How Diversity Improves Collaborative Problem-Solving

© Jason Yoder |

Is diversity necessarily a good thing when it comes to solving problems? We tend to assume that we’ll get better results from groups of people from different backgrounds and possessing a variety of skills than we we would from groups with a single orientation. That means diversity of many types, not only differences of culture, ethnicity and gender, but also variety of expertise, intellectual perspective, values and interests. They are all important for collaborative public policy.

We may believe in the value of diversity from intuition, ideological conviction and personal experience. But do we have rigorous models and empirical evidence to support this belief?

Scott Page says that both logic and evidence prove the benefits of diversity in his thought-provoking book, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. Page, a professor of complex systems, political science and economics, provides a firm basis for the value of diversity, but the case he presents is not a simple one.

Cognitive Diversity

He finds that all forms of diversity are not equally effective. To get to his main conclusion. It’s the differences in perspectives and methods of approaching problems that most often lead to better outcomes. This is what he calls cognitive diversity. Variety in the way problems are framed and interpreted helps a group get unstuck when a single approach can’t produce a workable solution.

Differing ways of looking at the world, interpreting experience, solving problems and predicting future possibilities work together to produce a distinctive mental tool set. Groups with this sort of variety consistently outperform groups working with a single problem-solving perspective.

Identity Diversity

When it comes to convening a collaborative policy group, though, diversity usually refers to cultural, ethnic and gender balance. Identity diversity, as Page sees it, satisfies the crucial need for fairness and equity, but, by itself, doesn’t ensure better problem-solving. Again, the picture is complicated because there are many forms of identity diversity – culture, gender, age, socio-economic status, among others. The evidence of this study points to cultural diversity as having the most significant impact.

Variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds often correlates with more creative and effective solutions than other types of identity diversity. That’s because differing cultural perspectives, language and experience can also mean different ways of thinking and defining problems.

Page gives an example of the native Micronesian concept of travel and navigation. In western cultures, we orient our position in relation to place or geographical features that we move past. The Micronesian idea is just the opposite. A boat on the ocean is considered to be the fixed point, and islands are said to move past the boat. Instead of moving toward a destination, the destination moves toward the boat.

A group including people who can look at a problem like this in opposite ways is much more likely to come up with innovative solutions than one dependent on a single perspective. Cultures develop their own sense of what’s important and what the mind needs to focus on, and that leads to very different ways of defining and solving problems. So cultural difference is most effective when it’s also characterized by cognitive difference.

That link, however, may not always exist. People from differing ethnic or cultural backgrounds may acquire the same training, skill sets and experience as people from the prevailing culture. In that case, they’ll likely think about things in the same way, and the deeper differences disappear. Other types of identity differences can also add richness of thought, but the data link cultural and ethnic identity with the greatest overall benefit.

So Page’s advice would be: Don’t stop with cultural diversity. Also make sure that participants don’t all rely on the same toolsets to solve problems. The group needs to have a rich variety of perspectives, interpretations, methods of solving problems and approaches to predicting the future – that is, all the elements of cognitive diversity. That added dimension increases the likelihood that such groups will find a more creative and effective result.

Preference Diversity

Probably the first thing that comes to mind in putting together a collaborative group – indeed its main purpose – is to include the full range of interest groups most likely to be affected by a decision – and most likely to oppose it if they are excluded. What about diversity of interests? Isn’t that essential to coming up with a better solution than one devised by a group representing a single interest? Again, Page’s answer is – not necessarily.

In fact, the most consistently disruptive element that turns up in Page’s research is divergence of interests and values – or preference diversity. That’s understandable since interest groups tend to complete with one another and fight to get their needs met. Drawn into a collaborative group, they’re often not communicating well but still battling over fixed positions. Even if the group also possesses variety in problem-solving tools and cultural perspectives, divergent goals work against the beneficial effect they can have.

As he summarizes it: [Groups] with diverse cognitive toolboxes and diverse fundamental preferences have higher variance performance (they locate better outcomes and produce more conflict). So, if such can find a way to work together, they are likely to excel in producing creative solutions. But if they can’t get along, they can fail pretty badly.

Collaborative Leadership

What does that mean for a public official who wants to convene a group with just these characteristics? Is it as risky as a roll of the dice?

Not at all. Evidence shows that these complex groups get off to a rough start, often because they have to negotiate over the definition of the problem to be dealt with. There are many other reasons, such as hostility to new ideas, poor communication, efforts to control agendas, and so on. Over time, however, they can learn to work together more effectively. A key reason for success that the studies point to is good group management.

Page’s work doesn’t explore group process very deeply, but the best way to achieve effective group dynamics is to manage the process with collaborative leaders, possibly working with professional mediators and facilitators. In other words, people with the experience and skills to help groups work through conflict. The divisive force of fundamentally differing interests is strong and requires skill to manage effectively. Nothing will guarantee success, but effective group management can make all the difference in helping people learn how to get along and collaborate effectively.

Page’s work represents some of the most rigorous, and often challenging, thinking about diversity that I’ve encountered. The Difference. is a big book in many senses – in its thoroughness, complexity of analysis (though simplified and well presented for lay readers) and richness of ideas. Whether or not you agree with its methods and conclusions, it makes a powerful case for the value of diversity.


3 Responses to “ How Diversity Improves Collaborative Problem-Solving ”

  1. What a thoughtful and thorough post.
    The book is not an easy yet it is a worthwhile read.

    Methinks the skill of “good group management” will become increasingly vital as well as the capacity of individuals to seek out the best participants for a collaboration and not be blinded by the urge to seek the familiar colleague rather than the person who may be extremely different yet share the sweet spot of mutual benefit from the sought-after goal of the collaboration – AND bring a needed talent or other resource to that collaboration.

    After being involved in several ultimately successful self-organized project teams I must confess it is not always easy yet when ‘we’ make it through a couple of rough spots in working together and experience some success the camaraderie builds and hastens progress and gives us greater ability to get through future frictions.

    Not only are the successes sweet – with others – but the self-learning and the capacity to use one’s best talent more often, dovetailing with others who are too can be arduous and a thrill.

    Accomplishing something greater together than one can alone is an unforgettable experience making me seek more collaboration.

  2. Thank you, Kare -

    Adding this personal experience helps enormously. You’re so right about the inclination of people to go with those they know rather than the best mix of people with different types of experience and values. It’s one thing for a mediator or facilitator to understand the importance of pulling together a diverse group, but it’s another for organizational leaders – at whatever level – to bring in new folks. Too often they’re considered potential “loose cannons” – i.e. not under control. The strong tendency to want control – however illusory that may be – is a huge barrier to real collaboration. So many are just not open to the experience. They see the arduous part, not the “thrill” of creating something new that you describe so well.


  3. Thanks for sharing. I like it when you say “Variety in the way problems are framed and interpreted helps a group get unstuck when a single approach can’t produce a workable solution.” So true, all we need is to properly channel diverse perspectives to solve problems, otherwise we can find more confusion. Great job.

Leave a Reply

You can use these XHTML tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <strong>