the realisation of sustainable widely shared prosperity, understood in terms of human flourishing and wellbeing.

“Humans are smart because we have evolved to connect with other brains.” “what singles out our species in an ability to pool our insights and knowledge, and build on each other’s solutions.” But, “human development relies on the way diverse brains interact far more than on the constituent brains themselves.” “It is our sociability that drove our smartness, not the other way around.”

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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.