Matthew Syed: You can't box-tick your way to real diversity

The author and table tennis champion says cognitive diversity will be the key source of competitive advantage for the next 25-50 years.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 24 Feb 2020

Before the 2018 World Cup, the England national football team was the epitome of under achievement. Having crashed out of the last tournament, the Three Lions had never won a World Cup penalty shootout. So the team’s subsequent performance in reaching the semi final, beating Colombia via penalties on the way, took everyone by surprise. 

The journey arguably began two years earlier when a seemingly odd panel of consultants was assembled alongside the then-new England manager Gareth Southgate to discuss how the team could improve.

Among the members of the Football Association’s Technical Advisory Board were the educational theorist Michael Barber, serial entrepreneur Manoj Bedale, cycling coach Dave Brailsford, Sandhurst’s first female commander Lucy Giles and former table tennis champion and author Matthew Syed. 

Quite how a team of unpaid individuals who lacked a technical understanding of football would be of value was widely questioned on the sports pages at the time. But their value was just that.

By offering perspectives from outside the game on anything from innovation to mental resilience and team selection, the panel was able to introduce new approaches that a homogeneous group of football experts may have missed.

The scene is laid out in Syed’s latest book Rebel Ideas:The Power of Diverse Thinking, in which he highlights the critical role of cognitive diversity (or lack of it) in notable disasters, business successes and even humanity’s evolutionary advantage.

Embracing true diversity will be “the key source of competitive advantage in the next 25-50 years” Syed tells Management Today’s Stephen Jones, yet many still fail to capitalise on it. To do so, he says, they first have to understand it.

Aren’t lots of companies already talking about the power of diversity? 

When it comes to diversity, a lot of people talk demographically in terms of gender, race and social class. That is significant in having a diverse team, but if you’re building a Large Hadron Collider, for example, you need diversity that hinges on the problem of designing the collider. 

You need cognitive diversity. The most challenging and interesting work is done in teams. You can hire talented individuals but still have a dysfunctional team.

That sounds really obvious… 

It’s obvious but also counter-intuitive. If you compare the forecasting accuracy of the top economic forecaster, for instance,with the average accuracy of the top six, which do you think would be closer to the mark? Most people say the top forecaster, but the average of the top six is more accurate by 15 percent. That’s cognitive diversity. 

They use different models, which when combined give the man increase in accuracy. It’s easy to get trapped in a particular way of doing things, and we’re attracted to people that share our own ideas.

Do you believe businesses need to rethink their current diversity efforts, then?

What is required is an understanding that diversity is not a canned solution. If a company only has male employees it will almost certainly be lacking important insights that come from women.

But if they try to hire more women who went to the same university,  and therefore think in a similar way, then that’s not helpful.

You talk about the fallacy of averages. What do you mean? 

The example I use is diet. There is no average person, yet scientists tell us that people should adopt this diet or that diet. The glycaemic index [a ranking of carbohydrate in foods according to the impact on blood glucose levels] measures the average response but tells us little about the distribution of those responses and how they vary individually – which can be huge.

What does that mean for our understanding of the average employee?

Managers know that the best way to manage people changes depending on who they are. Once you recognise the multi-dimensionality of human beings you immediately start thinking very differently about how you create diets, offices, education systems and other things.

So why should bosses listen to you? 

They should only listen to the argument if they think it is valid. That curiosity to pursue, to understand and to benefit from other ideas is very important. I hope that no one will read my book without having a very clear handle on how to bring the right diversity of voices into their institution.

This piece first appeared in Management Today’s December print edition.

Image: Courtesy of Matthew Syed 

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