Cognitive Diversity: Know How to Harness It — And When to Rein It In — To Help Your Team Succeed

Learn how you can help your team think differently to maximize creativity and efficiency.

March 28, 2023

Cognitive Diversity

Illustration by: iStock/tttuna

When organizations talk about diversity, they often refer to ethnic or gender diversity. Mentioned less frequently is the concept of cognitive diversity — a variety of thinking, problem-solving, and creative perspectives. Like other kinds of diversity, it’s a critical component of a team’s success. The tricky part is knowing how to manage it effectively.

Think about the typical brainstorming session you hold with your team. Maybe everyone has a different type of thought process and creative approach, leading to some great ideas. But what happens when it’s time to execute those ideas? Now the variety of thought processes might stand in the way of collaborating and efficiently putting the ideas into action. Or, perhaps team members have a difficult time producing a wide range of ideas or options, but because their thought processes are similar, they can more easily collaborate, align, and execute projects and strategies.

“The assumption is that intellectual diversity is good for creating novelty and creative problem-solving, but not necessarily good for efficient coordination,” explains Amir Goldberg, an Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior who also teaches in several Stanford Executive Education programs.

You might think that your team can only be successful in one area, either ideating or executing, depending on its level of cognitive diversity. But that’s not the case. Goldberg and his research colleagues produced a study that shows teams can modulate their variety or consistency of thought according to the phase of the project or task they’re working on.

The key is helping your team adjust their level of thought diversity — at the right times. So how does that work in a business setting?

The Impact of Cognitive Diversity on Business Outcomes

Goldberg and his colleagues evaluated more than 800,000 anonymized Slack messages from teams who work on Gigster, an online project management platform, using an AI-based algorithm to analyze words in the messages. From these results, they were able to determine how aligned the speakers were and build a model that assessed the teams’ fluctuating levels of cognitive diversity.

Teams that become cognitively divergent for ideation but more convergent for coordination are the ones most successful in delivering their projects on time and to the satisfaction of the customer.
Amir Goldberg

The researchers found that not only can teams adjust their level of intellectual diversity, but that how and when they are more diverse, or divergent, compared to when they’re more coordinated, or convergent, helps or hinders successful project completion.

“Teams that become cognitively divergent for ideation but more convergent for coordination are the ones most successful in delivering their projects on time and to the satisfaction of the customer,” Goldberg says. And conversely, when teams displayed higher rates of cognitive diversity during a coordination phase, they were less likely to successfully complete the project.

In other words, it’s not the average level of a team’s cognitive diversity that predicts high performance, but rather the ability to modulate it according to the various stages of a project. Success hinges on more diversity in the creative stage and more focus in the coordination stage.

Help Your Team Maximize Both Creativity and Efficiency

According to Goldberg, leaders can play a critical role in modulating a team’s cognitive diversity, especially when they emphasize being divergent or convergent at the right times. Here’s how:

  • Pay attention to interactions and communications to get a feeling for how diverse team members are in their thinking.
  • Guide the team to adjust their thought processes depending on the phase of the project they’re in.
  • If you’re in the ideation stage, run thought experiments or brainstorming sessions to promote creativity and a wide variety of ideas.
  • Once the team is in coordination or delivery phases, rein in cognitive diversity by seeking common ground and focusing on concrete aspects of the project.

While cognitive diversity is just one aspect of team performance, learning to effectively modulate it gives you one more tool for success.

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