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Challenging Business-As-Usual With Cognitive Diversity

By Laurindo Garcia, Content Lead – Catalyse Consulting

It’s a typical day in the office for Melissa – a senior executive of a family-owned manufacturing business in the health sector grappling with a rapidly changing business climate in Singapore. Melissa’s economic forecast is looking stormy. Increasing trade protectionism and political unrest is creating upheaval in her supply chains across the region. The profile and needs of export customers that Melissa’s executive team serviced five or ten years ago, are completely different from who she must sell to now. Learning how to chart a new course away from the strong current of her company’s tried and tested strategies and processes is a struggle. 

In the good old days, Melissa succeeded by aligning all team members to work in concert, applying long hours and pure grit. Everyone under her command followed her marching orders  – penalties were heavy when team members stepped out of line. Nowadays, productivity from the old way of doing things is yielding increasingly diminishing returns, anxiety is rising among her board of directors who call for new ideas from her loyal team – but none are forthcoming.

In a search of answers, Melissa sees how diversity has become the poster child of business media; a cure-all solution that magically delivers high performing teams with better problem solving capabilities than non-diverse teams. But in the discerning eyes of Melissa, diversity in Singapore is nothing new. Her home city is one of the most diverse in the region, where all ages, races and genders have been welcome to work side by side for generations. She views her rise to the top as an example of diversity in action in Singapore.

Things changed when Melissa came across research from Harvard Business Review that revealed the problem solving business potential of diversity as more than skin deep. The research found diversity of thought and perspective – also known as cognitive diversity – to be the secret sauce that drives teams towards high performance and innovation. Put simply, by bringing together different ways of processing and explaining the world into a team, novel approaches for solving complex problems have a better chance of arising.

For a leader who is accustomed to team culture where everyone tows the line, the prospect of inviting conflicting and opposing views makes her feel uneasy. Melissa worries how work will get done in a team without order where people are constantly arguing and no one sees eye to eye. Moreover, she doubts that her team members will rise to the challenge. It is uncustomary for her employees to challenge the authority of their boss for fear of being sacked.

However, unprecedented disruptions in the market and mounting pressure from her bosses compels Melissa to try something new; because conducting business as usual will only yield more of the same dwindling results.

Armed with further research, she prepares to make three changes in the way her team operates:

  • Create safe space for constructive disagreement and innovation: Inviting constructive debate in meetings and encouraging different modes of thinking are key ingredients that will help Melissa make team members feel psychologically safe to take risks in the face of complex problems. By establishing a culture where thinking and doing things differently is founded on mutual respect Melissa believes her team will feel more confident when working outside of their comfort zone.
  • Seek out creative and strategic partnerships: Melissa believes that seeking out partnerships with organisations from industries outside of her own will augment the perspectives and capabilities of her team. For example by forging an alliance between her company, experts in building retail experiences, machine learning and communities of patients Melissa will gain knowledge and open previously untapped opportunities. 
  • Recruit for diversity of thought: Hiring talent from the same alma-mater or pedigree of professional experience may feel like a safe bet. But doing so risks producing more of the status quo at her company and further entrenches prevailing bias in the organisation’s processes. By carefully curating pipelines of talent from diverse backgrounds who are aligned on core values Melissa will ensure that different capabilities, experiences and ways of thinking are brought to the table. Her company will thereafter be in a better position to solve for the blind spots in complex problems. 

To be sure, Melissa is keenly aware that speed and efficiency are often traded off when encouraging diverging perspectives – discussions and debate costs time. That said, by taking a long view, Melissa recognises that unchecked bias and blind spots pose a greater risks to company downstream. Thus time for robust, critical analysis is ultimately time spent wisely. 

In closing, business researchers Alison Reynolds and David Lewis waxed that “when everyone agrees on what to do, find someone who disagrees and cherish them.” Such elegant wisdom galvanised Melissa’s confidence to navigate through turbulent and uncharted waters in search of new and un-imagined opportunities. 

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