I recently finished reading Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed, a book that introduces the reader to the concept of cognitive diversity, and why it is one honking idea.

Diversity is a popular concept nowadays, one that is unfortunately plagued by vagueness and politics. There is a strong push, especially in the world of IT, for diversity, but often without explaining what exactly that means, and what the intention is. For example, it could mean “improving representation of society in our company”, or “helping the less fortunate and underprivileged minorities”, or “ensuring equal opportunities”, or “increasing the collective intelligence of a group”. All of these can be labeled as diversity initiatives, and these are generally good things. But you could also use the same label to justify “lowering the bar”, which is one of the usual explanations that people not liking the idea, for whatever reason, use to describe it.

This topic already sparked a lot of debates and several controversies, and will likely generate even more over time. Amidst all of this, I prefer to err on the side of being explicit, and eliminate as much vagueness as possible. That is exactly why I liked Rebel Ideas: the author quickly specifies that the variant he describes is cognitive diversity, a way to enhance collective thinking in a group or organisation.

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Another aspect that resonated with me was best explained by this quote:

“...hiring someone who is different in terms of colour or gender does not guarantee an increase in cognitive diversity. Building collective intelligence cannot be reduced to a box-ticking exercise.”

The last sentence is especially telling: the problem is nuanced. Without knowing exactly which aspect of your organisation you are trying to improve, it is easy to fall back into mindless checkbox-ticking. The author provides two examples with economists:

“Take two economists: one white, gray, male and middle-aged, the other black, young, female, heterosexual. These economists are different in demographic terms—and might tick all the boxes on a conventional diversity matrix. But suppose they went to the same university, studied under the same professor and left with similar models.”
“Now take two white, middle-aged, bespectacled economists, who have the same number of children and like the same TV programmes. They may seem homogenous and, from a demographic perspective, they are. But suppose that one is a monetarist and the other a Keynesian. These are two different ways of making sense of the economy; two very different models. (...) The two economists may look the same, but they are diverse in the way they think about the problem.

That is not to say that physical diversity (like gender diversity or racial diversity) is not desired. On the contrary: most likely, these visible differences will overlap with cognitive differences, and that will enhance the group intelligence. But in this case, it sounds like a good rule of thumb—a good heuristics to solve a complicated problem. Being aware of the complexity of the problem and what solution you are looking for is generally a good thing, even if you take some shortcuts.

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Matthew provides another interesting example of increasing the outreach in the quest of looking for minds that will contribute to the group.

Several dozens of years ago, one British newspaper published a crossword. People at that time were sometimes found complaining about the puzzle being too easy to solve. One day, one gentleman announced that he would prepare a much harder variant of the crossword, with a prize of £100 for solving it under 12 minutes. He invited anyone interested to come to a specific address on a specific date.

Thirty people came, and four managed to win the prize. The main character of this story, a clerk, was just one word short from winning the challenge. To his surprise, a few weeks afterwards he received a letter inviting him to meet with a British intelligence colonel, who would offer him a position in the Bletchley Park. The year was 1942, and that institution worked on aiding the Allies the work included cracking German ciphers, including Enigma.

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There were a few more interesting thoughts I found in the book.

One is the paradox that smaller universities are actually better for raising collective intelligence, rather than giant institutions. This is explained by the ease of finding like-minded people in schools consisting of thousands of students. Regardless of your background, views and interests, there is a non zero chance you would find a substantial group of people sharing them, and it is more likely that you will band with them. On the other hand, in a much smaller environment, the choice you get is limited, and so is the chance of finding someone thinking exactly like you. Even less if it is an elite place, accepting only the best based on specific, meritocratic criteria.

In such an environment, one would still long for social connections, and try to establish them, even at the inconvenience of having to overcome or accept some mindset differences. This, according to Matthew, is the ingredient for intelligent communities: where discussions and arguments are fueled by different backgrounds, mindsets and viewpoints, but where nonetheless all participants share social bonds and treat each other with respect.

This argument is used to power another part of the book, the story of Derek Black, son of Don Black, and how the exposure to the specific group of people (other students) with different views managed to slowly turn him from a white supremacist into someone denouncing white supremacist. That particular part of the book touches the bigger topic of echo chambers, and why it is very hard to convince people from within the chamber to even consider modifying their views, without first having a good dose of trust.

As a side note, this TED talk made its way to my headphones as I was listening to podcasts recently, completely by chance. It tells the story on how a dialogue with people that have entirely opposite viewpoint can help your business or organisation:

The last part of the book that was very memorable to me was about the power of authority, and how it leads to different tragic events, like the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, or the United Airlines Flight 173 crash. In both of those events (and likely many, many more) the social hierarchy muted participants from speaking up against their leader, even as they knew from their prior experience that decisions which were being made were ultimately leading to extreme danger. They remained quiet, as dissent was not acceptable. In critical situations those groups defaulted to the strategy of following the leader and accepting their dominance, rather than using their collective intelligence. A tool that, when thinking about it with cold head, would surely let them make decisions and produce output much better than any of them individually would.

I devoured the book in the span of two days. It is written in a way that draws one in, as it is filled with real world scenarios and description of events. The author makes a convincing case for embracing cognitive diversity and showcases several areas where it can help both individuals and groups in the quest of becoming better, by either the path of enlightenment, or increase of productivity.