Last week, I discussed the importance of asking both Why? and How? questions in solving problems. This week, let me expand the discussion further to answer the following question: Is this diversity necessarily a good thing when it comes to solving problems? We tend to assume that we’ll get better results from groups of people from different backgrounds and possessing a variety of skills than we would from groups with a single orientation. That means diversity of many types, not only differences of culture, ethnicity and gender, but also variety of expertise, intellectual perspective, values and interests. They are all important for collaborative public policy.
We may believe in the value of diversity from intuition, ideological conviction and personal experience. But do we have rigorous models and empirical evidence to support this belief?
All forms of diversity are not equally effective. It’s the differences in perspectives and methods of approaching problems that most often lead to better outcomes. This is what is called cognitive diversity. Variety in the way problems are framed and interpreted helps a group get unstuck when a single approach can’t produce a workable solution.
It comes to us naturally, without forethought. Our way of looking at the world is not something we typically question. It just is. We accept it and expect that others will do the same. In fact, we may go so far as to think that others are “wrong” and we are “right” in the way we look at the world.
Differing ways of looking at the world, interpreting experience, solving problems and predicting future possibilities work together to produce a distinctive mental tool set. Groups with this sort of variety consistently outperform groups working with a single problem-solving perspective.
When it comes to convening a collaborative policy group, though, diversity usually refers to cultural, ethnic and gender balance. Identity diversity, satisfies the crucial need for fairness and equity, but, by itself, doesn’t ensure better problem-solving. Again, the picture is complicated because there are many forms of identity diversity – culture, gender, age, socio-economic status, among others. The evidence points to cultural diversity as having the most significant impact.
Variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds often correlates with more creative and effective solutions than other types of identity diversity. That’s because differing cultural perspectives, language and experience can also mean different ways of thinking and defining problems.
A group of people who can look at a problem in opposite ways is much more likely to come up with innovative solutions than one dependent on a single perspective. Cultures develop their own sense of what’s important and what the mind needs to focus on, and that leads to very different ways of defining and solving problems. So cultural difference is most effective when it’s also characterized by cognitive difference.
That link, however, may not always exist. People from differing ethnic or cultural backgrounds may acquire the same training, skill sets and experience as people from the prevailing culture. In that case, they’ll likely think about things in the same way, and the deeper differences disappear. Other types of identity differences can also add richness of thought, but the data link cultural and ethnic identity with the greatest overall benefit.
So, don’t stop with cultural diversity. Also make sure that participants don’t all rely on the same toolsets to solve problems. The group needs to have a rich variety of perspectives, interpretations, methods of solving problems and approaches to predicting the future – that is, all the elements of cognitive diversity. That added dimension increases the likelihood that such groups will find a more creative and effective result.
Probably the first thing that comes to mind in putting together a collaborative group – indeed its main purpose – is to include the full range of interest groups most likely to be affected by a decision – and most likely to oppose it if they are excluded. What about diversity of interests? Isn’t that essential to coming up with a better solution than one devised by a group representing a single interest?
Not necessarily. In fact, the most consistently disruptive element is divergence of interests and values – or preference diversity. That’s understandable since interest groups tend to complete with one another and fight to get their needs met. Drawn into a collaborative group, they are often not communicating well but still battling over fixed positions. Even if the group also possesses variety in problem-solving tools and cultural perspectives, divergent goals work against the beneficial effect they can have.
Groups with diverse cognitive toolboxes and diverse fundamental preferences have higher variance performance (they locate better outcomes and produce more conflict). So, if such groups can find a way to work together, they are likely to excel in producing creative solutions. But if they can’t get along, they can fail pretty badly.
What does that mean for an executive who wants to convene a group with just these characteristics? Is it as risky as a roll of the dice?
Not at all. Evidence shows that these complex groups get off to a rough start, often because they have to negotiate over the definition of the problem to be dealt with. There are many other reasons, such as hostility to new ideas, poor communication, efforts to control agendas, and so on. Over time, however, they can learn to work together more effectively. A key reason for success is good group management.
The best way to achieve effective group dynamics is to manage the process with collaborative leaders, possibly working with professional mediators and facilitators. In other words, people with the experience and skills to help groups work through conflict. The divisive force of fundamentally differing interests is strong and requires skill to manage effectively. Nothing will guarantee success, but effective group management can make all the difference in helping people learn how to get along and collaborate effectively.
Whether or not you agree with these methods and conclusions, they make a powerful case for the value of diversity.
Dr Surya M Ganduri, PhD. PMP. is the Founder & President of eMBC, Inc., an international firm specializing in strategic and executive leadership development processes that Help People Succeed in an Evolving World. Dr Surya has over 28 years of business experience in management consulting, leadership development, executive coaching, process improvements, organizational development and youth leadership. For more information visit www.eMBCinc.com or contact eMBC, Inc., directly at (630) 445-1321.