Why You Must Champion Diversity
“She told me, shaking her head, how painful it was to see the company hire all these great college kids — all sorts of backgrounds; all sorts of ideas brimming in their heads — only to watch them gradually remoulded to ‘fit’ the culture of the organisation. They came with unique insights and voices. She heard those voices fade, unless it was to echo the company’s ‘accepted’ way of thinking.”
As brave as it’s brainy and as holistic as it’s honest, this book gives the reader a new lens to view the world. Incorporating insight from psychology, economics, nutrition, academia and biology Syed makes a compelling case for more diversity. He forces us to question why diversity in business, culture and society is a feature, not a bug. How hiring an ethnic employee in your multinational company is not “diversity” but fostering a culture of constructive dissent, is. Why intelligent individuals come together to form stupid groups that make witless decisions. Why conforming to your peers at work is likely costing the company millions in unrealised revenue. Why being social leads to 100x more innovation than being smart ever will.
Here are five reasons why championing diversity makes you more open-minded, perspicacious, innovative and motivated.
Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking
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1. Diversity overcomes Perspective Blindness
Ever notice how intelligent individuals come together to make stupid decisions? Look at the financial crash of 2008 or the failure of the CIA to predict and stop 9/11? How can this happen? Perspective blindness. We form groups with people who look, talk and think like us. This validates our worldview, reinforces our prejudices and triggers the pleasure centres of our brains. But, it leaves us all open to having the same blind spots! Think of this as swiss-cheese slices (individuals) stacked one behind the other in a way that the holes (blind spots) are aligned. This is perspective blindness and it is universal, but we can fix it. How? Cognitive Diversity. Diversity provides a holistic perspective to the whole group, negating perspective blindness.
When the predominantly homogenous CIA identified chatter about a possible attack on the Twin Tower on September 11th 2001, they all concluded that it won’t happen. The group had zero cognitive diversity and developed a huge blind spot — they didn’t even know what they didn’t know.
Sidebar: Cognitive Diversity is different to demographic diversity. A truly diverse group consists of individuals of varying ideological, mental and physical attributes. Race, sexuality and gender are examples of demographic diversity. Hiring an ethnically diverse employee in your multinational company is not diversity as they may be from the same cognitive school of thought as the existing group, thereby reinforcing blind spots.
2. Diversity harnesses the Wisdom of Crowds
Here’s a rough-and-ready formula for prediction:
Prediction = Information + Error
For predictions to be 100% accurate, the error must be zero. Predicting the future is impossible. What Syed shows is that diverse crowds predict more accurately than a group of like-minded individuals. Why is this? Due to the cancellation of errors. In a diverse crowd, positive predictions cancel out negative predictions resulting in improved accuracy. Imagine being able to harness this for political exit polls or recommending your next watch on Netflix? Guess what, they already do. A lack of diversity leads to knowledge clustering. This is also why some people enjoy going to work every day. You surround yourself with amiable colleagues and take unanimous decisions in agreeable meetings. Syed cites evidence of how this “mirroring” leads to missed revenue opportunities, even though employees are certain that they are making positive contributions.
3. Diversity fosters Constructive Dissent
How many meetings have you been in where 20% of the people do 80% of the talking? If you haven’t, you may be in the 20%! Dominance dynamics plays a key role in group behaviour — she who shouts loudest wins. This shuts diversity down as good ideas aren’t expressed. The failure, or inability, to speak up contributes to plane crashes, hiking disasters and other communication mishaps. This problem exacerbates in hierarchical structures such as patriarchal societies and dictatorships. When combined with mirroring (mimic the leader) and advocacy (say what the leader wants to hear) it leads to diversity suppression. What’s the fix? In the corporate world, some innovations include having the most senior person at a meeting voice their opinion last thus protecting employees from mirroring. Another is Amazon’s technique of silent meetings — where everyone reads a copy of the meeting notes before voicing their opinions, ensuring our intuitive brains independently arrive at conclusions before anyone influences them.
4. Diversity causes ideas to have sex
Turns out, using one’s expertise in an alien field leads to innovation. This is referred to as the cross-pollination of ideas or more adroitly as “ideas having sex” by Matt Ridley. For example, food-scientists and biologists collaborating with app developers and chip manufacturers to create Fitbit. Or as detailed in the book, the invention of suitcases-on-wheels by a former airline pilot and DIY-er. As we spend time in our daily roles and routines, our worldview fortifies, we can’t face disruption and we miss hidden opportunities. Diversity fixes this by ensuring we are able to shift our conceptual centre of gravity, stay cognitively agile and develop an outsider mindset. Syed describes how utilising our innate ability to be social leads to 100x more innovation than being smart — we seek, find, develop, nurture, execute and optimise ideas when leaning into our social abilities and reaching out outside our information bubbles.
5. Diversity bursts Information Bubbles
Information bubbles are sealed units wherein inhabitants can only hear each other. Exposure to the outside world bursts this bubble and guess what brings this exposure? Diversity. The first-ever Apple HQ had a single toilet that all employees — accountants, executives, engineers — used. This led to conversations between employees and the cross-pollination of ideas. This burst the information bubble, facilitated diverse ideas and kickstarted rebel projects. This is also why an MIT classroom with always-open doors (Building 20) became a hotbed of innovation. The Bose Corporation, the Guided Missiles program, the Model railroad club all started here. This is also why, Silicon Valley with its bubbling dynamism, swanky bars and opensource culture brought the fall of the more rigid and siloed Route 128 industrial complex in the mid-’90s.
Sidebar: How do you know if you are in an information bubble or an echo chamber? If you are thirsty for information but not getting any, you are in an information bubble. If criticism of your perspective further reinforces your belief in that perspective, you are in an echo chamber.
To sum-up Syed’s thesis: diversity is often viewed as a politically correct, moral and social cause that comes at the cost of individual or organisational performance. But this is a false equivalence. It is the fundamental fabric of our existence and a vital prerequisite for natural selection, human motivation, innovation, business performance and political stability. Read this to close-out 2020. Or start-off 2021. It’s smart, informative, optimistic and ambitious. It’ll enrich your cognitive toolkit, broaden your horizons, challenge your status-quo and look splendid on your bookshelf. If nothing else, it’ll convince you to look at cheese slices differently, chair more productive meetings, foster constructive dissent and burst your information bubbles.