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The Power of Cognitive Diversity

It is interesting how often we can gain insight into something of wider significance from things that happen in our daily life.  It occurred to me recently that there is a lot of debate (and I’ll stick with the word ‘debate’ rather than ‘argument’) in our house – most of which takes place between my husband and me.  We come at things from very different angles, grew up in quite different households, made our way through the education system in different ways and don’t even agree on which political party to vote for. 

Now this might sound like a recipe for disaster but nothing could be further from the truth.  I have often thought how fortunate I am to have someone in my life with such a contrasting set of views: I’m forced to argue (I mean ‘debate’!) what I think and believe in a more intelligent way; occasionally my views are changed; and, frequently, I’m encouraged to look at things from a perspective that would not otherwise have presented itself to me.  Recently, reading Matthew Syed’s new book – Rebel Ideas – I’ve become even more convinced about the powerful outcomes that engaging with diversity of thought and experience can have both on the individual and within teams and organisations.

The most challenging problems that our world is facing right now are enormously complex.  Even a century ago, a mere moment in the history of our planet, the issues we faced were simpler and more linear.  In the areas of science and engineering, the response to the challenges this complexity presents is to bring together teams of people. I have talked before about the value these teams offer but Syed takes this further and explains how diversity within these teams can give them the edge and enable them to become much more than the sum of their parts.  He is not necessarily talking about the demographic/identity diversity that includes gender, race, age, religion, sexuality but instead cognitive diversity - ‘difference in perspective, insights, experiences and thinking styles’.  For some complex problems demographic/identity diversity may provide the cognitive diversity he describes, but in others it will not.

Syed’s book provides detailed real-world illustrations of where cognitive diversity (or the lack of it) had significant impact.  He gives a fascinating analysis showing how the CIA, despite having formidable intelligence, was unable to identify Bin Laden as a credible threat because they didn’t recognise that in his communications to the world he was using imagery from the Koran to deliver a potent message. Instead, they saw him and his followers as an ‘anti modern, uneducated rabble’.  Syed describes our blind spots - our inability to fully understand certain problems because we cannot know what we don’t know. More people, with more diverse experiences in life, are less likely to share the same blind spots. Syed goes on to describe how teams with relevant but varied expertise blend broader working knowledge that might produce a more elegant solution to a problem. The inspiration for his book was his own invitation in 2016 to join a hugely varied team on the Football Association’s Technical Advisory Board. The group contained a British Asian founder of high tech start-ups, a leading educationalist, the former head coach of the England rugby team, and the first female college commander at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst amongst others. Not a lot of football expertise…but huge cognitive variety.  I’ll let you decide whether they might have had a positive impact if you reflect back on our most recent world cup performance.

At St John’s we have been exploring the concept of WeMe which we use to describe the way that our community is made more by the membership of every individual.  To allow our whole community to achieve its full potential, we must create space for the variety of views, experiences and insights that surely exist amongst us. By sharing opinions, being open to different points of view, listening with respect, and learning to articulate our own views clearly, we can all contribute to and benefit from St John’s being greater than the sum of its parts. 

Ref: Matthew Syed, Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking, 2019. John Murray Press

Rowena Cole is The Head of St John's School.  Follow her @rowenacole01 and stay in touch with all the news at St John's by following us @StJohnsSurrey