How diversity pays off

Scott Page’s new book The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off In The Knowledge Economy looked timely, arriving as it did on my desk just before the Google memo furore. It’s a continuation of his previous book The Difference, putting logical detail and empirical evidence on the claim that when problems are hard and multidimensional, they are better addressed by cognitively diverse groups of people. This is a generalisation in a way of Philip Tetlock’s work described in Superforecasting, as his super-forecasters were people applying a range of models to their forecasting problems. Predicting is one kind of problem; Page considers the whole gamut – problem solving, truth seeking, creating – of non-routine cognitive tasks.

He emphasises that he is making a pragmatic case, although this does not mean the normative case for diversity is unimportant. He also stresses that random diversity will not do the trick. The character of the problem shapes the types of diversity required. But without it, the outcome is the madness, not the wisdom, of crowds.

Page categorises people’ cognitive repertoires in terms of five tools: information (data, facts); knowledge (expertise in a domain); heuristics (rules of them, techniques); representations (perspectives on the situation); and mental models (simplified, systematic descriptions). The group’s repertoire will be the union of the individual members’ repertoires. Diversity is emphatically not like portfolio diversification. Spreading risks, diversification, gives an average outcome. Diversity gives the outer envelope of the team’s combined various abilities.

Putting these together helps think about the link between cognitive and identity diversity, and there is a link. Some problems are more multi-dimensional than others, and have aspects that speak to group identities. Some parts of the cognitive reperoire depend more closely on group identity because they will be determined in part by individual experience. Take representations: there is a lovely example of how different the range of possibilities will seem – given that we start from where we are – to someone trained in the grid of Cartesian geometry and someone trained with a polar perspective: square versus wedge-shaped ‘adjacent possibilities’. Combining the square and the pie slice gives a bigger space of possibility.

As for the Google memo issue, Page notes that where organisations and societies are now is only partially informative about the value of diversity. Repeated acts of discrimination will inhibit people’s interest in pursuing certain paths they would do well in, so there will have been ample prior self-selection that sheds no light at all on how much better challenges could be met with more diverse teams. “The evidence we have of diversity bonuses understates the potential contribution of diversity because the evidence comes from the world as it is, not the world as it could be. A more inclusive world would produce larger bonuses.”

And the evidence is pretty compelling, although I was pre-disposed to believe it. As the book concludes, modern knowledge economies are complex. Team work is almost universal. Any organisation wanting to do better – in any of the ways listed above – will be committed to diversity. This very clear and compelling book will help people consider specifically what shape their challenges and problems take and what kind of diversity will help address them. So the moral is not that HR departments should seek to hire identity diverse people for the sake of it, but that they understand the needs of their organisations and the mapping from identities to cognitive repertoires. But in any case, the outcome will be more diverse in every sense than it is currently.

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4 thoughts on “How diversity pays off

  1. “The evidence we have of diversity bonuses understates the potential contribution of diversity because the evidence comes from the world as it is, not the world as it could be. A more inclusive world would produce larger bonuses.”

    The sad lack of evidence noted in the first sentence doesn’t seem to keep him from elation in the second. It appears he doesn’t note that the world as it is is highly restrictive in that it severely limits discrimination.
    That includes freedom of debate. The limitations are apparent, given Google guy, and Larry Summers [Harvard] before him. Things are beginning to mirror the state and flux of universities. It looks like convergence, no bias response team could have engineered better. This blindness is systematic. People take account of “micro-aggressions” but not of micro-affirmation. They take account of adverse discrimination, but not of the sheer financial scope of affirmative action and its enforcement. (I encourage you to look up what Google has spent on “diversity and inclusion”.)

  2. I like Princeton UP best, in the wide range of philosophical and multi-disciplinary economics. But “diversity” rarely explores the full range; it tends be limited to the morally desirable. Let me know how willing the book is to entertain darker possibilities. If it is willing, I will likely read it. Thanks.

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