The best teams I've worked with have all had a mix of individuals who brought something different to the table in terms of skills, perspectives and experiences. This blend is what makes the magic happen! In this article, Find out how cognitive diversity boosts team creativity and learn five steps you can take to foster cognitive diversity in your teams.
A year ago, I started learning long-form improvisational comedy. Each week, I join a diverse bunch of people to create improvised scenes from nothing other than a one-word suggestion. Chaos and creativity ensue. Magical ideas are formed on the spot, fleshed out, escalated, and then they vanish, quickly replaced by the next wild idea.
Improv works so well because it's a team sport that brings together people from a whole host of different backgrounds. Totally outrageous and comical ideas are formed not just by one person but by a collective, who, through the improv process, use different perspectives to build something new and special.
The same is true for all the best teams I've worked with. They all have a mix of individuals who bring something different to the table in terms of skills, perspectives and experiences.
The result is much more than a well-oiled group of people who simply carry out tasks — diverse teams can flex, collaborate and innovate to the rhythm of whatever challenges are thrown at them.
If you want your teams to be more creative and better at improvising, no matter what comes their way, then you need to increase the level of cognitive diversity in your teams.
Getting from coordination to collaboration with cognitive diversity
Entrepreneur and strategist Mark Elliott has spent many years studying what happens when people come together to work on a shared outcome. Elliott does a great job of distinguishing the benefits of three levels of collective working, from coordination through cooperation to collaboration.
Dr Mark Elliot's General Theory of Collaboration
Unsurprisingly, bigger benefits require more investment in the team process. For real innovation to happen, you need to go beyond mere coordination and cooperation in your teams and practise real collaboration — a process where everyone has the right to add to, comment on or improve a shared pool of work. It's no wonder that nearly every report you read about the future of work will list collaboration or some variant of it as a key skill for thriving in the coming years.
So what's the key ingredient to making collaboration pop? Cognitive diversity.
Cognitive diversity is about deliberately increasing the mix of background, knowledge, skills, experiences, thinking styles and personalities within your teams.
Research shows that teams with high cognitive diversity consistently outperform more homogeneous teams — i.e., those made up of people with mostly similar ways of looking at things. That's not surprising since when individuals with different perspectives come together, they can approach a problem from various angles to spot more issues and see more unique solutions.
Cognitive diversity also fosters innovation. By bringing together individuals with differences, teams can better generate new ideas and build on them to create "something new and unanticipated" — just like in our improv sessions. This is key for developing new products, services and processes that can give a business a competitive advantage.
Intuitively this makes sense, so why don't we naturally build cognitively diverse teams? Sadly many factors at play mean we gravitate towards building homogenous teams. Firstly, cognitive biases like similarity or conformity bias come into play during the hiring process, meaning we tend to prefer and hire people similar to us. Secondly, homogenous teams will feel easier to manage. If everyone in a team is similar, especially to us as a team leader, we need to adapt, flex and think less about how we lead. However, easier in this instance doesn't lead to better team and business outcomes.
So how can you increase cognitive diversity in your teams? It essentially comes down to hiring more open-mindedly, looking more flexibly at your modes of operation, and then cultivating collaboration when your people come together.
Let's dive a bit deeper into five practical steps you can take.
Explore your team mix
A useful starting point is to explore your team's current skills mix using a simple skills matrix. You can build your matrix in different ways. Using something lightweight and informal is totally fine when you're just getting started - for example, have team members complete a self-assessment survey and collate the results. You can then evolve this and add more detailed or rigorous tools as needed. At In The Game, many of our games capture the strengths of different team members to make the data collection process better, easier and more fun. This video goes into more detail about building a skills matrix:
Once you've created your skills matrix, it's much easier to see the strengths and gaps you have at a team level. The next step in building cognitive diversity is to improve your team's mix.
Be more flexible when hiring
Hiring is the best opportunity you have to increase the cognitive diversity you have in your team. But hiring in a way that is likely to improve your cognitive diversity means ditching some traditional practices.
Firstly, reinvent your job descriptions to focus on the essential requirements of a role that predict success in the modern world of work. One of our most popular free downloads, the Role Canvas, simplifies the start of the hiring process by distilling the requirements for a new hire down to just one page. It also brings a more flexible and open-minded perspective to hiring criteria. You can download it here.
Once you've improved job descriptions (and hopefully, by doing this, you will improve your job ads, too), it's time to focus on your shortlist. Chances are, you'll have a range of applicants that fit your classic expectations, along with a few outliers. While it's easy to default to what you feel comfortable with, make an effort to expand your shortlist to include candidates who:
Don't have all the experience but have some other unique experiences
Have different qualifications from what you'd typically look for
Have worked (or currently work) in a different industry sector
This practice means you develop a more open-minded view of what great talent looks like. In the longer run, it gives you a competitive hiring advantage, as you can look for talent in places your competitors aren't considering and then hire better and faster.
Focus on real collaboration in meetings
Too often, team meetings don't create the right environment for hearing different voices.
Either there's too much time spent looking at slides and listening to one person talk, or it's an unplanned open forum where a small number of loud voices dominate. In both cases, you lose the contributions of quieter team members who may have some excellent alternative — and cognitively diverse — ideas.
The key to fostering cognitive diversity in meetings is to plan them with psychological safety in mind.
This means setting up an environment where everyone is focused on the meeting objective and feels comfortable raising opinions that might go against the status quo.
As a starting point, when planning your meetings, think:
What's the ultimate objective of this meeting? What would a great meeting look like?
How will I intentionally think about creating time and space to hear different voices?
How can I make sure the meeting is an excellent use of everyone's time?
How can I give everyone a chance to share and build on ideas as the meeting evolves?
What can I circulate before the meeting to ensure everyone comes informed and with the right mindset for meeting success?
What can I do when people arrive to set the right tone?
When working with organisations to improve collaboration, we often start by looking at improving meetings. You can get our free Meeting Toolkit to help you evaluate the effectiveness of your meetings here.
Use hybrid to support different working styles
To attract and retain a cognitively diverse workforce, businesses need to allow different types of talent to work in a way that means they thrive. Hybrid is great for this, but businesses must be more intentional about implementing it.
I like this simple framework that explains how each hybrid option suits a different type of work.
Four types of hybrid collaboration to intentionally foster. (Source: Gartner)
Look at each mode of collaboration and consider how you can optimise your working methods to better support a cognitively diverse team. For example:
When working together in an office environment, consider how you can change the in-person environment to include the needs of workers who prefer quiet.
When working together and apart (e.g. online collaboration), design online meetings with technology and inclusivity in mind rather than just trying to recreate the in-person experience. Use online tools like Miro, and think beyond Zoom or Teams to create different virtual spaces for people to interact together (e.g., with Remo or Welo). The online world also offers the ability to leverage a mix of synchronous and asynchronous communication channels that make flexible working easier.
When working alone, apart (remote), try to leverage the benefits a remote setup offers - time and space for distraction-free deep work. Can you end back-to-back meetings once and for all to create proper time and space for people to progress and do deep, meaningful, creative work?
Bring in fresh perspectives
Another simple way to boost cognitive diversity is to consciously involve people from outside your team in your work. For example, you could
Invite someone from a different team to your meeting or workshop to get a different perspective
Get someone from a similar but non-competing business to work with your team
Bring in a new team member on a short-term flexible basis to add fresh thinking to your team
Any outsider you choose should be relevant to your meeting or project objectives, but they should also be a fresh face that can rejuvenate your thinking and processes.
Ready to get more cognitive diversity in your teams?
Improv shows us that teams can generate tons of original ideas when they are part of a group that has lots of varying perspectives. Cognitive diversity creates the difference between having a well-coordinated group of similar thinkers and having a high-energy, collaborative team ready to solve your next work challenge.
Building cognitive diversity is a conscious process that involves
Knowing and enhancing your team's skills mix
Developing a more open hiring and shortlisting process
Opening up space for different ideas to be heard when your teams work together
Using hybrid working more consciously to support different working styles
The blend is what makes the magic happen!
At In The Game, we're all about building seriously great teams. To learn more about how we use serious games to enable cognitive diversity to thrive, get in touch for a chat here, or take our team culture scorecard here.