Diversity – A Powerful Force for Innovation

Steve Denning, author of The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century has published a succinct overview of  Scott Page’s book The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies in Forbes this week. I found Denning’s review of Page’s perspectives on the potential for diversity fascinating. This book is now on my list. Thanks Steve Denning:

Scott Page shows in detail and with considerable intellectual rigor when diversity does lead to better outcomes and how and why, as well as when it doesn’t. His short answer is that in some circumstances diversity doesn’t lead to better outcomes:

“… if a loved one requires open-heart surgery, we do not want a collection of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers carving open the chest cavity. We’d much prefer a trained heart surgeon, and for good reason.”

But in other circumstances, particularly complex problems, such as constructing a welfare policy, cracking a secret code or evaluating post-heart attack treatment, diversity not only merits equal standing with ability.[sic]

More of Steve Denning’s overview of The Difference:

One of the useful things Page does in The Difference is to unpack the notion of diversity. He focuses on cognitive differences between people, not identity differences like race, gender, ethnicity or religion. He suggests that cognitive diversity has four dimensions: perspectives, interpretations, heuristics, predictive models.

  • Diverse perspectives: people have different ways of representing situations and problems; they who see or envision the set of possibilities confronting them differently.
  • Diverse interpretations: people put things into different categories and classifications. To some people, I might be someone who worked at the World Bank. To others, I might be an leadership storyteller. To others, I might be an author about radical management. All are true. They are different interpretations of the world.
  • Diverse heuristics: People have different ways of generating solutions to problems. Some people like to talk through their thinking about problems; others prefer to write out his solutions first and then talk.
  • Diverse predictive models: Some people analyze the situation. Others may look for the story.

Cognitive vs identity diversity
A third virtue of the book is his summary of the evidence as to whether diversity leads to benefits, including comparisons of cognitive diversity and identity diversity. Cognitive diversity doesn’t improve performance when it comes to routine tasks, like flipping burgers. But when we are dealing with complex tasks like engineering problems, or tasks requiring creativity and innovation, or managerial issues, cognitive diversity is a key explanatory variable in levels of performance.

Diversity offers “super-additivity”
The fourth good quality of the book is when Page goes on the offensive and addresses the question of: so what? Given what we have learned, what should we do differently? Page points out that diversity offers not merely the advantage of a diverse stock portfolio where different stocks do better in different conditions, adding up to an overall average that does reasonably in all conditions.

Diversity in teams offers what he calls super-additivity. When a collection of people work together, and one person makes an improvement, the others can often improve on this new solution even further: improvements build on improvements. Diverse perspectives and iverse hueruistics [sic] apply sequentially: one gets applied after the other and in combination. As a result, one plus one often exceeds two.

Here are links to more reviews (pro and con) of Scott Page’s book:

New York Times – In Professor’s Model, Diversity = Productivity

Crooked Timber – Review: Scott E Page, The Difference

Google Books – The difference: how the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies

National Association of Scholars – Unworldly Diversity

  • […] Diversity is critical to innovation and creative problem solving. We all agree on that. But how do you get a diverse group that is feeding on a healthy, balanced, diet? How do you balance you own diet? […]

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