The key to collaboration: diversity of thought

by Nov 30, 2021Culture0 comments

A company’s best resource is its reservoir of human minds, each with a different way of looking at the world.

Understandably, this resource is often seen as an obstacle to progress. It would be far quicker and more efficient to run a company staffed with virtually identical team members than one which has to deal with a group of people with completely different ways of looking at the world.

Compared to the sluggish, argumentative second group, the first group would complete tasks in no time. Disagreements would be virtually non-existent. Everyone would be on the same page, all the time. Processes would be universally understood and followed to the letter.

That all sounds great – but would the finished product be comparable?

The evidence suggests not, because you’d be leaving your key asset on the table. Just as a plantation of cloned trees is far more susceptible to pests than a natural forest, a company with a shared narrow mindset has hidden weaknesses.

One of these is that it clearly lacks that element of the unexpected which is central to human cooperation.

People are placed in group tasks because they’re able to bring the unknown into the mix. Even when a team of people knows each other extremely well, there’s always the chance that a new element will be created from the unpredictable actions and reactions that take place between individuals.

So, these inevitable points of friction are often disparaged as problems to ‘iron out’ – but they can actually turn out to be a defining characteristic of successful collaboration.

The idea of diversity of thought is not a new one, but it’s only recently reached common use. There are key benefits – as pointed out by Susan Woods, Managing Partner of workplace consultant Henderson Woods LLC:

Diversity of thought introduces not only differences of perspective, but also differences in approach. Traditional, rule bound organizations that impose one right way, restrict learning from alternative ways of doing things. […] In a fast paced, changing environment, to those who say, ‘But we’ve always done it that way’, I’ll ask, ‘So how do you learn when you get stuck?’[i]

This idea of diversity of thought puts it finger on a crucial characteristic of diversity of thought – it simply gives you more methods of tackling a problem. The messiness is part of the point.

There is a temptation to be led astray in the way we’ve taught ourselves to think about ourselves as humans in the workplace. Consider how this works in practice, by changing the language we use to describe ourselves.

Terms like ‘human resources’ and ‘human capital’ are a subtle way of introducing a machine-type model to describe individuals. After all, ‘resources’ and ‘capital’ often refer to raw materials and financial equity respectively.

But even though one tonne of iron ore is much like another, this equivalence and interchangeability doesn’t apply to people – and we can be thankful for that. It’s the differences between people, not their similarities, that makes people an asset to the workspace.

Yes, this means that humans are less amenable to group behaviour than, say, factory-produced widgets.

No, that doesn’t mean we should seek to make the people within our workplace more widget-like. Doing this – for example, by enforcing a single approach and mode of thought in response to every problem – will radically reduce the team’s potential to solve evolving problems.

As leaders, our tasks here are twofold. First, we have to acknowledge, accept, and even celebrate the diversity of thought within our team – even if this makes our task of fostering cooperation more complex than it would have been. It’s this commitment to every facet of human difference, no matter how crooked and unpredictable this makes our path, that defines Thinka as a company fully committed to harnessing the potential of human creativity.

[i] https://ecommons.cornell.edu