The Value of Cognitive Diversity

by Edward Henkler on August 27, 2013

I am a huge believer in the value of diversity yet sometimes think we may miss an opportunity.  Too often we measure diversity solely by superficial characteristics.  While that has value in creating opportunities for underserved populations, it may not unleash cognitive diversity, which will fire your team’s imagination and help you realize their true potential.

One of my favorite examples comes from the space program.  Let’s compare Mission Control at two different times.  If you’re beyond a certain age (or have seen the movie), there’s an iconic image of the control room at the time of Apollo 13.  Suffice it to say, there wasn’t much physical diversity.  Now let’s fast forward to the time of the ill-fated Challenger mission.  Clearly there was more physical diversity but what would we uncover if we looked at the cognitive diversity of the two teams.  The Challenger team grew up in NASA and knew a common way to approach problems; they could be very effective in a static situation but may have found it difficult to think outside the proverbial box.  The Apollo 13 team was just the opposite with most of the participants, veterans of other industries, each with their own unique way to approach a problem.  That creativity overcame impossible odds with technology we’d consider laughable nowadays to bring the spacecraft safely home.

Apollo 13

What’s the message?  It isn’t that we should stop creating physically diverse teams as that’s a great start.  It’s just to ensure that you get a good mix of thinking styles, especially considering individuals who are differently-abled.  Rest assured that someone who is blind, has spent their life in a wheelchair, or has learning disabilities will see the world quite differently from someone who hasn’t.  How might your team be enriched if you opened that door a bit wider?

Take a look at Dr. Janice Presser’s teamability concept if you want to create a cognitively diverse team.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Leslie August 27, 2013 at 7:40 pm

Agree that all kinds of diversity drive advantages.
The comparison of two control rooms facing very different levels of technology points to another issue: is use of more advanced technology driving to more specialized silos and less ability or willingness to cross pollinate?


Edward Henkler August 27, 2013 at 8:15 pm

Great point, Leslie. Perhaps there’s another tendency to become increasingly more dependent on the technology, limiting human innovation and creativity.
Perhaps subject of another post!


David August 30, 2013 at 2:18 am

Great post Ed. Teams that are cognitively diverse are positioned to innovate and be high performing.


Edward Henkler August 30, 2013 at 2:53 am

Thanks, David. It may take a bit longer to form a cohesive team but the extra effort will be rapidly repaid!


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