Groups of people that are individually intelligent become collectively stupid when…

They become clone-like and parrot the same views. Suppose you’re running a top software company. Wouldn’t you want smartest software students from the best university? Wouldn’t you want to pack your organization with the brightest and the best? Despite the conventional wisdom, Matthew insists you shouldn’t. These graduates will have studied under the same professors and absorbed similar insights, ideas, heuristics and perhaps world views too. This is sometimes called ‘knowledge clustering’. By selecting graduates in a meritocratic way, organizations can find themselves gravitating towards clone-like teams.

 

Wise groups on the other hand express a different dynamic.

They are more like groups of rebels. They do not disagree for the sake of it but bring insights from different regions of the problem space. This represents the hallmark of collective intelligence: how wholes become more than the sum of their parts.

But remember diversity contributes to collective intelligence only when its relevant. The key is to find people with perspectives that are both germane and synergistic.

 

Everybody has theories.

The dangerous people are those who are not aware of their own theories. That is, the theories on which they operate are largely unconscious.

 

People don’t’ say what they think. They say what the leader wants to hear.

Over the last two decades, the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activates has increase by more than 50 percent. But meetings predict terrible outcomes even more powerfully than smoking predicts cancer. They start to migrate towards the alpha, parroting his viewpoint, shrinking their own bandwidth in the process. The cognitive capacity of the team effectively collapses to the parameters of just one brain.

Studies of healthcare have shown junior members fail to speak up because of the fear of the surgeon. The more overbearing the surgeon, the stronger this effect is. Likewise, people from hierarchical cultures are more likely to die on difficult mountain climbs because they’re less likely to speak and less likely to alert leaders to changing conditions and impending problems.

 

Having said all that, groups still need a leader and a hierarchy.

Larry and Sergey (the co-founders of Google) once eliminated managers and created a completely flat Google. The experiment was indeed eye-opening but only because it was a failure. The lack of hierarchy created chaos and confusion, and quickly the duo realized Google needed mangers to set direction and facilitate collaboration. Even an organization as collaborative as Google needs some level of hierarchy to tackle maddening ambiguity.

Without a leader, groups run the risk of conflict and indecision. Moreover, the leader makes wise choices only if they gain access to diverse views of the group.

 

Google found psychological safety to be the key factor in group dynamics.

It is by far the most important factor driving success. Without it, we’re afraid of the ridicule or rejection. We hesitate. We put our heads down. We avoid speaking up even if the situation entails serious consequences.

 

Wise leaders are both dominant and flexible.

When executing a plan, dominance can be crucial, but when deciding on a new strategy, innovating or predicting a future, you need to hear diverse perspectives. This is where dominance can be disastrous. Great leaders are able to pivot back and forth between the two leadership traits.

 

In addition to creating a culture of psychological safety, cutting-edge organizations have started introducing specific mechanisms to safeguard effective communication.

One of the most celebrated is the ‘golden’ silence of Amazon. For more than a decade, meetings at the tech giant have started not with a PowerPoint presentation but total silence. For thirty minutes, the team read a six-page memo that summarizes, in narrative form, the main agenda item.

This has a number of effects. First, it means the proposer must think deeply about their proposal. As Bezos put it “The reason writing a good memo is harder than writing a 20-page PowerPoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what.”

But there’s a better reason why this technique is powerful: it commits people to deciding what they think before learning the opinion of others. And even when discussion does start, the most senior person speaks last to protect diversity of thought.

 

Why did early luggage companies struggle to perceive the benefits of wheels?

Why did established manufacturing companies struggle to fuse electrification with modified assembly lines? Why is it so often the people in the best position to gain from innovation are blind to its opportunities? Could it be that when you’re immersed within a paradigm, it’s difficult to step beyond it?

Think of luggage executives in 1950s. Their lives were centered on conventional luggage. Their entire careers had been spent working with unwheeled suitcases. Their lives were bound up in the paradigm. In other words, it was easy for the luggage companies to stick with the comfortable status quo and not play the long game.

 

What does Estee Lauder, Henry Ford, Elon Musk, Walt Disney and Sergey Brin have in common?

Aside from the fact that they’re all famous entrepreneurs, they’re all immigrants or the children of immigrants. Meanwhile, incumbents are so proficient, knowledgeable and caught up in the status quo that they’re unable to see what’s coming, and the unrealized potential and likely evolution of the new technology even though that should be obvious to them. As Erik Brynjolfsson (professor of MIT Sloan School) puts it, “This dovetail with our analysis of immigrants. They’ve experienced a different culture, a different way of doing things. When they see the business ideas in a new country, or a tech, they don’t see something immutable. Irrevocable, set in stone. They see something that could potentially be changed”.

In one interesting study, researchers found Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox users have stayed in their jobs longer and performed better. When the status quo (Internet Explorer or Safari) isn’t good enough, people who clamor for better set out to look for new alternatives to keep them happier and more productive.

 

Immigrants also ignite innovation through cross-pollination of ideas.

They have experience of two cultures, so have greater scope to bring ideas together. They act as bridges, facilitators for ‘idea sex’. If the outsider perspective confers the ability to question the status quo, diversity of experience helps to provide the recombinant answers.

 

That is not to say we need insider expertise.

In fact, the opposite is true. We need both conceptual depth and conceptual distance. We need both insiders and outsiders. We need to be able to understand the status quo but also question it. We need to be strategically rebellious.

 

‘Assumption reversal’ helps to see the familiar with new eyes.

Suppose you’re thinking of starting a restaurant. The first assumption might be ‘restaurants have menus. The reversal would be ‘restaurants have no menus. Or your first assumption might be ‘taxi companies own cars’. The reversal would be ‘taxi companies own no cars. 20 years ago, that might have sounded crazy. Today the largest taxi company that has ever existed doesn’t own cars (hint: Uber).

 

People in the echo chamber tend to become more rooted in their opinions when exposed to opposing views.

Because they think it confirms the conspiracy against them. Opponents are not offering new insights but fake news.  Ask yourself could you tell a good statistician from an incompetent one? A good biologist from a bad one?… nobody can really assess such a long chain for themselves. Instead we depend on a vastly complicated social structure of trust.

 

We must trust each other but as philosopher Annette Baier says trust makes us vulnerable.

Echo chambers operate as a kind of social parasite on our vulnerability. An information bubble is when you don’t hear people from the other side. An echo chamber happens when you don’t trust people from the other side. Distrust is contagious but sometimes trust can be contagious too.

 

Averages can be misleading at best and deadly at worst.

A cabin standardized to the average pilot may sound logical even scientific, but the standardized cockpit was the root cause of the alarming incident rate, causing multiple crashes. And it forced the US Air Force to think in a new way about design. They re-designed the cockpit to adapt to the diversity of individuals. Sure enough, when planes were designed to enable pilots to vary the height of the seat, the distance of the joystick and so on, incidents plummeted.

After all the average has been calculated from that sample of individuals, yet it turns out that focusing solely on averages obscure diversity.

 

The idea of building flexibility into jobs like sales and administration seemed like madness but…

Google in 2014 asked a team of psychologists to give a short workshop to their sales and administration people. The workshop encouraged the professionals to think their jobs as flexible cockpits. They were taught consider how they could play to their strengths, shaping the contours of their work around their interests and talents, as well as the objectives of the company.

As Adam Grant (an American organizational psychologist) puts it “We introduced hundreds of employees to the notion that jobs are not static sculptures, but flexible building blocks. We have them examples of people becoming the architects of their own jobs, customizing their tasks and relationships to better align with their interests, skills and values – like an artistic salesperson volunteering to design a new logo and an outgoing financial analyst communicating with clients using video chat instead of email. They set out to create a new vision of their roles that was more ideal but still realistic.”

The result is employees who are exposed to cross-pollination ended up not only happier also performed better and moved into their ideal jobs, as opposed to a control group.

 

Standardized dietary advice will always be flawed because it only considers the food, not the person eating it.

Microbiomes, the bacteria’s we all host in our gastrointestinal systems, vary from person to person. When you look at diet from this perspective, with different factors translating into different enzymes, genes, bacterial genes and perhaps dozens of other unique factors, it seems almost absurd to suppose any diet could be sensible for all, even most people.

Researchers found stunning results that contradict to traditional dietary norms. They found for some people eating ice cream led to a healthy blood sugar response, while sushi had the contrary effect. For others it was the other way around. With pre-diabetics, the advice is to stop eating ice cream and switch to complex carbs like rice. But if the studies are true, it’s better off to measure our own blood sugar responses to different food and that way we get a diet that works for us.

 

Glycemic Index has been a gold standard of nutrition science but…

GI is a system of ranking foods according to how much they influence blood sugar. However, Glycemic Index (GI) is built on the average. The way to obtain such an index is to take a group of people, get them to eat different foods, and then measure the response. It’s built around the average response to food. And as as we learned earlier, averages can be deceiving to say the least.

Diet is merely one branch of this conceptual revolution, from standardization to personalization. Diversity is a part and parcel of humanity. It’s time to take it seriously.

 

3 applications to harness diversity in our jobs and lives

Application #1 Unconscious Bias

Eliminating unconscious bias is easy in theory and difficult in practice. So, pay close attention to the way you make judgements next time. Take prior history of the person into account but give everyone a privilege of a fresh start. Over time you will learn to see individuals objectively and find the best talents for your team.

 

Application #2 Shadow Boards

Shadow boards typically consist of a group of most able young people, drawn from across an organization who have regular input into high level decision-making. This enables executives to leverage the younger groups’ insights and to diversify the perspectives.

 

Application #3 Giving Attitude

The willingness to share, to offer knowledge and creative ideas, pays huge dividends in a world of complexity. Giving, not taking, is the glue of effective collaboration in the long run.


Kyaw Wai Yan Tun

Hi, I'm Wai Yan. I love designing visuals and writing insightful articles online. I see it as my way of making the world a more beautiful and insightful place.