Ever wonder how some teams achieve incredible results, while other teams remain stuck in the doldrums of repackaging the same old worn-out ideas? Here’s the secret weapon that every extraordinary leader knows: Cognitive Diversity!

So What Is Cognitive Diversity?

Cognitive Diversity has nothing to do with race, color, or gender. It refers to thinking! Great teams outperform other teams when they bring a mix of different viewpoints and voices to the table — and provide a safe and creative environment that allows free sharing and exploration. According to Harvard Business Review, “Bringing in ideas from analogous fields turns out to be a potential source of radical innovation. When you’re working on a problem and you pool insights from analogous areas, you’re likely to get significantly greater novelty in the proposed solutions, for two reasons: People versed in analogous fields can draw on different pools of knowledge, and they’re not mentally constrained by existing, ‘known’ solutions to the problem in the target field. The greater the distance between the problem and the analogous field, the greater the novelty of the solutions.”


Here are 3 Tips to Help Leaders Benefit From Cognitive Diversity

#1: Invite the Least Expected to the Table

cognitive-diversity-teamYou never know where the best ideas will come from … and quite often it is the mix of ideas coming from a variety of specialities that hatches the brilliant idea no one would have ever considered. For example, 3M was exploring a way to reduce the exposure to infections caused by surgery. The team created to problem solve included an expert in wound healing, an animal surgeon, and a specialist in theatrical makeup with a specialty in the art of bonding material to the skin. Together, they developed a breakthrough product to prevent surgical infections. (10-examples-that-show-the-value-of-cognitive-diversity/)  Look beyond the specialists and departmental experts, and bring in variety of experiences, viewpoints, and backgrounds to generate innovative ways of looking at problems.


#2: Create an Environment Conducive to Differing Opinions and Out-of-the-Box Thinking

cognitive-diversity-handshakeThis sounds great, but it is one of the most overlooked and underused keys to successful creative problem solving … or any other type of team project activity, for that matter. To create this type of meeting environment takes intention, skills, and practice … and it requires everyone to check their egos at the door! One great strategy we recommend is “Inquiry versus Advocacy”, the art of inviting feedback to ideas rather than defending your viewpoint. Another great technique is separating idea generation from idea evaluation, which keeps the flow coming without being self-edited out. We also recommend a “Meeting Agreement Checklist” that identifies 4-7 agreements everyone supports in terms of how we will operate in the meeting. (Here’s an example, with a How-To Guide to create Meeting Agreements)


#3: Reward Creative Solutions … and the Teams That Create Them

Gratitude-thumbs-up-group-ca30393853Reward comes in a variety of ways, but the bottom line is: people repeat behavior they are rewarded for. Period! This means going beyond lip service. As an extraordinary leader, your role is to recognize the value of cognitive diversity by paying attention. Reward may be tangible or intangible, but most important is to allow failure to be a learning opportunity rather than a wake, and to implement ideas that may seem risky but have strong potential underlying them. Create stories that celebrate teams who go beyond the expected, and build their experiences into the company culture. Give credit where credit is due, in a visible, bold way, sharing the team glory as high up in the company as you possibly can. Make it a positive and exciting opportunity to participate in a Cognitive Diverse Team!


One of our favorite quotes comes from Regina Dugan, VP or Engineering, Facebook, who was featured in Fast Company, February 2017 issue. When sharing her view of cognitive diversity, she said:

“You have to get to the place where you aren’t made comfortable
by the fact that everyone is the same, but rather
feel inspired by how different we are. We get better problem-solving that way.”

Check out your teams, and evaluate how Cognitively Diverse they are … then take steps to strengthen them!

Be Extraordinary!


Bring Cher Holton to your site to help your leaders and teams be extraordinary!


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