Why Teams That Think Differently Do Better

Remember this for your next work project.

Emma Haak
Emma Haak
Mar 31, 2017 · 2 min read

Here’s one very good reason to seek out people who think differently than you do. As this Harvard Business Review piece explains, cognitive diversity in a team leads to speedier problem solving.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

The authors, Alison Reynolds, faculty member at Ashridge Business School in the U.K., and David Lewis, Director of London Business School’s Senior Executive Programme, have been studying group problem solving for 12 years and their research points out something unexpected. Diversity in age, ethnicity and gender has virtually no impact on a group’s ability to navigate complex or novel situations. Instead, it’s cognitive diversity — “defined as differences in perspective or information processing style,” Reynolds and Lewis write — that dictates how successful a given group is at solving a problem.

Think of perspective and information processing style as the way you approach a challenging question. Do you rely on what you already know to answer it or seek out new information? Do you parse it out on your own or ask others to weigh in?

Reynolds and Lewis found that teams higher in cognitive diversity solved problems faster than teams where everyone had the same thinking style. In fact, some of the more mentally homogenous teams never finished the task — even ones stacked with Ph.D. scientists.

Here’s why a variety of thinking styles is so critical: “Tackling new challenges requires a balance between applying what we know and discovering what we don’t know that might be useful,” Reynolds and Lewis write. “It also requires individual application of specialized expertise and the ability to step back and look at the bigger picture.” Meaning if everyone on your team is an expert on the same subject, and you all approach the problem the exact same way, you’re unlikely to get very far. This is particularly true with problems or situations no one in the group has faced before.

One of the main roadblocks to putting these findings to practice is, of course, our own stubborn biases. Whether we realize it or not, we tend to gravitate towards and hire people whose problem-solving styles mirror our own. If you’re in a hiring position, Reynolds and Lewis recommend focusing on candidates who think a bit differently than your current colleagues. And if you’re simply looking for ways to solve problems faster or break through a mental roadblock, do as Reynolds and Lewis advise and “find someone who disagrees and cherish them.”

Read more on Harvard Business Review.

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