Cognitive diversity as a driver of business innovation: a guide to HR and L&D

Diversity leadership requires skill, strength and sensitivity to successfully navigate the nuances of human individuality. But the impact can be transformative.
Bevan Rees
Jun 12, 2019

Across the road from where I am writing this stands a field preserved as natural meadowland. Without human or domestic animal intervention, the plot moves through the seasons according to the dictates of nature alone. At this time of year, it is full of birds and bugs, wild grasses and flowers of every height, size, colour, texture and scent. It is alive and full of contrast.

Diversity is a natural imperative. It ensures the creation of a vibrant ecosystem that can support many different organisms living in harmony. It is what allows nature to find creative and responsive solutions to imbalances and challenges that arise in the continuous cycle of life.

As in nature, diversity in organisations promotes higher functioning of the greater whole. Mostly, these differences used to be understood demographically – age, gender, ethnicity, education. However, with recent advances in neuroscience, diversity is increasingly seen in terms of cognition too.

This is according to Professor Valérie Claude-Gaudillat of Audencia Business School. “One has gone from “surface-level diversity” (for example, diversity in terms of age, gender, nationality, academic and professional background) to “deep-level diversity” (for example, diversity in terms of learning, remembering, problem-solving, and attention focusing).”

According to Claude-Gaudillat, such cognitive diversity offers organisations many advantages in innovation and implementation.

“It’s now well-established that a team of people with different capabilities can assess any issue through a much more diverse lens than a team with homogenous profiles. Being cognitively differentiated means that you can generate ideas, solve problems, assess in a variety of ways, and that is overall linked with better analysis, decision and execution.”

However, humans are complex creatures working together on complex issues in increasingly complex environments.  Simply throwing together multiple viewpoints, life experiences and personal qualities does not guarantee positive results.

Unlocking cognitive diversity’s inherent value requires more than good intentions.

Reframing recruitment

Due to the visibility of age, gender and ethnicity, for example, ‘surface-level diversity’ tends to be easier to find. Cognitive diversity is more challenging. It is virtually hidden and requires the hiring manager to appreciate and identify different types of thinking.

This may require more creative assessment processes. It also demands careful recruitment to ensure that the candidate’s natural cognitive profile will be congruent with the demands of the role.

“It is crucial to ensure you are matching the skill set required for the role with the strengths of the individual to enable them to succeed,” says Emma O’Leary, P&G Section Head and pioneer of the Neuro Diversity programme. “For example, expecting a non-verbal individual to excel in a role that requires lots of verbal interaction with others is not beneficial for either the individual or the company.”

Christopher Hafner, strategist at professional services firm Grovelands and academic, frames cognitive diversity as an evaluation of different reasoning styles and modes of expression.

“Once we recognise that people will express their thinking differently and connect them to the best methods and processes for their expression, we will reap the benefits of a whole new swathe of insights and ideas that no amount of artificial intelligence could ever replicate.”

However, segmentation of candidates according to cognitive fit can also be taken too far. Alf Rehn, bestselling author and Professor of Innovation, Design, and Management at the University of Southern Denmark, argues that organisations who overemphasise cognitive diversity run the risk of pigeonholing people.

“We can all sit down and be more analytic, and we can all learn at least to be somewhat more creative. Cognitive diversity is important, but we shouldn’t allow it to become new boxes we place people in.”

Rehn suggests that experimenting with a more provocative approach to creating cognitive diversity encourages businesses to consider recruits who may not be obvious candidates for a particular role. He suggests partially hiring for ‘creative friction’ – recruiting at least some people who think differently, who bring in surprising perspectives, who might even seem somewhat odd.

“It is almost always value enhancing, sometimes even wildly value creating. Because it is through juxtapositions and contrasts that we humans create our greatest things, our biggest successes.”

Avoiding implicit bias

One of the obstacles to increasing diversity, especially cognitive diversity, is the tendency to hire people with whom we feel comfortable. These are usually candidates who fit in with the norms of the team or the organisation, perhaps even individuals who remind the recruiter of him or herself.

This unconscious inclination can, if left unrecognised, lead to homogenous workforces. When everyone thinks the same way, cognitive uniformity sets in and innovation is stifled. Beyond recruitment, this implicit bias is also partly why discord emerges when homogeny is challenged.

“We naturally clock to people who are similar to us and may feel threatened by other profiles, says Prof Claude-Gaudillat. “Organisations must find mechanisms to ensure that diversity brings real advantages and not chaos, unsolvable conflicts and discouragement.”

Diversity management

Such conflicts are a natural outcome of diversification. And, well-managed, they can be healthy and productive. But things seldom go smoothly at first – engagement is needed.

Alf Rehn believes that to invite diversity is also to manage diversity.

“This, I think, is one of the things people do wrong in diversity management a lot of the time: they think that it’s just a hiring issue.”

“You can’t just throw a hand grenade into an organisation and expect everything to fall into neat piles. Instead, this is a process you really need to manage. You need to be there, listening to peoples’ complaints. You need to be there as a negotiator, as a mediator. You need to understand that sometimes this is what the leader’s job is.”

Diversity leadership

We may describe diversity management as a relatively structured process through which organisations recruit and then positively integrate diversity.

By contrast, diversity leadership is an act of stewardship. Leaders take responsibility for diversity’s role in the organisational orientation, defining how it fits into strategy, vision and culture.

Emma O’Leary’s Neuro Diversity programme at P&G is an excellent example. O’Leary recognised the potential of harnessing neurodiverse thinking to drive innovation when she watched how her autistic child, Jensen, approached problem-solving in a very different way to neurotypical thinkers.

From this insight emerged an award-winning recruitment initiative that enables more applicants with autism to access crucial, skill-development internships. However, successful implementation of a programme of this kind requires a more open and psychologically-safer environment.

O’Leary points to understanding, empathy and education as critical elements in the greater adoption of cognitive diversity. Developing these qualities in the organisation is impossible without supportive leadership.

“I’ve found that the thing we’re missing in diversity leadership, as separated from diversity management, is simply the capacity to listen,” says Rehn.

“The leader must understand that presence and listening are not necessarily the qualities that made you a leader, but they may very well be the kind of qualities that make you excel as a leader.”

“The kinds of challenges organisations, particularly global organisations, face today require executives to make diversity their business, to make diversity something they do, not only something they tell others to do.”

It is easy to talk about our differences making us stronger; it is another matter altogether to embody that idea and create the conditions needed for it to flourish. Diversity leadership is as demanding as it is rewarding. It requires skill, strength and sensitivity to successfully navigate the nuances of human individuality. But a more integrated, innovative and cohesive organisation is on offer to those who try.