diverse thinking

Diversity of thinking can be defined in two ways: diversity of perspective — how people see an issue; and diversity of approach — the mental frameworks people use to solve problems once they have been defined. People tend to approach decision-making in a familiar way, often unaware of the mental frameworks they’re using.

Diversity of thinking enablers

Composition: a focus on specific aspects of group composition in terms of visible and invisible diversity.

Conversation: disciplined debating and thinking processes instead of random brainstorming.

Bias mitigation: mitigating biases that pull individuals and the group back to homogeneity and the status quo.

Inclusive leadership: a mindset and set of behaviours that enables leaders to role-model what it means to be and create an environment that is highly inclusive.

University of Michigan professor Scott E Page in The Difference: How the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools and societies concluded that cognitive diversity (one’s perspective and mental models), as opposed to identity, or demographic diversity, has a direct impact on a group’s ability to make predictions and solve problems. When groups solve problems dominantly from one or two perspectives they have a high error rate. Using just one perspective, builds in an error rate of about 30 per cent. Multiple perspectives reduce error rates.

Juliet Bourke says in decision-making we first have to tackle “homophily” or similarity attraction bias — we tend to prefer people who are more similar to us. That carries with it risks.

“People talk about diversity of thinking,” she says, “but we’re not quite sure what that looks like. Is it a maverick, is it a millennial or is it someone from the marketing department? Because we’re not sure, we take what Laura Liswood (co-founder of the Council of Women World Leaders and author of The Loudest Duck: Moving beyond diversity) calls the ‘Noah’s Ark approach’ to diversity — I’ll have two of those, a couple of those, throw them in a room and ask them to do random brainstorming. The biggest mistake is to throw a problem at a crowd of people and [hope] diversity of thinking will fill their knowledge gaps. There has to be a level of capability.”

Six decision making building blocks

Bourke identifies six building blocks in the ways people approach problem-solving.

  1. Outcomes: Why are we doing this?
  2. Options: What are the possibilities?
  3. Process: The steps. How do we implement this?
  4. People: The people we are trying to solve this for. How will staff/customers feel?
  5. Evidence: The facts. What is the data we are relying on? How will we track this?
  6. Risk: What could go wrong? What are the scenarios we should plan for?

“We tend to focus on, or be good at only one or two,” Bourke says. “When we surveyed senior leaders, 75 per cent said ‘outcomes’ and ‘options’ were the most important thing to focus on when solving a problem. What it means is they are working in an echo chamber. They don’t realise those other cognitively peripheral voices around ‘people’, ‘process’, ‘evidence’ and ‘risk’ are getting far less air time and the solutions they’re building do not incorporate those other four factors. When we asked people at the bottom of organisations what’s important, 84 per cent said ‘outcomes’, ‘options’, ‘people’ and ‘process’. Level by level they dropped away. Leaders like talking to people who like talking about problems in the way they do. The bias to sameness of thinking is really strong.

“Unless you force yourself to engage with a different point of view, you won’t. Paying attention to diversity of thinking is hard; when something is hard, we tend not to do it. Psychologists call this “cognitive depletion”. The easier route is to do sameness of connections, sameness of information.”

Two other things subtly push groups towards diversity of thinking, says Bourke. Visible racial diversity “is a curiosity trigger that causes us to listen harder to someone else’s view. The group dynamic is to listen and ask questions.” Gender diversity helps bring out the benefits of difference.

“With 40-60 per cent gender balance in a team,” Bourke says, “the group dynamic changes. You get higher levels of ‘psychological safety’, people feel more comfortable speaking up. Their views are on the table so any latent diversity of thinking is now explicit.”

She says to make more effective decisions, you need to know what you’re good at with problem-solving approaches and find other people who are different to you. “Don’t rely on luck — it takes disciplined effort.”