January 27, 2023 | Podcast
Diverse Thought, Endless Possibilities

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When a society embraces cognitive diversity, powerful outcomes can result. In this episode of The Active Share, Hugo sits down with Matthew Syed, a best-selling author, highly acclaimed speaker, and award-winning journalist, to discuss what it means to think in complex ways; the implications of moving away from group think; and how investors can benefit from diverse cultures and voices.

Comments are edited excerpts from our podcast, which you can listen to in full below.

You spend a lot of time on how society thinks, and how that might be wrong. Could you frame that as group think versus cognitive diversity?

Matthew Syed: It’s interesting that you’ve chosen to characterize that distinction between group thinking and cognitive diversity.

I do feel that diversity as an attribute of groups, networks, and societies is quite misunderstood. It’s also mission critical to how we come up with great innovation, wise strategies, and accurate empirical predictions. 

In fact, diversity shapes wisdom in almost any area of complexity, and this is fundamentally under-optimized in the world today. Getting diversity right has tremendous and often counter-intuitive power, and it certainly contrasts very vividly with the problems we have in many parts of the world today, which is different varieties of group think.

Why is group think persistent? It’s easy to say, “I want cognitive diversity,” and then walk into the next meeting and be guilty of group think. How do we break that?

Syed: I think the key is properly defining and then specifying the circumstances in which cognitive diversity works.

We often think of diversity in demographic terms, differences in race and gender, and social class. Cognitive diversity is a different way of thinking of diversity. Differences in insight, perspective, information, but also the mental models or heuristics that we deploy, consciously or otherwise, to filter information to reason through problems.

There’s often an intimate link between these two concepts of diversity—demographic and cognitive—because our demographic backgrounds shape the experiences we have in our lives and the way we think about certain things.

I think where you really break out of group think is when you optimize for true cognitive diversity, which requires a real analysis and an insight about how to do it and do it well.

I think where you really break out of group think is when you optimize for true cognitive diversity, which requires a real analysis and an insight about how to do it and do it well.

I have two immediate questions. How would you test for true cognitive diversity in the hiring process?  Have you come across organizations where you thought they’ve cracked this?

Syed: It’s a great question and gives me a chance to tell a brief story. I happen to sit on a committee that advises the England men’s football coach, Gareth Southgate. It’s quite an eclectic team. In addition to me, with my interest in culture and psychology, there’s Lucy Giles, who runs the Sandhurst Military Training Academy; David Brailsford, one of the best cycling coaches in the world; Manoj Badale, who’s an expert in artificial intelligence (AI); Sue Campbell, who’s an Olympic sport expert; Michael Barber, an educationalist; and David Sheepshanks and a few others.

I want you to ponder how English football insiders thought about this advisory group when the composition of it leaked. You can kind of imagine, right? They’re horrified. How dare these outsiders come and tell us how to play football?

But if you surrounded Southgate by other English-based football managers, you’d have a lot of domain knowledge. The problem would be the same knowledge replicated five, six, seven times. That’s not an innovative team; it’s an echo chamber. They’re agreeing all the time. It’s comfortable, but they’re not going to come up with innovation on the pitch.

What’s fascinated me about this group is when somebody shares an idea not known by the others in the group. That is divergent thinking. That’s a cross-pollination of ideas and this is where you get a big uplift in the collective intelligence of groups.

To answer your question directly, some organizations explicitly have a cognitive diversity strategy, and I believe they’re going to win in the marketplace that we’re in today–one of complexity and rapid change. Those that don’t are going to lose because they’re going to miss out on what it takes to solve difficult, complex problems and come up with new ideas.

Some organizations explicitly have a cognitive diversity strategy, and I believe they’re going to win in the marketplace that we’re in today–one of complexity and rapid change.

For an organization to embrace intelligence design around cognitive diversity, is it offered in reaction to mistakes? Is it strong leadership or a coming together of something in between?

Syed: It does certainly happen after big failures.

In the case of the CIA, you can trace the profound strategic misjudgments of the post-war period to an analytical intake that was dominated by West Coast, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and liberal arts male graduates. The recruiters hired people that looked and sounded like them.

Of course, people from that background have a huge amount to contribute to a diverse team. But when you have over 90% from that background, and you’re trying to anticipate emerging threats in different kinds of societies, with different patterns of religious radicalization and alienation, you’re not going to be able to effectively distinguish signals from noise.

You’re not going to have the right array of perspectives, and I think the CIA has acknowledged this. I think British post-war foreign policy has suffered from some of the same biases. What you want, I think, is buy-in from a critical mass of people in an organization that is important for us.

Another example: I was at Oxford University a couple of weeks ago and sat next to the professor of molecular biology and asked, “What are you working on at the moment?” And he said, “Well, I’m working on species of fungi. These mushroom-type species.”

Insights into these fungi provide some useful information about biological evolution. I knew the answer before I asked the following question, “Who are you working with?” And he said, “Well, it’s funny you should say that. To get a really great team together, I’ve had to reach out beyond molecular biology.”

Academics who stay rigorously within their own silo get stuck in an echo chamber and they’re not producing great science. I think the same is true of professional services firms. For the big value-add problems they’re solving, they need different lines of service to come together to provide a strategic overview that unlocks value creation.

Academics who stay rigorously within their own silo get stuck in an echo chamber and they’re not producing great science.

A lot of what you’ve talked about applies to middle-aged people in positions of authority. Let’s talk about younger folks. How do they think and how are they different?

Syed: About five or six years ago, I was invited to a school to give a talk at the opening. One of the students did a performance where you have a baton and you waive it around and throw it up and catch it.

I’ll never forget how the room became tense with anxiety. What if this young person drops the baton? And about two-thirds of the way through, the baton did fall, and a sense of complete mortification dropped around the room.

I ripped up the speech I was intending to give, and I gave a talk on the absolute imperative importance of failing. When we take a risk and we fail, we often learn that life isn’t about always being perfect but about having the resilience to face up to setbacks and challenges that are an absolute necessity if we’re going to reach our full potential.

There is a phenomenon called the curse of perfectionism. Social media, to a certain extent, has exacerbated it, where people curate their lives to look wonderful on the internet. Young people engage with this and think that life is about acting and looking perfect.

But if you want to look perfect, you never take risks. You never try anything new. You never have the courage to get up on stage and be somebody who’s willing to wield the baton. And yet, failure is central to the learning process.

Do you think social media is leading to a change in the way minds work and how we think?

Syed: Going back to diversity and group think, there is a tendency for people to surround themselves with the ideologically likeminded. They’re effectively hearing opinions they already agree with, which can be wonderfully comforting, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing if your group has a monopoly of good ideas.

It’s slightly problematic if you’re shielding yourself from other ideas from which you might learn, which is why a curious mindset is such an important asset.

But on the wider point, I do sometimes worry that young people are kind of living through a gigantic social experiment, the kind we simply don’t know the results of yet.

We’re induced to stay on these platforms longer than what is good for us because that enables them to sell us to advertisers and harvest our data. I hope we reach a better and more benign accommodation with social media.

We talked a lot about how to think. Now I want to talk about how to perform. What stops people from reaching their full potential?

After transitioning from being a ping pong player, I wrote a book called Bounce. I didn’t expect anyone to read it, but a few people did. An unintended side effect was being invited to give a talk at Goldman Sachs.

I had done very little public speaking. I turned up suffering desperately from imposter syndrome and wondering why I was in front of this room. I was nervous and I didn’t do terribly well. I got heckled a couple of times, and on the tube on the way home I thought, “If I’m invited to give another talk by a company or anyone else for that matter, I’ll politely decline.”

Think about that: One negative experience, and I drew the conclusion I didn’t have the innate talent to read a room, effectively severing all possibility of future learning. This is called a fixed mindset, and it’s tremendously damaging because it imposes very powerful self-limiting beliefs.

But a couple of days later, I thought, “No, hang on.”

You can potentially improve at public speaking. I Googled public speaking practice, and the first tip was an organization called Toastmasters, which is a global network of public speaking clubs. I went every second week for about five years.

I’m not saying that I’m now the best speaker in the world, but what amazed me was how much we can improve when we have that can-do attitude, and we’re liberated from these self-limiting beliefs.

Pressure is something that happens to everyone. Should the way one responds to pressure be a lesson learned, or it is coachable?

I think this is a phenomenon we must take seriously. Under pressure, we sometimes trigger the fight-flight-freeze response, and that can be catastrophic for rational decision-making when the stakes are very high. What we need are a series of strategies to help us deal with it.

Can it be coached? Yes, for sure, by putting yourself in that environment. Over time, you’ll begin developing strategies to deal with the emotions and the rising heartrate.

The thing that I do if I’m nervous before a big speech or a big broadcast is instead of thinking of the absolute worst-case scenario as you’re about to perform, think, “Well, hang on a second. Win or lose, perform well or perform badly, my mom will still love me.”

When you have that ground-level truth, it’s something that you can build from psychologically, so that when you get into the crucible of the performance, you have positive, rather than negative, thoughts coursing through your mind.

Let’s talk about investing. If you had to become an investor tomorrow, what would you take from what you’ve learned so far?

Syed: The first is learning from mistakes.

If you make a particular prediction that turns out not to be a good one, update your assumptions or model considering that new information. If a particular stock has gone down in value, be willing to cut the losses. What tends to happen is that people hold their losing stocks twice as long as their winning stocks because they don’t want to crystalize a loss; they hold it hoping that it will rebound.

And if a stock has gone up in value, be willing to run the winner.

The other thing is getting different points of view when it comes to an investment decision. There’s very good evidence that groups tend to perform better when there is a contrarian who’s willing to speak up and disrupt the consensus. But what you really want is lots of people with deep subject knowledge that is different from one another but all of which is relevant to the problem you’re trying to solve.

You want a mix of insiders and outsiders to get that wonderful synthesis, so that you disrupt the group think; you can cross-pollinate ideas and hopefully triangulate across the best decision of all.

This gets us back to where we started—cognitive diversity that’s well and intelligently designed is a must have.

Syed: It’s an absolute mission-critical variable. Organizations that will thrive and shape this post-pandemic age are going to be camped out in that terrain.

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