For some time I’ve been playing around with an interesting proposition – that those who straddle different “worlds” – be it of nation, class, profession, academic discipline – are not only more original in the ideas they produce BUT are also able to communicate these ideas more clearly to the general public than specialists stuck in more “homogeneous” worlds….
And it’s interesting that we often hang the label of “outsider” on such people
A post earlier this year indeed explored this issue in a rather daring way - by simply listing the names which came into my head as exemplars of clear, accessible writing and then – AND ONLY THEN – trying to identify anything to suggest their “outsider” status (whether in country, discipline, ethnicity or even gender). The result was quite stunning – with such “outsider” status being immediately identified for no fewer than 17 of the 18 names
Only a week earlier a post entitled In Praise of the Outsider had looked at a few academic economists who chose to break out of their narrow worlds and give us superbly-written analyses of modern capitalism.
That indeed was the moment when I decided to change the name of the blog to that of “Peripheral Vision” – basically to honour those who break out of the “tunnel vision” of their homogenising worlds and offer us fresh ways of seeing the world
This notion of the potential benefits of conflicting pressures I had first expressed in a diagram I scribbled some 40 years ago when I was exploring with students the different and indeed conflicting roles open to politicians (depending on whose voice they listened to) – to which I gave such names as “populist”; “ideologue”, “statesman” and “maverick” - and found myself suggesting that the most satisfying role was in fact the apparently impossible one of trying to identify the common element which came from the diversity of voices.
I have this past week been reading the first book I have come across which recognises the importance for organisations to encourage such conflicting perspectives - it is Rebel Ideas – the power of diverse thinking; Matthew Syed (2019) which starts with the failure of the CIA to pick up the warning signals of the 9/11 attack and attributes this to its all-white homogeneous culture. It then looks at a variety of disasters (including an Everest mountaineering tragedy and an aircraft failure) in which participants failed to speak up at crucial points simply because of their junior status in the command structure
The book goes on to argue that
Our social networks are full of people with similar experiences, views and beliefs. Birds of a feather flock together. We tend to bask in the warm glow of nicely agreeing, mirroring, parroting, corroborating, confirming, reflecting together. Entrenching in each other’s blind spots. That is where fads, stock-market bubbles and other bandwagon effects come from.
You need diversity. Diversity not only based on demographics but on cognitive diversity. The need for differences in perspective, insights, experiences and thinking styles.
More important now
Cognitive diversity was not so important a few hundred years ago, because the problems we faced tended to be linear, or simple, or separable, or all three. The critical point is that solutions to complex problems typically rely on multiple layers of insight and therefore require multiple points of view. The more diverse the perspectives, the more extensive the range of potentially viable solutions a collection of problem solvers can find. We need to address cognitive diversity before tackling our toughest challenges. It is only then that team deliberation can lead not to mirroring, but to enlightenment.
Here are some numbers to support diversity:
- A study by Professor Chad Sparber, an American economist, found that an increase in racial diversity of one standard deviation increased productivity by more than 25 per cent in legal services, health services and finance.
- Germany and the United Kingdom found that return on equity was 66 per cent higher for firms with executive teams in the top quartile for gender and ethnic diversity than for those in the bottom quartile. For the United States, the return on equity was 100 per cent higher.
- A diverse group of six forecasters, while individually less impressive, would be 15 per cent more accurate.
- A study by the Rotterdam School of Management analysed more than three hundred real-world projects dating back to 1972 and found that projects led by junior managers were more likely to succeed than those with a senior person in charge.
- 43% of companies in the Fortune 500 were founded or co-founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants, rising to 57% in the top thirty-five companies.
- Those who studied abroad had ideas that were rated 17 per cent higher than those who had not.
Many companies hire all these great college kids with all sorts of backgrounds; all kinds of ideas brimming in their heads — only to watch them gradually remoulded to ‘fit’ the culture of the organisation. At most meetings, communication is dysfunctional. Many people are silent. Status rigs the discourse. People don’t say what they think but what they think the leader wants to hear. And they fail to share crucial information because they don’t realise what other people lack
Groups typically need a leader, otherwise there is a risk of conflict and indecision. And yet the leader will make wise choices only if they gain access to the diverse views of the group. How, then, can an organisation have hierarchy and information sharing, decisiveness and diversity? This is the question that has dominated management books for decades, and the approach has typically been to position hierarchy and diversity in an inherent conflict.
Dominant leaders are, by definition, punitive. This is how they win and sustain power. They are also less empathetic. They don’t feel that they need other people, so don’t tend to take their perspectives or read their emotions.