Cognitive Diversity? Mr. Johnson is Right!

In Mel Brooks’ classic comedy, “Blazing Saddles,” there’s a scene near the beginning of the movie where the inhabitants of Rock Ridge are trying to decide how to handle the crime wave besetting their town. As they meet in the church, Reverend Johnson calls up the various townspeople to speak: Van Johnson, Howard Johnson, Olson Johnson, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Don Johnson, Gabby Johnson, and so forth. After each Johnson says their piece, the next Johnson gets up to say, “Mr. Johnson is right.” The multitude of Johnsons don’t have any particularly creative ideas, but they did come to a very quick agreement on what to do.

I was reminded of this scene when reading Bari Williams’ article, “Tech’s Troubling New Trend: Diversity Is in Your Head,” in the New York Times.

Needless to say, the crowd in Rock Ridge are not very diverse. In the church scene, the high point of diversity comes when Gabby Johnson gives a passionate speech in authentic, if incomprehensible, frontier gibberish. What makes him an example of diversity? Well, all the other Johnsons spoke clearly articulated English. However, even Gabby’s authentic frontier gibberish didn’t stimulate any divergent thought in the group.

Bari Williams’ article discusses Apple’s vice-president of diversity and inclusion, Denise Smith, saying that, “There can be 12 white, blue-eyed, blond men in a room and they’re going to be diverse, too, because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation.”

Perhaps all 12 men could be named Johnson?

The problem with this concept of “cognitive diversity,” as it’s known, is that it doesn’t work. It might sound good (although even that’s debatable), but if the goal is a team that can come up with varied and creative ideas, “cognitive diversity” by itself is a waste of time. It’s more likely that such a team will come up with fewer, less creative ideas, and more rapidly reach a consensus without considering a variety of options.

Why doesn’t cognitive diversity work? Fundamentally, because we can’t see cognitive diversity. Our minds respond to our environments. What we see around us influences how we direct and use our mental focus: The inputs shape the outputs. A dull, flat, colorless environment tends to be vaguely depressing, while a bright, open, colorful environment tends to be mentally stimulating. When the people around us all look like us, our thoughts tend to converge as well. When the people around us are physically different from us, we start to think in more diverse ways. The group is more likely to come up with more different ideas, and more likely to spend a greater amount of time exploring and developing those ideas.

To be fair, it is harder to bring a more physically diverse group of people together into a team than it is to do so with a same-sized homogeneous group. The more diverse group might spend a longer period in an awkward, “get to know you,” stage before it really starts to become productive. On the other hand, more diverse groups tend to be able to solve a wider range of problems, deal with a wider range of unexpected situations, and generally perform better than more homogeneous groups.

A focus on cognitive diversity just yields homogeneity. If you truly want people to think different, a focus on physical (i.e. race, gender, ethnicity, etc) diversity is the best way to do it.

For the people of Rock Ridge, diversity came as a bit of a shock. They didn’t adapt to it easily, but when they did they were able to find a way out of their predicament. To succeed, they had to learn to break down some walls. Corporations may have to learn to break down a few barriers as well in order to build effective, diverse teams.

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