Every single banana is genetically identical. This characteristic is called monoculture and makes the fruit vulnerable to being wiped out completely if disease strikes.
Organizations and teams face a similar risk. When everyone in a group shares a similar perspective, substantial risks or opportunities can go unrecognized and ultimately, these blind spots can prevent organizations from reaching their goals.
Cognitive diversity is the cure for this organizational ailment and leads to improved problem solving and performance. This means embracing differences in the way individuals think about and engage with new, uncertain, and complex situations by identifying unconscious biases, encouraging individuality, and embracing conflict.
I learned some shocking information this week, people – we almost lost bananas forever. More on this later, but just know this has caused me considerable distress as a self-proclaimed banana fanatic. What’s not to love? They come naturally wrapped in their own protective sheath, change colour to let you know when they’re ready to eat and are a nutritional juggernaut. Bananas provide enough energy to fuel a 60-minute workout, and enough magnesium and potassium to prevent muscle cramps when you get carried away on the Shake Weight during said 60-minute workout. This fruit practically markets itself. “Bananas! The only fruit that’s as fun to eat as it is to say.” Whisper it quietly to yourself now - “ba-na-na”.
And that’s not all they’re good for. More songs have been written about bananas than any other fruit. Without them, how could we possibly have discovered that Gwen Stefani ain’t no hollaback girl or be introduced to the famous Harajuku Girls? Nothing compares to a banana! Not even their thick-skinned, starchy cousin, the plantain. More like plain bland if you ask me. And don’t even get me started on that delightful medicine the doctor would give you when you got sick as a kid. It’s B-A-N-A-N-A-S if you didn’t fake a cold or two to get your hands on that magical elixir of an antibiotic. And the best part? Upon your triumphant return, you’d find your classmates waiting with bated breath to find out:
But alas, nothing is perfect, and bananas are no exception. They have a fatal flaw – an Achilles heel called monoculture. What this means is that of the 12 kg of bananas you’ll eat this year, every single one will be genetically identical. This might not seem like a big deal, but it makes them extremely vulnerable to fungus and disease. In fact, the strain of banana popular up until the 1950s, the Gros Michel, was struck by a devastating fungus and wiped out completely, causing a global collapse in the banana trade. Luckily producers found a replacement called the Cavendish, but this variety continues to face the same risks due to monoculture.
You might be wondering, what does all this talk about bananas have to do with the blog for TREEO, an organization that aims to inspire authentic experiences that strengthen organizations and elevate people? The truth is, organizations face a threat that’s pretty similar to monoculture. When everyone on your team shares the same perspective or processes information in a similar way, you’re exposed to the risk of blind spots. This can result in substantial risks or opportunities for your organization being overlooked and ultimately, may prevent you from achieving your goals.
The antidote for these blind spots is cognitive diversity – differences in the way individuals think about and engage with new, uncertain, and complex situations. Put simply, cognitive diversity is the existence of different perspectives on your team and research has shown it has a huge impact on the innovation, creativity and overall performance of teams. Organizations today face problems that are more and more complex, and these require team members that think outside the box. The formula for success looks like this:
High cognitive diversity = greater variety of perspectives = better problem solving and higher performance
Unfortunately, human beings are far from simple and there are several barriers that prevent organizations and teams from putting this formula into practice. Luckily, with heightened awareness and a dose of intentionality, leaders can navigate these barriers. The strategies that follow will help you achieve greater cognitive diversity, improving performance and propelling your team to new heights.
Identify Unconscious Biases
Whether we like it or not, we all hold certain unconscious biases. One of the most common ones that prevents cognitive diversity is something called the familiarity principle, which describes how we tend to prefer individuals we view as similar to ourselves. By being more mindful of this bias when recruiting for new team members, it’s easier to make an objective hiring decision that supports cognitive diversity. Make sure you ask behavioural questions that draw out how your potential employee processes information and solves problems, and don’t forget to check your unconscious biases at the door.
Despite good intentions, leaders can often subconsciously shut down certain team members because they offer a different perspective. Instead, strive for the opposite and be intentional about drawing these individuals out. You can do this by finding someone who disagrees when the team is in lockstep and recognizing their courage to offer a different perspective. Leaders should strive to create an environment where team members can speak up, ask questions, and express dissent. Put simply, an environment where team members know it’s okay to be themselves is fertile ground for cognitive diversity.
Cognitive diversity and conflict often go hand in hand because when not everyone agrees, friction can occur. But this doesn’t have to be a negative thing! It’s your role as a leader to create a culture where conflict is productive and is part of improving team performance. To accomplish this, create a pattern of welcoming disagreement, avoid engaging in conflicts that don’t matter just to get your way, and coach your team to do the same. You can also train employees to recognize their own unconscious biases to help them work better with others who are different.
Just like everyone’s favourite fruit, when the individuals that make up your organization or team are all the same you run the risk of getting wiped out. Substantial risks can slip through the cracks and go unmitigated and lucrative opportunities can pass right on by into the arms of your competitors. If you don’t want to go the way of the Gros Michel, make a conscious effort to embrace cognitive diversity. Create a team of diverse problem solvers and thinkers by identifying unconscious biases, encouraging individuality and embracing conflict. It would be B-A-N-A-N-A-S not to.