Article: Does diversity slow decision-making?

Diversity

Does diversity slow decision-making?

An argument against having diverse voices in a team is that it slows decision-making and eventually solving a problem. A research experiment assesses this conundrum
Does diversity slow decision-making?

When the ‘12 Angry Men’ collected in the jury room to deliberate on the guilt of an accused “boy” and give their verdict on the charges on the defendant, they would not have imagined they would spend several hours deliberating over something which seemed like an open and shut case. All, except one, had walked in with the view that the defendant is guilty, they all walked out with an opposite view – that too unanimous. 

Juror #8’s difference in opinion with the remaining 11 changed the eventual decision and prevented the boy from getting the chair. Whether the defendant was guilty or not, one can only speculate; whether it just led to wasting important time (which may be led to Juror #7 missing his all-important Yankees game) and slowed decision-making, one can only wonder – what one cannot miss out on acknowledging is the power of a diverse opinion.

This article is neither a summary of the plot of 12 Angry Men nor another dreary preaching of the concept of diversity. This article is to use research to challenge the notion that diversity slows decision-making, an observation people may have after watching 12 Angry Men, both in the jury room and office floor.

Diversity of opinion – Doesn’t it waste time?

Substitute the juror room with a team meeting and a problem being discussed. The team head suggests a solution, and there are a couple of members who rebut and propose different approaches to the problem. The sound of brainstorming and the constructive argument is more often than not accompanied by gasps from the uninterested team members, who deem the deliberation a waste of time. Maybe they too have a Yankees game to watch soon like Juror #7!

Contrary to observation and the connotation behind all the gasps, scientific research proves that higher cognitive diversity leads to faster problem-solving and better performance. Alison Reynolds, the faculty at UK’s Ashridge Business School and David Lewis, Director of London Business School’s Senior Executive Programme, used the AEM cube, developed by Peter Robertson, to assess the differences in the ways their sample population approaches problems.

What is AEM Cube?

The AEM Cube is a tool developed by Peter Robertson that assesses differences in how people approach a particular problem. The tool measures knowledge processing (“the extent to which individuals prefer to consolidate and deploy existing knowledge, or prefer to generate new knowledge, when facing new situations”) and perspective (“the extent to which individuals prefer to deploy their own expertise, or prefer to orchestrate the ideas and expertise of others, when facing new situations”) - Source: HBR Ascend

Reynolds and Lewis divided the sample population into six teams and gave them a problem to solve. They measured the time taken by teams and used the AEM cube to measure the cognitive diversity in each team. What the researchers found out at the completion of the experiment is fascinating. The teams with high levels of cognitive diversity took less time to solve the same problem that less diverse teams solved in much longer duration. Out of the six teams, the two teams with least diversity did not only take the longest, their also failed to solve the problem accurately.

Diverse opinions may appear to be slowing decision-making down and elongating discussions, but it is the diverse opinions or approaches to problems that result in finding effective solutions to different complexities, as the research experiment proves. Objective observation may also make one believe that it is indeed the cognitive diversity – the diversity in application of knowledge and perspective and their application combined – that helps break a complex problem down into solvable parts, and different minds can apply their understanding to solve each part. This is something which can prove to be hard for a homogenous team to achieve because there is hardly a difference in how the team members apply themselves to solve it. The experiment proves it with teams with the least cognitive diversity failing to solve the problem. 

Diverse opinions may appear to be slowing decision-making down and elongating discussions, but it is the diverse opinions or approaches to problems that result in finding effective solutions to different complexities, as the research experiment proves.

Organizations these days require diversity more than ever. And they do not need to be diverse in appearance, but by how they think. Productivity and performance don't go up when the teams appear diverse and have the representation of different groups (by age, sex, ethnicity, etc.). It is differences in cognition which happen to be the true differentiator. Sometimes it is a different perspective, an approach of a complete outsider that is required to transform an organization. 8 billion dollars was the annual loss of International Business Machines, fondly known to all as IBM when Louis V. Gerstner took charge as CEO. Lou Gerstner, the man who had to be convinced by his neighbor Jim Burke because he thought he was unqualified and had no technical know-how to take charge of the faulty International Business Machines, translated these annual loss figures into annual profit figures in a decade (IBM made $8 billion in profits in 2002). How could a person, reluctant to take charge of a legacy technology company because of his zero understanding of technology, transform the company and make it recognizable again? It is because he brought a completely different approach to pull IBM away from its perils; all of which are captured in Gerstner’s book, ‘Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?’ 

Cognitive diversity has always been deemed important for businesses. It has been accused of slowing down the process of problem-solving. But cognitive diversity is not guilty of that crime. If anything, it solves problems faster. And unlike 12 Angry Men, this accusation hasn’t been proven incorrect because of reasonable doubt – there is conclusive proof.  

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Topics: Diversity, Life @ Work

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