Diversity: Is your team smarter than its smartest member?
In Shane Snow’s Big Think+ video, “Harness Your Team’s Mental Toolkit,” he begins by asserting that “two heads are better than one” is a lie. Also — and as long as he’s throwing cold water on things — he claims that the synergy we’ve been led to believe inevitably emerges in collaborations is just a bunch of hooey. Snow is a co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Contently, and he’s not kidding. He’s also not just being negative. In his video he explains how two or more heads can be better than one. In fact, much better if the people involved come from different backgrounds. It just doesn’t happen automatically. It’s about leveraging the different perspectives and heuristics that a diverse collection of individuals can bring to the table. He offers a peek at the mechanics of realizing one aspect of diversity’s promise.
Snow defines “perspective” here as “the way you catalog the world in your own internal language.” It’s how you look at things. He explains that your perspective can be determined by a lot of things. Among these are race and ethnicity, because, as he puts it, “when we look different, people treat us different.” This treatment affects how we understand the world.
Our physical attributes may be another factor: Someone who experiences the world seated in a wheelchair has a very different view than someone who’s unusually tall, for example. Likewise, individuals who grow up in different periods have different experiences and are likely to see things from a different angle than those of another generation.
Your heuristic is your set of strategies or “rules of thumb” for dealing with the world. These also vary from person to person. What’s fairly universal is that the strategies you’re likely to deploy going forward are likely to be those that were successful for you in the past. That assessment, of course, is based on your experiences as your perspective has interpreted them.
Reaching the best solution together
To illustrate how to take advantage of multiple individuals’ perspectives and heuristics, Snow uses an animation of several people collaboratively seeking the highest peak in a mountain range.
Depending on where one starts, one has a particular view of the mountain range. A person starting somewhere else has a different perspective. The more people with different points of view you add, the more complete a picture of the mountain range you have to work from. This is one compelling advantage of diversity: The ability to see from multiple angles leads to a fuller understanding of a problem.
Where diversity makes things really exciting, though, is the addition of the heuristic each individual brings. Though there’s no guarantee that differing perspectives necessarily lead to different strategies, they often do. In collaboration, then, diversity leads to an expanded set of strategies for success.
Taken together, diverse perspectives plus diverse heuristics clearly offers the people involved a great deal of problem-solving power none of them would have by themselves. The key is to make sure everyone feels involved, and that their contribution is not only welcomed, but required. “This,” teaches Snow, “is how a group of people can become smarter than its smartest member.”