Why projects need diverse people who think differently

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The business case for gender and ethnic diversity is irrefutable. Diversity delivers – it’s good for the bottom line. There is a vast quantity of evidence that businesses with higher levels of social or identity diversity among staff outperform less diverse firms for profitability, value creation and innovation.

We certainly need to keep making the case for diversity at work while there are more CEOs in the US named John than there are female CEOs, but we no longer have to do so on grounds of equity or social justice. Diversity delivers particularly in situations of ambiguity, complexity and unpredictability – situations faced by all organisations in 2020. That’s because diverse organisations and teams think differently.

Decision-making under pressure

Diverse teams have been shown to make better decisions under pressure and uncertainty. They scrutinise and evaluate the evidence more thoroughly, and they consider a wider range of perspectives and options. More homogenous teams, by contrast, tend to be less rigorous and more complacent. The research is so convincing that the US military now recognises the lack of diversity among its generals as a national security risk.

Diverse teams think better. In general, they learn more quickly, and they are better able to perform unfamiliar or complex tasks and navigate uncertain or unpredictable environments. This is because diverse teams tend to have a greater variety of cognitive tools. Not just different forms of specialist knowledge, but varied ways of seeing, analysing and interpreting the world.

This cognitive or psychological diversity pays huge dividends, as Scott E Page explains with abundant examples in his 2017 book The Diversity Bonus. But in our enthusiasm and commitment to diversity at work it can be easy, tempting even, to overlook the problems commonly faced by diverse teams. Diversity is not all sunshine and sand.

Highly diverse teams often struggle to integrate and align to a project vision and objectives. Team members may speak different languages (literally and figuratively) and see the world very differently. They may argue over different interpretations of their purpose and goals, and how to achieve them. It is not uncommon for cliques to emerge in diverse teams. This may develop into competition for resources and at worst dysfunctional behaviour, even conflict, between team members.

Highly diverse teams can be difficult and challenging, but we should welcome the arguments and disputes as signs that we are in the presence of diversity, not cosy conformity. There are as yet no reliable tests for cognitive diversity, so let the discomfort we feel when working with others be our test.

Enabling every voice to be heard

If we are to progress in our complex, divided, anxious and at times irrational world, we need to widen the pool of our collective intelligence. We need to empower and include people who think very differently to the norm, as Matthew Syed argues so convincingly in his book Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking. Even in a homogenous team, the presence of just one individual with rebel ideas is enough to improve the team’s performance. As Syed points out: “Collective intelligence emerges not just from the knowledges of individuals, but also from the differences between them.”

Yet working with rebels who think very differently can be challenging for some people. It can provoke highly charged, even unpleasant, responses – just look at the reaction to Greta Thunberg, who has Asperger’s syndrome.

The project leader’s role in highly diverse teams must not be to reconcile or level the differences. Instead, we need to enable every voice to be heard and considered. And we must seek to understand and mitigate the implicit biases that everyone in the team brings about the others, which left unchecked will harm the team’s interactions, judgements and outcomes.

Want one simple takeaway? Try assuming everyone knows something that you don’t. Make it your mission to unlock all that unknown and untapped thinking power in the team. Now, more than ever, we need rebels. We need diverse people who think differently. As Thunberg says, 'being different is a superpower'.

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Matthew Moran

Posted by Matthew Moran on 24th Sep 2020

About the Author

I am Head of Transformation at The Open University and sometimes lecturer in the OU Business School, and I speak, write, consult and advise on strategy, project and product management, and organisational change.

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