Book Review-The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies

In America, we’re supposed to appreciate the value of diversity, but this runs in conflict to the way that we actually behave. We associate only with people who are like us. We fill our organizations with people who are like us, because we’re more comfortable that way. However, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies encourages us to consider how diversity can create better answers than we can accomplish with a set of same-minded individuals.

Group Think and the Wisdom of Crowds

Janus Irving first coined the term “group think” as a way of describing the dynamics of a group that coalesce around an answer – but the wrong one. There’s no one around to say, “The emperor has no clothes,” because everyone is too close to the problem and things in too much the same way. This is the opposite of the wisdom of crowds . (See my review of The Wisdom of Crowds.) That is that crowds, by their nature, can be wise. They can find solutions that no single person can.

Not all crowds are wise, however. There are Fermi’s “crowds” (a.k.a. students in a class) that can accurately predict the number of piano tuners in Chicago. Given a reasonable number of people with useful information, it’s possible to come to reasonable conclusions that yield a highly accurate result (see How to Measure Anything). It’s equally likely that someone will come up with a Drake equation – where there are no reasonable answers, and as a result, the outcome is completely unpredictable.

Discover the Truth

Defining Diversity

We can’t get too far without being clear what is meant by “diversity.” The word has been subsumed by corporate technobabble to mean race and, occasionally, gender diversity. However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Race and gender diversity are important issues, but they’re not the kind of diversity that Page is discussing. He’s talking about how individuals see the world, categorize its components, and understand its interactions and meanings, and how they believe that they need to go about the process of improving it – or deciding not to.

Page explains that there are four kinds of diversity that are important:

  • Diverse Perspectives: ways of representing situations and problems
  • Diverse Interpretations: ways of categorizing or partitioning perspectives
  • Diverse Heuristics: ways of generating solutions to problems
  • Diverse Predictive Models: ways of inferring cause and effect

Diversity is about thought. It’s diversity in the internal language that individuals use to encode the world around them. It’s about the tools and techniques – the heuristics and “rules of thumb” – that they use to survive in this crazy world. At the core of understanding diversity is understanding the value of it.

Consider the old cliché that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you have a full toolbox with different perspectives and approaches, you can see everything as it is – or nearly as it is – rather than accepting a single-dimensional and necessarily inaccurate view.

I Am Large, I Contain Multitudes

One of the reasons that I spend so much time reading and researching is so that I can expose myself to different perspectives and approaches. Consider personality profiling. Whether it’s Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) , DISC, Enneagram (see Personality Types: Using Enneagram for Self-Discovery), Reiss’ Basic Motivators (see Who Am I? and The Normal Personality), StrengthsFinders (see Strengths Finder 2.0), the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory (see The Time Paradox), etc., they’re all ways to look at other people to seek to understand them better.

While I often fall back to using MBTI as a way to learn how to communicate better with people, because I do it automatically, I find that having different perspectives creates opportunities to look at folks using different lenses to see different things. Even if I find that some of my views are contradictory, that’s OK, because I get to learn from the conflicts – and I get to explore with another person where their unique strengths lie.

I am trying to become the man that Walt Whitman described himself to be when he wrote, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” The more tools I can put in my toolbox, the more internal diversity of thought I can generate.

Optima, Games, and Math

When reading The Science of Trust by John Gottman, I was surprised at the amount of game theory that the book contains. Gottman is known for his work with couples and discovering their propensity for divorce. The subtitle of the book is “Emotional Attunement for Couples.” However, much of the time, he talks about game theory, John Nash, and how game theory predicts some of the behaviors we see. You can imagine my surprise when The Difference had a degree of mathematical, game theory, and logic that isn’t standard fare for business books. It’s not like Theory U, Coachbook, Organizational Traps, or Reinventing Organizations had any hard science or even hard logic.

At some level, it seemed out of place to be speaking of soft topics like diversity and then transition into mathematical/logical proofs, in which diversity must trump non-diversity given a set of restrictions (which I’ll cover shortly). Simple equations like

Net Benefits of Diversity = Gross Benefits of Diverse Tools – Costs of Diversity

demonstrate a level of thinking about not just the positive effects of diversity but also its costs. Few things in life are all good or all bad. Diversity can have a demonstrable positive impact, but these impacts come at a cost. When the costs outweigh the benefits, then diversity isn’t helping you.

One for One and One for All

Before diving into the specific conditions for which diversity can be of great advantage, it’s important to pause and acknowledge that diversity conveys no benefit in some scenarios. When the work to be done is routine or procedural, there’s no added value to diversity. Diversity helps when there are problems to be solved or predictions to be made.

More specifically, diversity helps when problems can be structured so that the contribution of any member can help all the members. Though not a golfer myself, I’m familiar with a style of play where groups can play from the best ball of any of the players in the group. Thus, their diversity of styles and abilities can benefit the entire group. This differs from traditional golf play, where each person must play their ball and their weaknesses may substantially hamper them.

Converting tasks from conjunctive tasks – where everyone’s contribution is critical – to disjunctive – where only one person needs to be successful for the group to be successful – is one of the great challenges in creating organizational systems for success. (See Thinking in Systems for more on systems design.)

An Army of Diverse Monkeys

The power of diversity isn’t to say that the individual members don’t need some ability. It’s not like you can gather an army of diverse monkeys and expect great things to emerge. Fundamentally, diversity requires intelligent actors. This isn’t an either-or decision about whether to find more diverse thinkers or whether to hire good thinkers. The argument is for both, where possible.

Page acknowledges that there may be times when the superstar approach is the right approach. The benefits to be had with a top-notch person are substantially more than can be achieved by diversity – and there are times when it’s not. (See Who: The “A” Method for Hiring if you’re looking for superstars.)

Rules for Diversity Triumph

For diversity to trump individual ability, there are four conditions to be met:

  1. The problem must be difficult – It must be sufficiently difficult that most individuals can’t solve it on their own.
  2. The perspectives and heuristics that the problem solvers possess must be diverse – If there’s no diversity of thinking, there are no benefits.
  3. The set of problem solvers from which we choose our collections must be large – You must have enough different perspectives to make a difference.
  4. The collections of problem solvers must not be too small –You must apply multiple diverse groups against the problem so that the solutions themselves are diverse.

The Quest for a Problem

According to The Paradox of Choice, if you want to be happy you should be a satisficer. Just do what is minimally necessary to make it ok. According to Peak and The Rise of Superman, the truly amazing feats that we witness are about people who have decided to obsess on the relatively modest gains that they can make – and do it day after day, and then year after year. In other words, they’re not satisfied. They’re perfectionists – or near perfectionists – on a quest to see what they can do to get just a little bit better.

There is effectively nothing that we as humans can’t do to develop better skills if we’re willing to commit ourselves to the purposeful practice to achieve it. Our diverse army needs to not simply be intelligent, they must be willing to engage in the problem.

Well, Obviously

If you want to show the power of diversity, you see it in the invention (or discovery) of the wheel. You see it in the discovery of fire. It seems obvious that you want to use round wheels to transport goods now that we know about it. How else would you heat something except with fire? These are absolutely obvious solutions – now that we’ve all seen them. They may – or may not – have been equally obvious when the solutions were first proposed. The genius of diversity is that it finds the solutions that aren’t complicated but are beyond the reach of every man. Once the answer has been discovered, everyone should say “well, obviously.” Solutions produced by diversity don’t typically require complex layering or difficult-to-follow approaches. Once the solution is known, it will have seemed obvious the whole time.

Hills and Valleys

Breaking into game theory for a moment, consider a game where you have a simple rule. From a given starting point, an evaluation is made as to whether one of the neighboring spots has a higher value. If this is true, the starting point is set to the neighbor with the higher value. It’s possible that, if the data is ordered correctly, this simple algorithm will find the highest peak. However, it’s also possible that the algorithm will get caught in a local optimum – rather than the global optima. That is, using this heuristic may result in a good solution, but frequently not the best one. The approach gets caught at good and can never arrive at great. (See Good to Great.)

If you take several actors and insert them into different places, you’ll get multiple different answers – which can be compared against one another. The best one is likely to be discovered using this approach.

Consider a different scenario where there are multiple factors, and some of the actors look for kinds of optimal solutions and others look at other factors. By comparing the end solution, it’s possible to get the same kind of diversity as inserting actors into random parts of the data.

Combining the perspectives from multiple actors – with multiple approaches – allows you to create better solutions for finding the best answer.

Simplifying Life

The power of diversity lies in the ability to simplify our complex world in a way that’s useful. Some perspectives eliminate information that is necessary, where others keep it. We all need ways to simplify the world we live in, because we can’t take everything that is coming in. The trick is that sometimes we stumble upon a particularly effective way of simplifying the world.

We’ve all learned mnemonic abbreviations for important things. We remember SMART for setting our goals and SWAT for evaluating our competitive position in a situation. These are simplifications – they allow us to memorize one thing that we can expand into more things. They make some aspects of life easier by using a tool. Diversity offers a limitless number of these potential lenses through which we can view the world – and through which we can eliminate the non-essential.

Synergy

In the late 80s and into the 90s, the management buzzword was “synergy.” Everything needed to be synergistic. We had to have mergers that would create more than what either of the organizations could accomplish on their own. (Ignoring the fact that most organizations that merged did worse than the effects of both companies individually.) The idea was that when you added one plus one, you would get three – not two.

Diversity fulfills this promise, as tools are added to one another and do increase the overall effect, like the team of golfers who are able to use the best ball as a place to launch their next swing from. The more cognitive tools you have, the more chances you get at having a set of tools fit together in ways that are more powerful than any tool could possibly accomplish on its own.

The Cost of Diversity

The cost of diversity is conflict. Not necessarily the knock-down, drag-down fights, but certainly conflict. When I teach conflict resolution, I say that all conflict comes from only two sources. The first source is a difference in perspective. The second source is a difference in values. Conflict arises from the very source of diversity. Without a difference in values or perspectives, there is no conflict – but that means there’s no diversity.

The negative impacts of diversity can be minimized by teaching everyone effective conflict resolution skills and attitudes of acceptance. However, these, too, are training costs that fit into the overall costs and benefits of diversity.

Tools in the Toolbox

Often, diversity is viewed from the lens of multiple people who come together to solve a problem. Certainly, this is one of the meanings. It’s also one of the things that Hackman considered when he wrote Collaborative Intelligence. However, there’s another option. The other option is when a single person develops a larger set of tools and approaches themselves. They build a toolbox so large that they can have the tools necessary to generate synergy without the involvement of others.

Diversity has a cost – particularly when multiple people are involved. Diverse perspectives create conflict and conflict is a cost. You can avoid that cost by gathering the tools into a single person.

Fundamental and Instrumental Preferences

Diversity has another dark side. When the ends aren’t the same – when there’s a fundamental difference in preferences – there are problems. If not everyone can agree upon the same end point, there’s very little chance you’ll actually get anywhere. Organizations where the fundamental preferences aren’t fixed through the vision-casting, strategic planning, and employee engagement processes are doomed to struggle.

Instrumental preferences, however, aren’t about a different goal, but are instead about how to achieve the goals that are set out. In other words, we agree upon the ends, but we don’t agree upon the means to get there. We all agree we want lower crime, better health, more inclusion, less oppression, etc., but we don’t necessarily agree on how we accomplish those goals. In truth, we have the same foundations of our morality (see The Righteous Mind), but how we believe that we become – and stay – moral are different because of instrumental preferences.

Nash and the Tragedy of Commons

One of the challenges facing the journeymen and -women who seek better outcomes through diversity is the tendency to look only at our own outcomes – and not the outcomes of the larger group. The ability to look to how we can all win together – ala Nash – is an important step to ensuring that everyone’s needs of diversity are met. (See The Science of Trust.)

By considering Nash, we can look at solutions that provide sufficient common resources, in which all may draw appropriately from common goods. If we generate more goodwill, capacity, and growth, than we collectively consume – even if some consume more than their “fair share” – we end up driving an engine of economic growth. This is the power of diversity to find Nash-like solutions, which leave everyone with a bit more.

Different Identities

One of the interesting observations about diversity is how it exists inside of individuals. It exists both in their training to be able to apply diverse perspectives, but it also shows up as individuals respond differently to the same situation in different contexts. The way that someone responds to a situation as a father is different than how they respond as a club leader, and that’s different from how they respond as a manager.

Sometimes unlocking the diversity inside a person is encouraging them to evaluate the situation from multiple perspectives that they already incorporate inside themselves. Creating the freedom to explore how someone might think about something in different contexts unlocks these perspectives. Even with diverse perspectives, sometimes the environmental context can be so strong that it aligns everyone to the same perspective – eliminating the effects of diversity. (See The Lucifer Effect for more on situational influence.)

Small Changes, Compounded

Ultimately, the impact of diversity aren’t hundreds of percentage points. The net value of diversity might be a few percentage points of improvement – making it difficult to distinguish from the noise. However, the power of compounding can operate on diversity like it operates on professionals trying to make incremental performance (see Peak), and, ultimately, that compounding makes The Difference.

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