Fostering Diversity of Thinking

Divergence of opinion has traditionally been viewed in less than positive terms: when x and y don’t see eye to eye on a particular subject, this is generally seen as problematic (particularly if x or y is in charge). By extension, we hear of the virtues of assembling a group of ‘like-minded’ individuals. Organisations typically promote compromise and conformity as virtues to foster harmony and unity within the group (as well as obedience). Contrary to this, the wisdom of crowds illustrates the benefits of aggregating judgements from a broad and disparate group of individuals. To further strengthen the case for diversity of thought and experience, ‘cognitive diversity’ is in fact found to be the major factor that differentiates successful teams and organisations. In this Informed Blog, we explore the paradoxical ways that diversity and divergence in thinking are conceptualised and dealt with, to see what lessons we can take on a group and individual level in the context we work in.

Intuitively it makes sense that having a diverse mix of knowledge and experience within the group will benefit how we are collectively able to problem-solve, navigate the complexity inherent in working with athletes, and operate in the uncertainty of sport. In business speak, ‘cross-functional collaboration’ is identified as key for agile problem solving and innovation, rather than operating in ‘functional silos’. Yet the conventions of organisations and our own foibles, with respect to how we entertain ‘otherness’ in terms of ideas and individuals, have a tendency to drive selection and behaviours in the opposite direction from the diversity we seek.

Here we have a paradox: the benefits of diversity in thought and divergence in opinion are apparent on a rational level; yet humans and organisations do not entertain these things in a particularly rational manner. These issues are as evident and prevalent in sport as they are in business, yet we have been slow to reckon with the questions and challenges this poses at an organisation and individual level in the context of performance sport.

WISDOM OF CROWDS…

The wisdom of the crowd refers to the observation that a judgement based on the aggregation of diverse estimates from members of a large group is frequently superior to the judgement of an individual expert.

It follows that employing such collective intelligence can also improve our problem solving capabilities. Being able to aggregate diverse knowledge, experience, and perspectives on a problem should help us form superior judgements and devise better solutions.

One important thing to note is that @@the ‘hive mind’ works to best effect when it contains dissenting voices and diverging opinions@@. From this viewpoint, the challenge is to ensure the hive mind continues to function in this way.

For instance, one tendency we need to guard against is ‘herding’. Clearly, if the thinking and opinions of individual members of the group become unduly influenced by the prevailing view of the largest or most vocal sub group then they no longer function as independent thinkers, or at least are dissuaded from expressing their independent viewpoint. Herding mentality, and other group dynamics that lead to our independent thinking becoming ‘socialised’, effectively negates the wisdom of the crowd, so that the collective intelligence of the ‘hive mind’ is ultimately compromised.

COGNITIVE DIVERSITY…

As reported in the Harvard Business Review, studies of executive groups discovered that diversity in terms of more obvious criteria such as age, ethnicity, and gender did not show any correlation to which groups were successful. Rather, it was diversity in terms of the perspectives and thinking of individuals within the group that separated those groups that were most effective.

We can define cognitive diversity in terms of existing knowledge, perspectives, information processing, problem solving, and ability to handle novelty and complexity. Effectively we are looking for an individual’s knowledge within and across domains, traits and variety of experiences that inform and influence their perspective, how they entertain and process new information, how they think about problems, and how they approach and solve new problems.

Given that the diversity we seek is not immediately visible, how do we then go about screening and selecting for cognitive diversity?

SELECTING FOR COGNITIVE DIVERSITY…

In my most recent role, I was clear when recruiting for new staff that I was seeking to strengthen the team by bringing in individuals with different experience and education from other countries, systems, and environments in relation to our existing staff. My rationale was that we did not need more of the same. I felt strongly that adding much needed diversity in terms of experience and perspectives would ultimately strengthen the team by exposing them to different ideas and ways of operating, and also expand individual staff members’ horizons beyond what they had become accustomed to within the bubble they had worked in.

Practically, this meant paying particular attention to the education and experiences that candidates brought with them from their academic and professional journey to date. As an aside, an obstacle to recruiting on these criteria are the restrictive policies and procedures in force in many countries when it comes to securing work permits and legal right to work for overseas applicants. Whilst it is an understandable policy on a number of levels, those countries and organisations that give ‘native’ applicants first priority effectively serve to obstruct efforts to recruit for diversity of experience.

That said, these challenges are not insurmountable. And even if we only consider ‘native’ applicants, those individuals who have invested the time and effort to travel to live and work in different environments and cultures would be favoured when recruiting based on cognitive diversity selection criteria.

In terms of traits, what I probe for during the interview process is how the individual responds to challenge. and how they entertain new ideas that might conflict with what they have been taught. Similarly, I am looking for how the applicant speaks to the systems and models they employ, and the extent to which they allow for uncertainty in their answers.

Ultimately, in order to add to the collective intelligence of the ‘hive mind’, the individual needs to be not only open to new and conflicting ideas, but also able to retain their independence of thought and resist being unduly influenced by their peer group. Similarly, the individual must possess the courage to express their independent viewpoint, whatever the consensus view of the group, or views expressed by authority figures.

Another excellent criteria employed by a friend and colleague of mine when recruiting staff and selecting graduate assistants is that he looks for individuals who know more than he does within a particular domain or subject area. Essentially he recruits people who can teach him something.

ORGANISATIONAL BARRIERS TO DIVERSITY

Operational structure and conventions within organisations often drive towards uniformity of opinion and a shared approach to both working and problem solving. By definition, this tends to negate or at least discourage diversity within the hive mind. When diverging opinions are expressed this tends to be interpreted as dissent, and both the opinion and the person are received in a correspondingly negative manner.

In a sporting context, the institute of sport model is an example of an organisation that is structurally prone to these problems. Institutions by their nature have an in-built drive for conformity in thinking and working practices. This is a consistent theme whatever the particular local version, as I have learned on my travels in different parts of the world.

The problem with promoting a common and shared view of how things should operate is that naturally this serves to constrain how we approach problems. By definition, conformity and uniformity discourages alternative views and approaches. Ultimately, on an individual and collective level, this makes us less able to entertain novelty and cope with uncertainty and complexity. Ironically, novelty, uncertainty, and complexity are the very elements that we need to deal with when working with athletes and in sport.

BARRIERS ON A PERSONAL LEVEL…

Even on an individual level it can be discomfiting to be faced with somebody who sees things differently and expresses ideas that conflict with our own. It is confronting to be exposed to thinking that deviates from what we understood to be true, or contradicts our present thinking on the topic.

Unsurprisingly as humans we typically gravitate towards those who see things as we do and have shared experiences in common. It is natural for humans to seek affirmation, so we find it comforting to be around like-minded individuals. For the same reasons, we favour sources and information that correspond to the opinions and viewpoints that we subscribe to, and we tend to discredit and disregard the rest.

To compound these tendencies, in the era of smart technology, websites and applications are also constantly monitoring our data to learn our preferences, views, and biases in order to curate what we see when we use a search engine and browse social media. Essentially these websites and applications take our views, preferences, and biases and reflect them back at us, providing only confirming information sources and filtering out the rest. These algorithms are literally telling us what we want to hear. In this way, our own echo chamber is created for us even when searching and browsing ‘independently’.

SOLUTIONS AT AN ORGANISATION LEVEL…

The drive for ‘agile’ innovation is prompting those in business to reassess conventional vertically aligned top-down hierarchical organisational structures. More enlighted organisations are moving towards decentralised and horizontal organisation structures. The merits of this approach for sport and high performance athlete support teams are also becoming recognised by pioneers such as Teena Murray, who recently joined the Sacramento Kings NBA franchise.

Whilst these structural changes are an important step to remove some of the constraints to collective intelligence and to help derive the benefits of cognitive diversity, ultimately those in positions of authority remain in control and so need to be part of the change.

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to to. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.
— Steve Jobs

So can we expect authoritarian leaders within sports organisations to cede their power and step back to realise the benefits of autonomous working groups and decentralised decision making? Well, it seems unlikely those turkeys will vote for Christmas. Ultimately Darwinian processes, perhaps survival of the most adaptable or agile, are likely to drive this evolution in sport, as in business.

FOSTERING DIVERSITY WITHIN OURSELVES…

Perhaps a more tractable problem is to consider what can we do to foster cognitive diversity within ourselves? Attaining a range of experiences will naturally bring different insights. Being exposed to a range of perspectives also provides different viewpoints to allow us to better understand the puzzle we are seeking to solve.

However, to realise these benefits we must remain alert in order to avoid finding ourselves in an echo chamber. Being surrounded by people who see things the same as we do might be reassuring on some level, but it adds nothing to our understanding of the problem and does not help to generate alternative solutions. Similarly, in order to take advantage of being exposed to diverse view and ways of thinking we must recognise and resist the urge to immediately discredit and dismiss views that are contrary to own.

Acquiring a wider and more diverse array of mental models that we are able to bring to a given problem will clearly be to our advantage. It is also a useful exercise to consider the counterpoints and work through the counter arguments to the view we hold. In this way we can probe and interrogate our own thinking for flaws in the logic, and consider all perspectives on both the problem and prospective solutions. This practice will not only allow us to have more conviction in our ultimate solution, but will also make us better equipped to navigate uncertainty and unpredictability.

It has been identified that over-specialisation is a growing problem within different industries, and you could argue that this equally applies to the professions within sport. There are an ever growing array of titles and specialist roles within athlete support teams, each with their designated area of specialism and responsibilities within their scope of practice.

I would argue that @@having an area of specialism is not the problem with over-specialisation@@. Possessing deep knowledge of one or more single area defines us as a specialist. Conversely, having awareness and level of knowledge across domains and disciplines makes us a generalist. I have written before about the need as coaches and practitioners to be both a specialist and a generalist.

@@Try to learn something about everything and everything about something@@
— Thomas H. Huxley

Deep knowledge in our specialist area remains important - teams greatly benefit from having ‘subject matter experts’ in their respective domains. However, possessing the cross-domain knowledge of a generalist enables us to avoid our specialism from constraining our thinking and perspective on the problem. We can operate most effectively and leverage our collective wisdom to best effect when subject matter expertise is accompanied by a broad understanding and level of awareness across domains and disciplines.

LESSONS OUTSIDE OF OUR CHOSEN DOMAIN…

Looking outside our particular domain is often more instructive than limiting our scope of learning and investigation to within the bubble of our particular profession or ‘industry’.

From a personal perspective, I have no urge to keep up with trends or whatever the current fad is within the ‘industry’. Concentrating too much on current trends within the field or what others are doing within our domain inevitably leads to unwarranted peer influence on our practice, and ultimately constrains our thinking.

Through interactions with colleagues it is quite possible to remain peripherally aware, but not concern oneself too much with what others in our field are doing. I increasingly pay more attention to lessons and examples from outside of the profession or domain, and I frequently find inspiration from other fields. Reading and hearing those who operate in an ‘unrelated’ domain, such as business, investing, or some other field of ‘knowledge work’, often provides lessons that are highly pertinent to my own areas of practice.

TO SUM UP..

@@In the interests of the collective wisdom of the hive mind we need to be ready to embrace diversity@@. Fundamentally, this means recognising the value of otherness. Practically, this means entertaining diverging views and ideas not in spite of but because of the fact they may be contrary to what we have previously exposed been to. It also means actively seeking out those differing backgrounds, experience and education for the insights they can bring.

Working in a realm as uncertain as sport and with something as complex as athletes we should seek different perspectives and different ways to think about the challenges we encounter. There are many ways to conceptualise a problem. Different perspectives allow us to get a more rounded view and improved understanding of the puzzle. The potential solutions are also many and varied.

On an individual and a group level we need to alter how we deal with divergence in views and how we think about disagreement. In essence we need to recognise the inherent value of divergence and disagreement in ultimately making us better able to innovate and improving our collective ability to handle novel problems. On that basis we should invite and encourage alternative viewpoints in order to realise the value of dissenting voices. Personally it is rare that I agree 100% with anybody or anything. And that’s okay. In fact it is healthy. It is also not a personal slight to those involved. It is entirely possible to respect both the individual and their point view despite the fact I don’t agree with it.

In general it is not safe to assume there is wisdom in the conventions or the present consensus viewpoint in our chosen field. I would argue we should not pay undue attention to how others within our field are operating. We should rather give liberty to our eyes and ears. @@Cognitive diversity means being eclectic in our input@@. Giving ourselves the freedom to roam explore other domains helps to develop the generalist knowledge to complement and provide perspective to better apply our subject matter expertise. We should look to more established professions when searching for wisdom, and be attentive to the lessons and principles from other domains that might apply to our own field.

Finally, @@cognitive diversity and free thinking requires courage@@. It necessitates the strength to resist pressures to conform in order to remain independent thinkers. Ultimately @@if independent thoughts to be heard they must first be voiced@@. We must therefore have the courage to express our independent viewpoint, irrespective of the prevailing view of the group, and regardless of how it might be entertained by our peers and those in authority.

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