Australian Graduate School of Management

How To Navigate Cognitive Diversity for Organisational Success

Diversity is by no means a new consideration for boards and management teams alike.

Read any organisation’s annual report and you’re bound to see diversity as a key focus. Many leaders consider diversity within the context of reputation, legislation or compliance, asking the question: “what are the business implications of diversity?”.

Leaders need to not only think about the business implications of diversity, but also the social implications. This doesn’t just mean making a conscious effort to hire women into the business. It means going one step further and seeking out people that are diverse in both the cognitive and physical sense; people that think differently as a result of unique experiences and ways of seeing the world.

However, achieving cognitive diversity within organisations is not as easy as it seems. A major barrier to this is the existence of ‘groupthink’, which occurs when people in a group start to think in the same way in an effort to achieve harmony.

So how can leaders address groupthink within their organisation? And is there a way they can use it to their advantage?

Risky business

Now more than ever, great leaders must learn how to operate in a world that’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. As such, they need to make sure their teams are comprised of people with diverse problem-solving skills to stretch the organisation’s thinking into a new, disrupted environment.

The Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) helps leaders and those aspiring to become one to develop these skills in their program, Leading Boards: Directing in a Disrupted World. By focusing on areas such as strategy, risk, decision-making, and cross-cultural understanding – all underpinned by the importance of cognitive diversity – the program equips people to drive growth and innovation through leadership.

Without the right knowledge and skills, this ability to drive innovation can be stifled by groupthink before the decision-making process even begins. For example, an organisation may be faced with a strategic decision such as deciding on a new product. As there’s many people contributing to the decision, it may appear to the group that they have a wide funnel of possibilities to begin with. They’ll move through a process of narrowing down the best options, testing them in market, iterating this, making a decision and eventually launching the product. But if the top of the funnel is already tainted by groupthink (causing some possibilities to be left out of the consideration set to begin with), then no matter how many ways diverse thinking is encouraged later down the track, they won’t have ever considered all the options.

Not only can this phenomenon restrict leaders, teams and the wider organisation from reaching their full potential, it can put a strain on relationships, causing some individuals to feel isolated in the long term. The power of groupthink and the human desire to move forward as a group can cause people to fear standing out – be it consciously or subconsciously. Overcoming this fear is what makes them a true leader and not just part of the herd.

When the time is right

All of this isn’t to say that leaders should try to shut down groupthink every time a decision needs to be made. Groupthink can be useful to organisations – but only when harnessed correctly.

When it comes to decisions that are low cost, low risk and high volume, groupthink can enhance the efficiency of decision-making. In these instances, where a proven process has already been established, cognitive diversity won’t add anything more than time.

Cognitive diversity and its ability to bring new ways of thinking to the table has proven to be very effective for innovation. But it’s not so easy to execute. The real challenge for leaders today is to strike the right balance between diversity of thought and efficiency in action.

Mitigating groupthink

As a leader, there are tactics that can be implemented to minimise groupthink and encourage cognitive diversity. This can be as simple as asking questions that deliberately critique the decision at hand – playing devil’s advocate to challenge existing assumptions. Because if leaders want to truly succeed in a disrupted world, they need to engage in respectful conflict and never take an idea for granted, no matter who it comes from.

Exercises such as de Bono’s six thinking hats are also a proven way to encourage diverse thinking. Each member of a group metaphorically ‘puts on a different hat’, challenging each other to view the situation through a different lens. This results in richer, more innovative decision-making and a more effective organisation.

It’s important to recognise that this kind of mentality won’t happen overnight. Leaders need the skills and the confidence to work through decision-making processes and challenge their peers without spiralling out of control. Enrolling in a program such as AGSM’s Leading Boards will not only spark the transition from zero to ‘hero’, but will give people lifelong skills to navigate an ever-adapting future.

About the Author

The Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) offers top-tier general management, executive and leadership development programs. Part of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Business School, AGSM’s MBA and MBA (Executive) programs consistently rank among the world’s top 100 and our online MBAX program ranks #8 in the world, as featured in the Financial Times (UK) 2018 Online MBA Rankings. The school has an alumni network in 83 countries, welcomes students from over 20 countries to its programs, and facilitates international experiences in over 31 partner institutions, making it the top choice for students globally to invest in their education.