Think Differently: 3 Ways to Build Cognitive Diversity in the Workplace

By Caskie Lewis-Clapper

Jul. 9, 2019

The ability to leverage diversity in experiences, culture and background is a strong driver of innovation and global success, according to a Forbes survey of executives. But there is one key element that can be overlooked as companies seek to become more diverse: cognitive diversity, or the differences in how people think and process information.

Teams that reflect cognitive diversity solve complex problems faster than teams composed of individuals who approach problem-solving in the same way, two researchers have discovered. When faced with new and uncertain situations, teams composed of cognitively diverse individuals deploy different modes of thinking to tackle the challenge at hand. The result is accelerated learning and performance. Meanwhile, teams composed of people who address complex problems in the same way are hampered by a lack of versatility. The findings held true irrespective of differences in gender, age or ethnicity.

Promoting greater cognitive diversity in teams can be challenging when the natural inclination of leaders is often to select people who have a similar approach either to themselves or to whoever filled a role previously. But a culture of innovation depends on diverse thinking and learning styles, and work is changing rapidly. What has worked in the past may not be what will work in the present the future.

Here are a few ways companies can effectively promote cognitive diversity.

Recruit for Cognitive Diversity

Be intentional in seeking team members with diverse thinking styles and approaches. There are very few organizations that aren’t looking to strengthen their workforce skill mix, and that means hiring differently. Challenging assumptions on the criteria for success in a given role is a good place to start.

Often, organizations seek to hire new talent based on their “pedigree” for a specific role, such as the number of years of experience in a similar position, where they went to college or the degree(s) they have obtained. But this hiring style limits an organization’s ability to gain the cognitive diversity needed to solve business challenges in a rapidly changing environment. Instead, leaders should ask, “What are the challenges we need to solve, and what are the capabilities, experiences and backgrounds we must possess to address these challenges in new ways?” While not every role lends itself to this process, applying this technique wherever possible is worth the risk.

It’s also important to look outside your industry sector for talent who could elevate your performance by introducing new ideas cultivated in different fields or work environments. For example, Magellan Health [Editor’s note: the author’s company] has hired tech start-up professionals, digital app developers and hospitality specialists to revamp its approach to patient engagement, improving outreach and outcomes. The higher levels of cognitive diversity gained through these efforts help companies keep pace with changing needs and better position themselves for long-term survival.

Also read: The 4 Myths of Health Care Cost Reduction

Break the Mold for Partnership

The ability to respond nimbly to change is a critical characteristic for innovation and long-term success. Strategic partnerships are one way to leverage the level of cognitive diversity needed to adapt and evolve in a transformative environment. Ecosystems are more fluid now than ever, and that will continue to hold true.

Look for opportunities to collaborate with non-traditional people, groups and companies to explore new ways of addressing the complex challenges your industry faces. Taking a “no lines” approach to solving complex issues strengthens cognitive diversity and better positions companies to both create and survive disruptive innovation in their areas of expertise.

In health care alone, partnerships between care providers, technology and software companies, retail firms and more are bringing new concepts to market that are disrupting traditional approaches to care delivery. The accounting firm PwC suggests the skills needed to respond to evolving business models in health care include proficiency in artificial intelligence, machine learning and predictive analytics

And this trend is not limited to just health care. As companies across the world navigate the fourth industrial revolution, the ability to draw from non-traditional areas of expertise — such as artificial intelligence, digital engagement and predictive analytics — and develop new skills in existing talent will differentiate organizations that control their destiny in a transformative environment from those that allow the environment to determine their fate.

Create Space to Innovate

Leaders have to set the tone for an innovative work environment — virtual or physical. At a time when 43 percent of employees spend at least some time working remotely, many of the historic social contracts between employees and employers are changing. Given this, now is a great time to be deliberate about building innovative muscle. Work is being redefined, focus on results is being strengthened, and entirely new ways of collaborating and connecting are emerging.

Also read: The New Employer-Employee Social Contract

Small steps can yield big results. Working with teams to gain clarity on a problem to be solved, for example, can be enough to start a new and different conversation about an old problem. Simply creating time for teams to think together about a shared need or issue without having to force a solution right away can yield a different outcome.

Rethinking what behavior gets rewarded is also important in reshaping a culture of innovation. Celebrating “tries” vs. successes takes courage, but it can be transformative in building innovative capability and attracting cognitively diverse talent.

A Renewed Approach to Breakthrough Performance

Cognitive diversity is an essential ingredient in creating a culture of innovation in any organization, and vice versa. Supporting a cognitively diverse workplace requires strong leadership that’s willing to truly rethink everything — not on their own, but with their teams, their customers and across organizational lines. The power of learning together and cultivating cognitive diversity in designing the work of tomorrow is a strong play for any company competing in today’s fast-changing world.

Caskie Lewis-Clapper is the chief human resources officer at Magellan Health.

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