Cognitive Diversity: A Future-Forward Way of Thinking

Cognitive Diversity: A Future-Forward Way of Thinking

Everywhere we look, we’re met with uncertainty. How will artificial intelligence (AI) evolve? What will the global climate look like in 10 years? How will the economic and regulatory landscape change? And what does that mean for business? The questions are endless. We don’t know what challenges we may face in five, ten or twenty years, but organizations can prepare for the unknown, now. Cognitive diversity is a catalyst for agility, innovation and resilience at all levels of an organization, setting it up for success and enabling it to tackle the challenges the future brings.

Writer, journalist, broadcaster and growth mindset expert Matthew Syed is inspiring audiences with the profound impact cognitive diversity can have at the organizational level.

“When you get cognitive diversity correct, you eliminate the blind spots,” said Syed. “You broaden the collective intelligence of the group. Organizations that are really moving ahead, that are capturing market share, that are solving interconnected problems, have this cognitive diversity. And they're very conscious and strategic about how to make it work.”

In this interview with Syed, we’ll explore cognitive diversity as a future-forward way of thinking that propels organizations toward success. Syed further expanded on these concepts at AESC’s Global Conference, which was held in London on November 7, 2023.

Cognitive Diversity Defined

Matthew Syed Consulting defines cognitive diversity as “differences in perspectives, insights, experiences and thinking styles.”

“Cognitive diversity is about leveraging different people's brains and experiences, the different thinking styles that they might have, the different insights, the different mental models or heuristics that they use to make sense of problems, to filter information,” said Syed. It’s important to note that cognitive diversity is distinct from – but often linked to – demographic diversity, which refers to a population’s differences in race, gender, age, education, social class, etc., which is often how individuals think about diversity. “I believe that it's a fundamental mistake to think that if you focus only on demographic diversity, you've done everything that you need to do,” said Syed. “I think that's missing a lot of what is very important. Cognitive diversity encompasses demographic diversity, but it's bigger and broader.”

Cognitive diversity encompasses both tacit knowledge gained from an individual’s lived experiences, which have been influenced by their demographic characteristics, and subject matter expertise gained from, for example, their studies at university, the companies they’ve worked for and the positions they’ve held in their careers.

So what happens when cognitive diversity is missing? Syed gives an example: “Imagine a leader who thinks that diversity doesn't matter and hires people in their own image: ‘I'm very smart and I want to hire other smart people. I feel very comfortable amongst people who look and sound like me.’ You can hire lots of individuals who are very smart, but if they're effectively clones of the leader, that means that the group is no more intelligent than any one individual in the group.”

Identifying and Selecting Leaders of Tomorrow

In an era where the world, business models and role requirements are changing faster than ever, organizations need people that can thrive in a volatile environment, seizing opportunities and maximizing the potential of those around them. People with a growth mindset are not only more likely to achieve and drive high levels of performance, they are also more adaptable and able to respond to change and future challenges. Assessing growth mindset in candidates provides a strong indicator of high performance and future potential, going beyond simply relying on past track record. But how do you uncover the candidates with a growth mindset? How do you ensure recruiters and managers have the evidence and support to interview and select them?

The Mindset Advantage psychometric provides a unique growth mindset profile of candidates together with a tailored interview guide, enabling you to:

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  • Gain robust evidence to aid shortlisting, selection and stakeholder discussions
  • Provide candidates with an engaging and insightful recruitment experience
  • Build and reinforce growth mindset attitudes and behaviors in the organization

The future of an organization depends on the leaders they select today. Hire candidates who will achieve and drive high performance today and tomorrow.


The Business Case for Cognitive Diversity

“The fundamental impact [of cognitive diversity] is that an organization performs better,” said Syed. “It makes better decisions. It innovates faster. It takes advantage of opportunities.” Research proves this true. Harvard Business Review conducted more than 100 strategic execution exercises to observe how teams with varying levels of cognitive diversity perform. Teams that had “diversity of both knowledge processes and perspective” completed exercises quicker than those with less diversity.

Syed illustrates cognitive diversity’s ability to drive results in his book Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking by using two luxury brands: Prada and Gucci. To make the brand more relevant in the marketplace, Gucci created a “shadow board” of millennials who met with senior leaders to provide insight into its target market and digital strategies. This out-of-the-box thinking and ability to listen to a growing age group led to a 136% growth (2014-18) in sales. On the other hand, Prada did not engage in this market, ignoring digital channels and online influencers, which led to an 11.5% drop (2014-18) in sales.

Syed said, “When you think about cognitive diversity, you're much more aware of the risk of sociological convergence (the theory that groups move toward similarity over time). You [want to] create a dynamic culture, where people value differences [and] people's contribution to social dynamism, rather than all becoming homogenized, which is often where companies can go when they scale.”

Cognitive diversity is critical to an organization’s success. It enables teams and leaders to solve complex problems by utilizing different ways of thinking and being open to constructive criticism. Overall, this approach strengthens organizations by helping them avoid blind spots and groupthink.

Tapping into the Growth Mindset

Having a growth mindset is important for fostering cognitive diversity as Syed explains: “People in a growth mindset may be very deep in expertise but they still feel they have more to learn and therefore they're willing to bring in people who think differently, who can challenge them, with whom they can have open and robust conversations that really extends them in a way that is conducive to better decision making,” said Syed. “There is a synthesis between a growth mindset and taking advantage of cognitive diversity and breaking down some of the biases that can make it difficult to achieve.” Tapping into this mindset can eliminate an echo chamber, help identify barriers to change and result in greater openness to different perspectives. Organizations that harness a growth mindset and cognitive diversity tend to do “a lot better in the marketplace today,” according to Syed. Leaders who embrace this mindset are prepared to surround themselves with a team that thinks differently. They are also ready to confront and combat unconscious biases. Syed illustrates this at the leadership level: “If I'm a leader [who realizes] that one of [the biggest assets to good decision-making] is to have people with different points of view that are relevant to the kinds of problems we're solving, I'm going to be much more willing to listen to [other’s ideas].”

Setting Organizations Up for Success

To set an organization up for success, leaders must position cognitive diversity as a tool to make better decisions. An organization must frame cognitive diversity as curating a diverse way of thinking. When cognitive diversity strategies come from a genuine place and are implemented in a purposeful manner, organizations can harness the many advantages that come with it: innovation, agility and improved overall performance.